Self vs. Community

An editorial piece by W. Edward Cook.

When I was asked to write this article, I was a bit embarrassed. I tend to get worked up about a topic, rant my brains off about it, and then put it out of my mind for a good long while. The topic of self versus community was a hot button of mine during the last summer, but it had seen its rant and I’d then been distracted from it.

However, after thinking about it for a little while, that’s not really true. In fact over the last few months this one idea had spread in so many different directions that I mistook it for a whole new forest of issues.

Self versus community is a very tricky subject to tackle, because it can be looked at in so many different ways. It can be a kaleidoscope of ethics, economics, and culture. Right now the world that we live in is at a loss as to how to deal with the simple question: what am I entitled to as a human being?

The most obvious interpretation of that question would be viewed as a subject of human rights, the basic dignity that should be allowed to all people – a guarantee of the necessities of survival. There is an obvious lack of this internationally and even intranationally if we have the stomach to look.

A more subtle approach to what the human being is entitled to, or what we as a species needs in order to truly be free, extends beyond the necessities of survival. There are greater necessities we need to live rather than just survive. Life to me has always been a matter of freedom. In fact as a twenty something, nearly all of my efforts since graduating high school have been spent in an effort to attain economic freedom to some degree. Economic freedom to me has been a matter of increasing my income to a point where I can spend money on things other than the necessities of survival. To be free to choose where to spend my money, and to have the power to get the things I desire.

During years I’ve spent in higher education and working in a variety of jobs, I’ve begun to notice that there seems to be a very disturbing trend. This trend being that our society does not stop at merely taking years of our lives in academia, climbing a corporate ladder, or braving the unstable entrepreneurial seas, it also takes more than its fair portion from our personal time. This may not sound like something terrible at first, but let us consider that we are human beings first, and employees and students second. We are people, not “associates”, “team members”, or “staff”. We work so that we may take the benefits of contributing our time to a pooled arrangement of resources (which is any business, government, or non-profit) so that we may reap the most possible profit from our labor.

Our economy is such that it is driven to take as much as it possibly can from those who work within it for the sake of making money. In a balanced world, those that work the hardest would reap the most benefit. In this world though, those that work the hardest, generally get paid the least. Those who are higher up the pyramid, those that have the most power, pay themselves the most, and give away only enough to ensure that they get the maximum amount of production out of their workers. If you think this is sounding like a “cogs in the machine” argument, you’re right. If you’re thinking that arguments like this have no place in a post-industrial economy, think again. We may no longer be factory workers, sitting side-by-side with other bits of machinery, cranking out car after car; instead we are software engineers, writing line after line of code. We are marketing representatives selling the latest piece of technological wonderment to client companies. We are program coordinators fretting over our job description.

The difference between industrial factory workers and service-based careers in the information age is that a factory worker leaves the factory, and never has to think about work until they show up the next day. Today, in order to do our job we are forced more and more to continually research on our spare time to do a job that is constantly changing. So often we hear about the rapid pace of the world today, we never pause to consider what this is doing to us, and whether we should allow it to happen.

The individual is having life dictated to them by the community. This is wrong. This should not happen. While it’s true that this is not something new, community has been dictating lifestyle to the individual for millennia, however, never before have we as individuals had such an ability to choose our lives for ourselves. In centuries past, the community made decisions “for the greater good” on the basis that it forced us to do unpleasant things for the sake of survival. Now, however, we know how to do survival. We have enough gadgetry to make sure that all of us (not that we have chosen to act on this ability) have the necessities of life: food, warmth, and shelter. Now we have the ability to live. In the global village, where information cross-pollinates ideas across the globe via the internet, and available to anyone with a computer and modem, the individual has the ability to change the community. The community is something controlled from the top down by those in power. Now, for the first time, the individual, those of us all over the pyramid, can easily communicate and organize. We can decide what the community will be. This isn’t mere democracy (or even the sham of a representative democracy in the U.S.), this is pan-consciousness. This is something undreamt of by the ancient Greeks. Not only can we all vote our opinion, we decide what the topic of the discussion is, because we have access to all points of view.

Once, the individual needed the community to survive. Now the individual is in a community so huge that there is no community. Only individuals. It’s about time the individual remembered what it meant to have a choice in life. Not the tawdry black and white, silver-screen choice made popular with The Matrix, or the choice of what pre-set lifestyle one wants in Office Space, and certainly not the ridiculously violent choice of what we want to destroy to make our voice heard in Fight Club. We can grow up and change the world by insisting on living life as we want to. Subscribe to an ideal of your choosing, and make sure it’s yours. Community like life is now what we make of it.

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