I and we – the eternal duality

20/05/2013 § 5 Comments

My recent post about my mother made me reflect further on the duality of “I” and “we”. If, like my mother, we’re all both individuals and part of a wider whole, then our thinking, our society, and institutions and our day-to-day actions need to acknowledge that duality. It seems to me that the politics of the last 40 years or so (and no doubt of a lot longer – but history isn’t my strong point!) have been characterised by a battle between those who want to see us simply as individual particles, unconnected with those around us, and those who see us as mere parts of a whole without individual identity of any significance. Thatcherism and Reaganism emphasised our particle-like qualities (the “I”) and communism our wave-like qualities (the “We”). Neither is right or wrong, and seeing this as a choice we have to make is not serving either the I or the We.

If we acknowledge that there is a duality, and a tension between our needs as individuals and the needs of the whole, we can ask that our institutions and our representatives in these institutions creatively manage the balance so that both our qualities are acknowledged. If, as happened under communism, the state (the big “we”) owns all property then individupalace in decayals stop caring about property. I saw this when I lived in Saint Petersburg, where after 80 years of communism the beautiful buildings were steadily deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. When privatisation came, everyone suddenly had an incentive to look after their property and, externally at least, the city was transformed. By contrast if we over-emphasise the I, then we do what Margaret Thatcher did and sell-off state-owned houses with the inevitable consequence that some individuals get rich out of it and others less fortunate have nowhere to live.

Wouldn’t it be good if, rather than left-wing and right wing politicians arguing over whether the I or the We are more important, we could all be a bit more creative and explore solutions that balance and harmonise. There are some good examples in a recent book, the Resilience Imperative, by Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty. They highlight the community land trust model in United States, an example of how land ownership can be solved (interestingly, their relevant chapter is entitled “Uniting the I and the We” – great minds think alike!). In this model there is a separation of the two cost elements of real property: the market price of the land and the price of the house itself. The land is removed from the market and placed in a trust, so that escalating land values do not make the price of a house (which is much less significant than the price of the land) unaffordable to those of low and moderate income. This concept has its roots in the successful village land trust movement in India, which was inspired by Gandhi. Its roots go back further to Ruskin, who may have been inspired by practices of traditional communities where land was held collectively but individuals could eat what they grew. There are other examples given in the book including mutual home ownership housing in the UK and tenant owned co-operatives in Sweden.

These examples are a reminder of our human ingenuity, which we will need to manage this apparently irresolvable tension between “I” and “we”. I have no doubt other effective solutions will emerge as global consciousness increasingly recognises our dual nature.

Our aim, it seems to me, is maximum freedom (allowing individuals to shine) and maximum cohesion (being the best we can be collectively).  A sound maxim for the 21st Century.


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§ 5 Responses to I and we – the eternal duality

  • donsalmon says:

    This is very insightful look at our politics from one particular perspective. But it also assumes general good faith (to some extent, it seems to me, anyway) on the part of our politicians. Is it really a genuine interest in the “I” – self actualization, an integrated development of mind, heart and body, the development of qualities of wisdom, compassion, etc? Or is the whole focus on the “individual” merely a ruse to weaken the state in order to strengthen the power of corporations?

    Similarly, is it a genuine interest in “we” – in community, connection, creating powerful interconnections amongst various heterogenous groups – or is it merely a cover for purely pragmatic political appeal to various interest groups for the sake of fund raising and electability?

    I think it’s both – I think your analysis is valid, but I think we have to take into account the “baser” political/economic motives.

    Another, not contradictory but complementary perspective is that of Iain McGilchrist. I can’t do it justice without taking up far more space than I should. But to put it simply, the left hemisphere (“left-mode thought” as McGilchrist puts it) focuses on the detail, the individual, the separate “integer”; whereas “right mode thought” (associated with the right hemisphere – generally speaking, not in a simplistic one-to-one way) see s the whole.

    And it is true – if we look at psychological tendencies, not of the power structure, but of individuals who identify as “liberal” or “conservative” (at least, in the last 50 years; this would probably have not been true of these labels 1 or 2 centuries ago), we find a kind of thinking among liberals that is more “right mode” – greater cognitive flexibility, more openness to the unknown, and a tendency to look at context, whereas there is greater “left mode” thought among self-identified conservatives – a preference for the “tried and true”, a dedication to the “rules”, and a tendency to focus on individual instances with less attention to background, context, etc.

