In collectivist and conservative cultures, individuation might as well be called “selfish, selfish selfishness that will lead to social chaos and world ruin”, because that is often how it is painted. The idea of autonomy and rights to dignified treatment regardless of a person’s race, sex, sexual orientation, history, or position in society often gets incomprehension or ridicule.
In this blog post and future TED talk (let a girl dream OK), I want to dissolve the lie that diversity (in racial and cultural representation) and authenticity (in individuated sexuality and gender expressions, life choices, etc) is at odds with social cohesion. They are seen as threats only by those supporting Authoritarian zero-sum games, and who have no interest evolving through exchange, learning, and new understanding.
The Co-Exist Card from the Self-Love Oracle
The small text on this card was written with my understanding that we will all find our way of doing things, and witnessing a diversity in different ways of being helps us to evolve. Trouble comes when people feel the need to judge, condemn, proselytise or persecute others for choices that they do not understand.
I spent a big part of my life struggling against a collectivist and conservative culture that firmly believed “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. In the hands of conservatives and Confucianists, this concept is still (ab)used to defend micro-aggressions and outright prejudice against minorities, minors, subordinates, LGBT+, the neuro-divergent, and those with mental or physical disabilities; basically any “lesser beings” and subclass of humans with uppity ideas.
It continues to be easier for most people to subscribe to a “just world” than to look at systemic inequality; I was repeatedly frustrated by the patronising attitude that any groups that deviated “from the norm” just had to get used to a world that had no time nor obligation to accommodate them. And this was for qualities that we couldn’t choose, such as physical disabilities or skin colour; let’s not say anything about choices that deviate for whatever reason from conventional wisdom. In some Singaporean circles (cough Catholic mass cough), divorce is still soundly condemned—abused women and children should presumably stay in their unhappy circumstances.
(Also, I’ve written and argued this stance in class discussions and assignments since 1994; it’s 2020 now and the only thing that’s changed is that I’m putting this on my blog.)
Some examples of the “logic” in local policy discussions:
- If young adults are taught about gay sex, more will become gay
- If gay people are allowed to marry, straight marriages will be ruined and humans will die out
- If public housing policies stopped discriminating against single mothers, there’ll be more divorces and irresponsible mothers (ie. people should stay in disastrous marriages solely for housing/money)
- Menial jobs should keep paying subsistence wages, or else people won’t want to improve and “upskill” themselves
- If trans people are not discriminated against, more people will become trans.
More: Family is family, abusive or not. Employers and leaders are always right, that’s why they outrank you and are entitled to abuse juniors. People need to suffer for their life choices and mistakes. (So much for compassion.)
In the nightmarish mess of this “logic”, America is the bogeyman for traditionalist Asians outside the US who want to villainise agency, individualism, diversity, and human rights. “Look at the mess America is in” are words that commonly pop up when intersectional feminism or anything political comes into conversation. Citing America’s current state of batsh*t f*ckery is a lazy and confused argument especially in Singapore, a country more right-wing than left, and where the population is just as deliberately misinformed and disempowered.
From the millions of hours I’ve spent arguing on the Internet™, conservative (and many religious) Singaporeans ignore the countries with female leaders, LGBT+ rights, social welfare, affordable healthcare, democracy and atheism that have not been destroyed by divine punishment. When this is pointed out, “whataboutism” begins. Ultimately because “no perfect country exists” or “each has their own problems”, attitudinal changes or political improvements are seen as futile. Then out come the insults and putdowns about idealism and impracticality.
I see the current cultural and political divide between boomers and millennials (though this defies age) as one between misogynistic conformity and creative autonomy. The negative boomer mentality devalues or demonises feminism and anything that defies gender stereotypes, while younger/liberal people recognise that a person’s personhood and humanity is not diminished by their sex, sexuality, gender expression, skin color, weight, marital status, style of dress, disabilities, job, and life choices.
The millennial approach to diversity is radical, universally compassionate, and threatening to people who’ve operated in cultures of strict hierarchy and punitive “order”, ie. control.
Authoritarian and oppression apologists love to plead “unity!!!” or “social cohesion!!111!!” when criticism is leveled at propaganda, long-standing discriminatory policies, or superficial social rules. In trying to argue that society will fall apart if gays marry, or trans people trans, or women hold power (or just exercise autonomy), they only reveal their own fragile ego and fear projection. Of course, this has always existed in history: “cohesion” or “order” has oft been cited as reason to keep slaves, women, and other lesser beings
as chattel from becoming legally human with equal rights, to vote, shape policy, and determine their own destiny.
Pick which side of history you want to be on.
Conservatives also love to hark back to alleged golden eras of the past which are nothing but selective and privileged views of history that ignore the immense suffering, unrecognised contributions, and potential of ordinary people who were shut out of power and omitted by the historian’s pen. (So much context and an understanding of humanities is needed to understand this, good luck to anyone trying to convey this much in a FaceBook debate.)
We do what we’re told
(Here’s the story behind this song)
In collectivist cultures, healthy personal boundaries and individual autonomy can be seen as threats. When enmeshment and narcissism are normalised, we get cultures that celebrate mindless loyalty, submission, and sacrifice by subordinates to their superiors. It’s the stuff that the top-heavy corporations, mafia, cults, Authoritarian countries, and “traditional values” Asian families thrive on.
Old Confucianists and conservatives love to wield “societal good” as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon young upstarts who dare assert individuality or question the status quo. Truth is, appealing to oppression/conformity/obedience to keep “order” in society is a tactic used by people who feel unsafe to deal with the different and unfamiliar. It’s advocacy that pushes just one acceptable way of doing things—theirs.
In these groups, the opinions of their idols are deemed untouchable and beyond question. And if one’s high standing was earned playing the old rules and old system, such individuals are going to fight disruptions and new viewpoints even harder. We have to be careful that we do not ourselves become the enemy we set out to overcome.
Progress has always been made by those who challenge the status quo
Social conditioning teaches us to behave in ways that help us gain acceptance from other people. Some of us have been so well-programmed we don’t know who we are. And when we start to figure it out, there’s a whole lot of discomfort expressing our true self. We may find ourselves wanting to become that which we were taught to condemn.
Authenticity asks for courage and the recognition of one’s inherent worth. Authenticity and social cohesion/order are not at odds if your worth is intrinsic and not dependent on acceptance by certain people.
Or I’ll say it like this:
Acceptance and “cohesion” based on conformity is not true acceptance or cohesion at all.
It is conditional, based on arbitrary expectations that will differ for everyone due to different upbringings, values, experiences and personal taste.
The fear we individually experience as we evolve and feel the urge to express truths different from the ones we grew up with is a fear of being ostracised and judged by our peers. Again, it is conditional, and if we push through the fear and become who we were always meant to be, true friends will stay, and new friends enter.
Cohesion is simply the recognition of the common things that will always draw us together, naturally. Group cohesion does this without being threatened by superficial differences, and cultural and technological progress.
The more diversity is embraced and celebrated, the more conformity and control will fall away. When you allow me to be me, the more likely I’ll see you as an equal and an ally, rather than an enemy.
When people are allowed to be who they authentically are, that genuine acceptance builds trust. And ultimately, cohesion cannot be had without it.