In the Case of Communities

Question: Should we act based on a community’s beliefs and culture or our individual beliefs?

Left: photo [Pexels] 2020 by ThisIsEngineering; Right: photo [cc-by-2.0] 2017 by Tony Crider

While communities are beneficial in some respects, the basis of people’s actions should be rooted in their own beliefs rather than society’s. Communities have the power to come together to create a positive change whether it be through scientific research or everyday kindness. However, when communities are prioritized too heavily, as they often are, they damage our sense of individuality and inspire acts of hate towards other people. Individualism, on the other hand, has the power to bring people together while also inspiring them to act in a way that benefits themselves and the world around them.

In Hank Green’s video titled “How We Teach: Individualist Stories”, he speaks on how the individual is portrayed in education, but he also acknowledges the community saying, “…we should know that acknowledging…the fact that nothing is possible without the contribution of millions of people both alive and dead, is good!” (3:43). While we should place a higher focus on the individual, we must not forget how impactful communities can be when pointed in the right direction. Time and time again, humans have come together to research science and medicine in order to improve the overall quality of life on Earth. Just recently, amid the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, the contributions of thousands of hardworking scientists led to the creation of multiple safe and effective vaccines in record time. This shows that communities can have a substantial positive impact when united under a noble cause.

As good as communities may seem, they also unfortunately have a dark side to them. The over prioritization of a community can often lead to conflicts that create lasting divisions between groups of people. In his book “Catfish and Mandala”, Andrew Pham writes about an altercation he had with a group of Vietnamese people. When stopping at a shop for a drink, a group of men, aggravated by Pham’s presence, makes a scene in the shop, yelling profanity and almost starting a fistfight. The moment Pham stepped into the shop, the group of men knew what to think about and how to treat Pham based on a societal label Andrew carries with him: Viet-Kieu. When communities become too strong and exclusive, they start to generate labels for people inside and outside of the community. One of these labels, Viet-Kieu, was created by native Vietnamese people to address other Vietnamese emigrants, and almost caused a violent conflict. It then becomes easy to imagine how, on a larger scale, this heavy sense of community could lead to war, something that the human race is all too fond of creating.

As well as societal labels, strong communities also create expectations and pressures that can limit a person’s sense of individuality and therefore their freedom. When Dinaw Mengestu was a child in America, he remembered that his father always told him “‘Remember, you are Ethiopian” (337), but Mengestu knew “ … there was nothing for [him] to remember apart from the bits of nostalgia and culture [his] parents had imparted.” (337). His parents had pressured him to identify and conform with a community he was never a part of in the first place. This damages Mengestu’s sense of individuality, leading him to write “For years we were strangers even among ourselves” showing how he was lost for years without a purpose, wanting to fit in (338). Being a Vietnamese-American, I also share Mengestu’s experience of feeling no connection with my “homeland”. However, instead of being pressured by my parents into always thinking that I am Vietnamese, my parents did not expect me to speak Vietnamese or take part in Vietnamese traditions. This way, I could grow up and develop my own identity, beliefs, and aspirations without having cultural expectations tie me down. Without these communal expectations, I was encouraged to pursue my own individual goals and contribute to society instead of feeling lost and looking for a place to a community to fit in with.

With that said, how could we keep the benefits of communities without the negatives? We prioritize the individual. At the end of An’s journey through Vietnam, he stops to stand in and admire the ocean in silence with a random person. In this complete silence, An ends his memoir by writing, “No was. Only is. Between us, there is but a thin line of intention” (339). Throughout the entire duration of the moment, there are no societal labels bringing them together or pulling them apart, the two act on their own beliefs and volition — that is what brings them together. If we come together as individuals, we can still create communities for good while avoiding the hatred that comes with societal labels.

Communities are a double-edged-sword. Without a doubt, the human race has been able to accomplish many feats that would be impossible with just one person from vaccines to scientific breakthroughs, to advances in transportation. However, it has also inflicted much suffering upon itself through war or discrimination as a result of following a community’s beliefs. Following individual beliefs instead of a community’s can bring us together for a common good, while also keeping us from hating one another. It can inspire people to act for what they believe is just, instead of making them feel lost, searching for a place and a purpose.