Individuality and Communality


A quote from a Hackernews comment from a book that I want to place here, because it paints a sharp picture of something I have noticed personally in different people:

Where does each individual draw the limits of his or her compassion, beyond which duties of kindness, generosity and personal obligation no longer apply? I was raised in a household where my parents drew them in totally different places, according to their very different characters and backgrounds.

As an Italian, my mother grew up in a country whose government had given birth to Fascism, formed a discreditable pact with Hitler, and launched itself on a series of unnecessary wars which left Italy occupied and battle-scarred. There then followed a seemingly endless series of short-lived, sleaze-ridden administrations. The experience left her utterly cynical about officialdom. Although she dutifully voted in every election, the malevolence of the system was taken for granted, and she would happily have lied and cheated in any encounter with the state had she believed she could get away with it. But no one worked harder for her fellow man, for in the place of the state she maintained her own support network. An instinctive practitioner of what sociologists call ’the economics of affection’, my mother had a circle of compassion drawn to include a collection of lonely acquaintances. She visited their council flats bearing cakes, sent amusing press cuttings to their prison cells, queued at the gates of their psychiatric hospitals. Hers was a world of one-on-one interactions, in which obligations, duties, morality itself, took strictly personal form, and were no less onerous for it. The glow she radiated was life-enhancing, but its light only stretched so far, and beyond lay utter darkness. Protecting one’s own was vital, for life had taught her that the world outside would show no mercy. She was not alone in her ability to get things done without the state’s involvement. ‘Il mio sistema’ Italians call it: ‘my system’. Italy is, after all, the birthplace of the Mafia, the ultimate of personal ‘sistema’, and my mother’s mindset was instinctively mafioso.

My father, in contract, was typical of a certain sort of law-abiding, diffident Englishman for whom a set of impartial, lucid rules represented civilisation at its most advanced. He was raided in a country which pluckily held out against the Germans during the Second World War and then set up the National Health Service in which he spent his career, and his trust in the essential decency of his duly elected representatives was so profound that he was shocked to the core by British perfidy during the Suez crisis, and believed Tony Blair when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. When, as an eleven-year-old schoolgirl, I mentioned - with a certain pride - that I usually managed to get home without paying my bus fare, he explained disapprovingly that if everyone behaved that way, London Transport would grind to a halt. Remove the civic ethos, and anarchy descended. A logical man, he saw this as the only practical way of running a complex society. It also, conveniently for an Englishman awkward with personal intimacy, enabled him to engage with his fellow man at a completely impersonal level. Not for him my mother’s instinctive charm, the immediate eye contact, the hand on arm. He felt no obligation to provide for nieces and nephews, and had a cousin come up for a job before one of the many appointment boards on which he sat, he would have immediately excused himself. Nothing could be more repugnant to him than asking a friend to bend the rules as a personal favour. What need was there for a rival, alternative sistema, if the existing arrangement of rights and duties already delivered?

My father’s world view was typically northern European. My mother’s characteristically Mediterranean approach would have made perfect sense to any Kenyan. In an ‘us-against-the-rest’ universe, the put-upon pine to belong to a form of Masonic lodge whose advantages are labelled ‘Members Only’. In the industrialised world, that ‘us’ is usually defined by class, religion, or profession. In Kenya, it was inevitably defined by tribe.

I think the variability of ones viewpoint varies more within populations than between them, but certain countries or cultural zones do seem to implicitly think one is the standard rather than the other. Each has a downside, which is probably why attitudes are never explicit. I’ve found it very helpful, and difficult, to get some distance from the attitude I grew up with, and that’s why I’m happy to have found this bit of text, because I never really was able to make it clear what I mean to anyone from either attitude.

I’ve moved to France, and now I’m moving to Netherland, and in each case I am running into the problem that of course nobody ever seems to consider international differences in everyday things like types of forms, ways of certification and so on. Working around the system is natural in France, while unacceptable if you’re very attached to Dutch attitudes. On the other hand, Dutch attitudes prevent people from acknowledging the system simply doesn’t work for everyone. The larger the organisation, the more the system is regarded as a god given truth and the easier one can absolve themselves from helping others that do not fit the system. After all, our system is perfect because it is ours. I begin to see how this is as chauvinistic as certain, more explicit, French attitudes.

It reminds me a little bit of scientific methods: it’s very good to have them, because once well ironed out, they can help research in infinitely many studies. But one can never ever regard them as gospel: the method itself is and always will be negotiable and subject to revision and even replacement. It seems to be, people are too eager to attach themselves to systems. In other words, I find people to be, generally, deeply dogmatic and wish it wasn’t so.