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The cost of collective consciousness in a context of weak individual liberty

Our rationality will work effectively only as long as we rehearse to choose and think of a better way to respect humanity parallel with our communal identity. People will have common passions, feelings, and sentiments. But it is individual intelligence that can help us understand things differently, writes Kibrom Berhane.

Our collective psychology – the psychology of social groups – is important to be public-spirited. Public-spiritedness is also important for sympathetic relationships. As Amartya Sen in his lecture notes (Reason before Identity, The Romanes Lecture for 1998) writes, “the influence of social identity on behavior can be one route to departures from narrowly defined self-interest.” And, the influence of groups we identify with is inalienable. The consciousness of an individual may not be self-sufficient without the collective personality.

This does not, however, mean that we are empty vessels to be filled by (social) values only at the will of our groups. I believe that if we are always guided by our collective consciousness, we cannot consider ourselves as autonomous individuals who are capable of acting independently and shaping our destiny. If so, as Eric Hoffer writes, “the less a person sees himself as an autonomous individual capable of shaping his own course and solely responsible for his station in life, the less likely is he to see his poverty [be it intellectual or material poverty] as evidence of his own inferiority.” In other words, accepting that collective identity and consciousness are determinants of virtually everything in our lives, one can argue, can be taken as an act of spurning individual liberty and the power of self-consciousness. The consequence of which might also weaken individual capability and social coexistence in different ways.  

Firstly, when collective consciousness substitutes individual thinking, the need to take responsibilities for our actions will disappear. We attribute both our success and failure to our respective groups. Unspeakable crowd actions can overtake individual rationality. (Horrendous) mob justice – as we have seen it in Shashamane – would become preferred justice system for alleged criminals.  Thus, although our consciousness can be influenced by our collectiveness, it does not mean that we have to lose our (personal) intelligence.

Secondly, when our collective consciousness supersedes our individual consciousness, a mere chance of group action can bring us together. In such kinds of moments, we may not have the time and tenacity to think about compassion and sympathy to avoid atrocious actions (like what happened in Shashamane). 

Our rationality will work effectively only as long as we rehearse to choose and think of a better way to respect humanity parallel with our communal identity. People will have common passions, feelings, and sentiments (for instance, through their religious and political groups). But it is individual intelligence that can help us understand things differently. Thirdly, as individuals, unless we learn how to be self-reliant individuals who mind about our own business, we will be obsessed with minding others’ business. Therefore, when we are minding others business instead of our own, according to Eric Hoffer, “we either fall on our neighbor’s shoulder or fly at his throat.”

One might, of course, argue that not only our personality but also our specific choices are limited by the circumstances we are in, our background, and our history. But it should not be taken as an ultimate excuse for all our mistakes. To learn to be a better person and to choose to be a person of rationality may not be achieved on a plain ground. Any choice comes with constraints that we should defy. And the challenges will be solved through our reasoning. A crowd mentality is a whole enchilada for those who cannot control their actions rationally. 

Again, it is true that a person’s consciousness can substantially be determined by his/her grouping. Nonetheless, as long as choices are available to us and we believe that a human being is a creature with individual aptitude, we cannot say that everything we do is the outcome of our background. Individual rationality is an attribute that we can exercise. Hence, fourthly, if we define ourselves and our identity only based on our groups, we most probably lose our intellectual ability and individuality. Consequentially, we will be nurtured to the herd mentality.  

Fifthly, when collective consciousness supplants individual consciousness, naïveté reigns. We incline to believe that what our group does is sacred. When people criticize us for our blindness we will naively argue that culture is relative and there is no such thing – good or bad. In other words, we lose our ability to scrutinize our context intelligently. We will forget about individual accountability because we assume that everything is the outcome of the inescapable social norms in us. We lose our self-belief in trying to do things independently. Failure and success become matters of communal tasks. Self-worth diminishes.

Moreover, if we firmly believe that a person is whom he/she is only to the traits given by his/her group, we dismiss that human beings are dynamic and they can have multiple identities in different contexts. The more we believe that we have no choices except to be the one our collective consciousness allows to be, the more we learn to be tyrants who suppress differences. 

Finally, if individual liberty is (totally) replaced by collective consciousness, we may not acknowledge that people do have the right to dissent. Conversely, when we see ourselves as individuals capable of deciding on our destiny, I believe, we will acknowledge our plurality. We cannot secure solidarity by denying the rights of individuals to search for their own ‘truth.' Thus, a balance between individual consciousness and group influence would help us respect human dignity.

I think it is virtually impossible to pinpoint a particle of humanity and a sentiment of individual responsibility in a crowd that brutishly exterminate human life. Therefore, to tackle such kind of crowd mentality and mob-justice, efforts should be incurred to educate individuals high-level of morality and independent thinking.

Generally speaking, without independent thinking and individual liberty, collective consciousness (as we observe it today) is debilitating. For this reason, parallel to respecting the values of our respective groups, we should also exercise how to view our world independently. In a context of weak individuals’ freedom of conscience, collective consciousness would lead us to apparent social stagnation, lawlessness, and mob-justice. As Barbara Misztal aptly states, “the value of the individual is at the center of the modern conscience collective; nevertheless, demands for individual liberty cannot justify any attempts to undermine national unity and solidarity.”

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by Kibrom Berhane