    Dan Siegel (founder of interpersonal neurobiology) talks of “horizontal integration” – the need to balance left and right modes of thought in order to become a truly wise, compassionate and mentally healthy individual. Similarly, he speaks of “transpirational integration” – integration among individuals, groups, communities, societies as equally important.

    I think ultimately what you are so beautifully pointing toward is this need for integration. I haven’t mentioned my site yet – didn’t want to appear overly self-promotional – but Jan (my wife) and I have a whole series of pages on interpersonal neurobiology (called “the brain pages” appropriately enough, I suppose), which have stories and explanations of this process of integration. On our page, “the most important page”, we talk about how this process of integration might be applied at the family, community and society level. See “brain pages” at http://www.remember-to-breathe.org

  • thanks Don, I really like the way you have added layers onto and alongside what I wrote. Like you, I don’t see anything in what you say that contradicts what I write – it is complementary. And if this site is about anything, it is about integration.
    As for people’s motives I find it easier not to judge people’s motives – of course the baser motives exist but they are rarely if ever the lone voice in a human, I believe – maybe they just dominate from time to time over other more enlightened motives. My experience in large corporations was that whist those outside were judging our intentions, we were just trying to cope and making lots of mistakes! Yet of course there were lots of egos flying around too 🙂
    Your comments are appreciated and I will look at your site.

  • Jonathan Dutton says:

    Hi Andrew,

    After having lived in France for over 15 years now I’ve of course noticed a few differences between my host country and my native Britain, but until your article I’ve never been able to define at least one of the differences, that being the “I and We”.

    France’s national motto is of course “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” which is reflected in the colours of their flag. The French also use the word “solidarité” in moments where they need to “stick together” and fight injustice such as low pay, better health, etc.

    For example, let’s take health; on one hand the French health service, which is pretty damn good, is considered to “heal the population not individuals”, but on the other hand individuals put themselves and others at risk by frequently driving too fast or motorbikes driving on “lane 2.5” on 3 lane motorways. Asked why they do it, they’ll just shrug their shoulders and say “rules are made to be broken” or at least constantly questioned.

    I’ve lots more “them and us” examples, but is it “them and us”?

    Perhaps it’s France’s version of “I and We”? Freedom, Equality (I) & Brotherhood (we)…

    • Hi Jonathan,

      i do think the “I” and “We” thing is handy to differentiate between countries (and people for that matter). So in Germany, where my wife comes from, the we is more important than it is in this country and that explains quite a lot about the mentality and what seem like petty rules to me (like you can’t mow the lawn on a Sunday). I feel in the UK we have gone too far towards elevating the “I” and it is time for a swing back in the other direction.


    • donsalmon says:

      Very powerful. Here, in the US, I suspect the “I” is more extreme than anywhere in Europe. In the 1950s and 1960s, when modernization was not so complete that it had completely obliterated immigrant communities, one could see (at least where I grew up, near New York City) strong Irish, Italian, Jewish and other communities – especially working class – where family, and community and the “we” was dramatically different from the “white bread” suburbs where I grew up.

      According to research on the fraying of community, the average person at that time had at least 4 to 5 confidants – people with whom they felt safe sharing their deepest hopes, fears and aspirations.

      By the 1980s, that number had shrunk to 1 or 2. I saw a recent study that 40% of Americans have nobody they can share their deepest feelings with.


      Another interesting sidelight (caution – shameless self-promotion coming up) – the town Roseto, PA was found in the mid 20th century to have terrible food and exercise habits, yet the residents were remarkably healthy and long lived. After extensive research, a team of medical researchers said the main thing that made the difference was being part of a shared community with strong ties.

      Mid 1960s a prediction was made – as the community “modernized” (switched from “we” to “I”) their health would deteriorate.

      Prediction came true in 1971 – the first heart attack ever recorded in Roseto in someone under 45. The crime rate rose in the 70s and since then, illness has increased, and life expectancy has gone down.

      Similar research has been done in Greece, Okinawa, Sardinia and other places around the world

      Ok, here’s the shameless self promotion – on our page, called perhaps appropriately, “The Most Important Page” we go into great detail about this research, which thoroughly reflects the difference between the “I” and “we” focus (though in no way denigrating the importance of a well developed “I”!). It’s at http://www.remember-to-breathe.org

      Very interesting, potentially inspiring but also sad stuff!

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