Me vs. We (or is that “Me and We”?)

A reader writes:

I remember that you once said you liked it when folks wrote your blog for you. Perhaps you’d be willing to share your soapbox with me for a bit.

Y’see, I’ve got this burning issue. But the doctor prescribed some antibiotics and it’s doing much better now, so there’s no need to go into that.

What I really want to talk about — and what I hope to hear you and the rest of St Blog’s discuss — is the issue of “Me versus We.” You see, I’ve noticed this tension in society — indeed, you can see it in just about any society in any era — between the individual and the herd. You’ve got free speech, but you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Criminals go free after serving their sentences even if it’s darn-near certain that they’ll re-offend. It’s as if we’re groping for a balance between the ant-hill — where “individual” means nothing — and the forest full of tigers — who can’t stand the sight of each other most of the time.

The funny thing is: nobody in the public forum seems to notice this tension. Indeed, the political parties are all over the map when viewed through this particular lens. The Liberals champion abortion (very, very, Me) and the Great Society (strongly We.) Republicans idolize both the rugged individual AND the Armed Services; they also call for safe streets, yet abominate any form of gun control. Both sides of the aisle seem to be full of contradictions.

Now, it could be that both parties are full of contradictions because the “issue” isn’t an issue. Both parties are all over the place on the subject of pizza toppings. So what? But I don’t think that that’s the case. I suspect that nobody’s coherent on the subject because nobody’s stopped to really think about it.

Throughout most of the history I’m familiar with the individual has had to cede most of his rights to society. The Athenians owned slaves, and Athens was a better place for it. The subjects of the pre-reformation (and quite a few post-reformation) kings were expected to worship in unity with their ruler lest civil war break out. It’s only been in the past few hundred years that anybody has thought about or attempted to catalogue the rights of the individual. The “rights” of the herd on the other hand, have never been (in my very limited education) formally thought about by anybody. They were there at the beginning — likely as a species-survival mechanism — and they have been slowly yielding to the individual ever since. But now, I think, the pendulum is in grave danger of swinging too far. Individual freedom and individual rights are being so strongly asserted these days that the good of the herd — and the good of many individuals — is in danger.

Abortion is the most egregious example: children die at their mother’s whim. But there are a thousand other examples: Remember the horror with which the suggestion of an AIDS quarantine was received? God be praised, it turned out to be unnecessary, but what if AIDS had spread like the common cold? (nobody really knew at the time.) Millions could have died before a quarantine became socially acceptable. On a more mundane level, consider motorcycle-helmet laws. It would seem to be a win-win kind of law; people survive otherwise fatal accidents, brain injuries are reduced & medical costs are kept down. How could these laws be resented — and yet they are. I’m sure that you and our fellow blogites could cite hundreds of examples.

Now, here we come to the homework — the debate. Consider and discuss the following.

1) Am I correct in asserting that there is a tension between the rights of the individual and the rights of society, and that the pendulum has swung too far in the individual’s direction?

1A) Does it even make sense to assert that society has rights? What might they be?

2) Given an affirmative on 1 & 1A; does the answer really consist of finding some happy middle ground on the scale between the ant-hill and the forest full of tigers. Can there be some kind of both/and answer to this? I suspect that there may be, and that the answer lies in the greatest commandments. But how do we implement that in America?

2A) If implementing the greatest commandments is not to be expected — if we can’t have what Mark calls the Big Laws, then what little laws or guidelines could we put into place that would move the pendulum back to a happy position?

I look forward to seeing what St Blog’s has to say on this issue.

Discuss, class.