Whenever I feel depressed about the degree to which people are disconnected from each other these days, I watch videos of flash mobs on the Internet. There is something magical about watching dozens of people in a busy place seemingly going about their every day individual lives suddenly disrupting the illusion of separation and coming together as one cohesive, cooperative unit. The look of pure delight on the faces of bystanders who happened to be in the right place at the right time has an essence of unadulterated joy that we seldom see on strangers. We have become so accustomed to being separate individuals with our own hopes, dreams, goals, and experiences, that when we witness a collective experience that wasn’t expected, it is something truly special and unusual.
Since Thatcherism in the UK, Reaganomics in the US, New Zealand’s equivalent Rogernomics, Australia’s economic rationalism, and other neoliberal economic shifts of the 1980’s, there has been a broad scale move in many Western nations towards a deep-seated cultural narrative of individualism. Thatcher famously went as far as to say “There is no such thing as society. There are individuals, and there are families.” It has struck a particular chord in the United States, where the narrative of the American Dream still drives culture and politics, despite it being increasingly more farcical by the year. Rooted in notions of individual choice and responsibility, it is the story that says that everyone is fully responsible for their own circumstances and for changing them if they are unhappy with them. It is the story that says if you work hard enough and are prepared to take a few risks along the way, you can achieve success and be upwardly mobile.
And it utterly fails to recognise that we don’t, in fact, live in a vacuum.
A similar narrative underpins the the global self help industry, valued at over $11 billion dollars in 2019. This one tells us that if things are not going well for you, it is entirely within your reach to change them. While self-help teachings can be hugely beneficial, they often distract us from the fact that many of our successes and failures are influenced by factors completely outside our control. Those who consider themselves self-made walk upon roads who were paved by many others who go unrecognised or under-appreciated. Similarly, those who are homeless, living in poverty, are suffering from ill health, or are otherwise struggling, are under constant pressure from a system that tells them that they are wholly responsible for their own circumstances, regardless of how others may have benefitted under the same system. The narrative of personal responsibility has played a significant role in the evolution of deeply individualistic societies in which loneliness, depression, anxiety, and othering are rife.
The shortcomings and consequences of America’s individualistic culture are playing out as increasing polarisation, the erosion of the middle class, and most starkly in the country’s response to COVID-19. The incompetence of political leadership has of course played a big role in the rate at which the virus is still spreading, but it is also aided by a culture of every man for himself and a widespread aversion to being told what to do. Joe Biden has inherited a deeply divided country ravaged by the virus, and it is appropriate that his first addresses have spoken to the need for unity. Yet given the narratives of division underpinning his country, I fear he faces an uphill battle.
Contrast America’s response to COVID-19 with that of more collectivist nations such as New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea. As one of the first countries to be hit by the coronavirus, South Korea didn’t have the benefit of learning about its behaviour from other countries who had already experienced it. Yet despite this, and despite it’s high population density, South Korea has been effective at stemming the spread of the virus thanks in part to it’s highly collectivist culture. In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern set the tone from the get go, with frames of unity and collective responsibility embedded within her messaging. In the early weeks of the virus’s presence in New Zealand, Kiwis constantly heard that they were all in the same boat.
Ardern’s brilliant use of the phrase “team of five million” to refer to New Zealand’s entire population is one that will go down in history books as a grand, unifying frame that helped New Zealand eliminate the virus.
Think about that phrase carefully. It wasn’t an army of five million who were focused on conflict and fighting an enemy, it was a team — a group of individuals that came together to work towards a common goal. Meanwhile, Donald Trump cried “We will win this war” and Boris Johnson spoke of a fight in which each and every citizen was “directly enlisted.”
Our choice of language is crucial in shaping the narratives that inform our culture. Ardern’s choice of words showed strategic farming intended to activate intrinsic values of unity, collectivism, solidarity, and cooperation. Trump and Johnson instead used frames of war that evoked images of fighting some kind of enemy or in Johnson’s case, “an invisible mugger”. The metaphors they used were telling about their approach to solving problems, which involve identifying an enemy and fighting until you overcome them. They were frames that valued individual agency and combat over collective response and international cooperation.
