Friday, March 14, 2008

Individual vs. the Collective

Savaii P. Amitoelau's guest editorial titled "Faasamoa and Democracy" explains in detail why the Senate's ban on campaign signs wouldn't last a day in court. Sometimes I wonder if our esteemed leaders in the Fono have even read our constitutions, which they swore to uphold and protect. Nevertheless, his editorial touched on a subject that rightly concerns a lot of us, and that is the conflict between individualism and the Samoan culture.

Contrary to popular belief, individualism is not about valuing the individual above everything else. It's not about glorifying or putting the individual before everybody in the world. Individualism is not a question of value; it is a matter of an objective right. You, as an individual, exist and have natural rights that derive from your existence.

Society, on the other hand, doesn't exist in the sense that it's an actual observable object. There is no person by the name of "Society" with whom you or I can talk to. Society has no head, no heart, no blood flowing through the veins.

What people are referring to when they talk about society are different organizations of individuals such as families, villages, churches, schools, businesses, football teams, rugby teams, volleyball teams, etc. "Society" is thus a term that encompasses organizations of individuals. So without the individual, there is no society.

Individuals come together to form these organizations because they get value out of doing so. One finds love, support and guidance in a caring family. In church, a believer joins others in song, praise, worship and prayer. Individuals work together in pursuit of making money in business. In charities, individuals find value in helping other individuals.

When we talk about the eroding of the fa'asamoa or society or our culture, we're talking about the institutions that make them up. If a family doesn't care about their children, if a church bickers more than it worships, if a business incurs losses rather than makes a profit, "society" suffers, our culture erodes.

And what incentive do our institutions have to improve if the attitude is that individuals owe allegiance to them regardless of how crummy the family is, how dysfunctional the church is, or how dissatisfying a business' service or product may be?

Would Coca-Cola be what it is today if the individual did not have the right to choose Pepsi instead? Would the Nintendo Wii be so innovative if it didn't have the Sony Play Station or Microsoft Xbox on its heels? We can find plenty of these comparisons in a free society where individual rights are recognized and protected.

I see individual freedom and rights as the essential building blocks to society. It is more than obligation and duty that most individuals are part of the fa'asamoa; rather, it's the love, pride, tradition, heritage, support, communal relationships and value that we get from it. In my opinion, that is what made our fa'asamoa last so long, and it can only make it stronger.


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