Looking at coronavirus infection rates across the US and the UK, an individualistic approach clearly hasn’t worked. Collectivist cultures on the other hand are doing well at suppressing the virus. I’m using COVID-19 as the example here, as it is stark and topical. But the same cultural advantages apply to collectivist approaches when tackling other big, complex challenges.
When I say ‘we’, who is it that comes to mind? Is it you and me? Is it all of the people who are reading this blog post? Is it your tribe perhaps, your church congregation, your community, your family, or group of friends? ‘We’ is of course contextual, so maybe you’re thinking “it depends…” What if ‘we’ was everyone on Earth? We humans, us Homo sapiens. Our ability to cooperate in small-to-medium sized groups of others has played a large role in humanity’s ascent. Our desire to belong to such groups who share values, beliefs, goals, interests, or blood lines is steeped in our biology, our DNA. Yet the magnitude of wicked problems we are facing such as climate change, food insecurity, fundamentalist uprisings, and mass extinctions calls for us to cooperate in much larger groups than we have ever found necessary before. While it is in our innate nature to want to belong, it is paradoxically our desire to identify ourselves with small groups that is driving political polarisation, inequality, racism, and nationalism.
In order to combat these tricky problems, we need to shift the narrative underpinning our participation in societies from “me” to “we”. Thatcher was wrong, society absolutely exists and we are absolutely entrenched within it. My own life circumstances are intricately intertwined with the neighbours that live above and below my apartment, along with the lovely elderly homeless couple who say hello to my kids on our way to preschool every morning. The immigrant families who make the incredible Ethiopian, Indian, and Vietnamese food that I enjoy, and the woman who comes to clean my office late at night once everyone’s gone home. We are dependent upon each other in so many ways. Covid-19 has shown us that the fate of each human on Earth is inextricably intertwined with the fate of everyone else.
We have created a globalised world; consequently our greatest challenges are shared globally and we have a responsibility to cooperate globally to solve them.
I’m sure at this stage you’re thinking, Well, that’s all well and good for you to say Alina… But how do we do that with so many diverse interests, perspectives, and different belief systems?
Let’s return to story. We are after all, story-driven creatures. It was the development of a belief system rooted in story that allowed humans to cooperate in groups larger than small bands of hunter-gatherers, to rise up and build grand civilisations. It was the power of story that elected Trump to the Whitehouse in 2016. Never mind that most of the story wasn’t true, the point is that it was compelling. To counter frames of division, we need to use language and the tools of story to describe the world that we stand for rather than what we are against. That’s not to say that we should take a leaf out of the Trump playbook and blatantly lie — but there are countless stories out there that can affirm our values and paint a picture of the world that we want to see.
We can highlight stories of collective impact, stories of different cultures learning from each other, stories of political foes coming together to achieve something against the odds. These are the types of stories that can inspire and break the old narratives of conflict and polarisation, and show what is possible when we drop our guard and embrace a much broader understanding of who “we” are. We can share more videos of flash mobs. We can highlight and celebrate instances where collectivist narratives came together to see wonderful things happening. We saw a glimpse of it in the early days of the pandemic, when Italians sang and played music for each other from balconies, while New Yorkers banged pots and pans together each evening in solidarity and support for healthcare workers. We saw it in New Zealand in 2019 when virtually the whole country showed their support for the Muslim community in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shootings, collectively raising over NZ$10 million for the victims and their families.
Given that New Zealand has only 5 million people, the generosity displayed would be the equivalent of Americans donating US$430 million to the victims and families of the Charleston shootings. Imagine that. That’s the power of a narrative of unity.
Everyday acts of kindness, compassion, and unity transpire all over the world constantly. We have just become so accustomed to negative news reports and our affinity for conflict and drama that we don’t pay attention to them until a crisis comes along to completely disrupt the narratives underpinning our lives. Once the crisis has opened us up, it takes a concerted and conscious effort not to slip back into old patterns. I already see it, and it’s distressing to say the least. We cannot afford to let business as usual come back. Let’s keep these feelings of solidarity and oneness in mind as we move forward into a new global post-Trump era.
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This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!