Archive | September, 2010

Individualism and Collectivism – On societal restraint

18 Sep

I was reading David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, he’s a writer who does mild satire. What I found interesting was a narrative of his stay in Japan.


I was in the school break room with Christophe-san yesterday, and the two of us got to talking about vending machines, not just the ones before us, but the ones outside as well. “Can you believe it?” he asked. “In the subway station, on the street, they just stand there, completely unmolested.”

“I know it,” I said.

Our Indonesian classmate came up, and after listening to us go on, he asked what the big deal was.

“In New York or Paris, these machines would be trashed,” I told him.

The Indonesian raised his eyebrows.

“He means destroyed,” Christophe said. “Persons would break the glass and cover everything with graffiti.”

The Indonesia student asked why, and we were hard put to explain.

“It’s something to do?” I offered.

“But you can read a newspaper,” The Indonesian said.

“Yes,” I explained, ” but that wouldn’t satisfy your basic need to tear something apart.”

Eventually, he said, “Oh, OK,” the way I do when moving on seems more important than understanding. Then we all went back to class.

I reflected on our conversation after school, as I hurried down a skyway connecting two train stations. Windows flanked the moving sidewalks, and on their ledges sat potted flowers. No one had pulled the petals off. No one had thrown trash into the pots or dashed them to the floor. How different life looks when people behave themselves – the windows not barred, the walls not covered with graffiti-repellent paint. And those vending machines, right out in the open, lined up on the sidewalk like people waiting for a bus.


And another passage:

…people cover their books with patterned, decorative jackets so you can’t see what they’re reading. In the rest of the world, if you’re curious about someone, all you have to do is follow him for a while. Within a few minutes his cell phone will ring, and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know. Here, of course, there’s a considerable language barrier, but even if I were fluent it wouldn’t help me any. After three weeks I have yet to see a single bus or subway passenger talking on a cell phone. People do it on the street sometimes, but even there they whisper and cover their mouths with their free hands. I see this and wonder, What are you hiding?


I’ve never really thought about the fact that there were not many out in the open vending machines in the states. Well, I lived in small towns while I was there so crime wasn’t a major issue… and commercialism wasn’t as blatant in the cities so it’s rare to see vending machines anyway. What I wonder about is why there would be such vandalism in Paris an New York. This is not a major problem even in Taipei, a much more stressful and metropolitan city than Kaohsiung, where I currently reside. I can’t really fathom beginning to vandalise a machine – well, I can, since I’m prone to imagine all things criminal in proximity to possible objects of crime when I’m not otherwise occupied – but I can’t imagine acting on it. Besides the trouble, and being innately unable to keep up a lie (If I even think of putting jelly in my brother’s shoes, I start giggling so mad he looks at me and hides them), I simply don’t think of it as a meaningful idea. And this is not only a personal trait – I believe most people in Taiwan would find vandalism to a vending machine loser behaviour. Make your mark on historical buildings, possibly, but smash up someone’s shop? Never!


I believe it takes a major break from your connection to society to find such acts feasible. That would be either 1. individualism, as it is so lovingly called, or 2. being in a system that distrusts its individuals. I find some western societies a combination of both – a distrust of the individualism it so lovingly espouses. The distrust is reasonable when we look at the recent koran burning incident. But one has to admit that the temptation quota of a vending machine greatly increases when 1. One feels little affinity for the industry that stands to profit from it and 2. it’s locked up. In our society we are understanding of the trials and tribulations of merchants. I feel guilty for not buying something from a sales lady if she’s been so kind to me. In fact, that is why even though I like the idea of walking into a high-end store and trying on impossibly expensive clothes just for the heck of it, I’ve only done this once.


In our society, people are cajoled into obeying the law because of how it would inconvenience others. In America, people are cajoled into obeying the law because you would be fined and arrested otherwise. It makes me wonder whether individualism and the rule of law goes hand in hand. I’ve heard a law major say that Taiwan isn’t a society that goes completely by the rule of law. Look at how many people here get out of a traffic ticket by being nice to police officers. If you’re a foreigner here you might even get out of a ticket by being friendly and claiming ignorance. And that’s just minor example.


This is why imposing an American system of law and order on Iraq has been so difficult. There was a spate of articles a month back that  talked about the extreme difficulty of developing a police system in Iraq. The reason cited was too little funding for training, so that training sessions were packed into a few months and that is not considered adequate. I should think, that besides this, the simple fact that Iraq has a more collective society is also the reason. It is not a society that can readily accept that one must act impartially when on duty despite personal relationships. In fact, in these societies, the survival of an individual is considered so dependent on his/her immediate society that relationships are considered more important than law, and a commoner would be understanding of a police officer for preferring his family member over himself even though it’s not right. So I believe even with more extensive training, there is no guarantee that all the effort will disintegrate upon a short while of commencing duty.


What the Americans can not expect is to be able to make their form of law and order work in Iraq. The way society functions there is completely different. Instead, Americans must learn (and I bet many of the more effective policies taking place there are already using this method, though off-the-record) to accept some ‘corruption’ in these nations that they’re working with. Be it a goodwill gift and long sessions of seemingly meaningless talk with the elders in a village — you cannot expect to ‘get it done’ in Iraq just because you think it’s good for them. They know what’s good for them, you don’t get to decide that.


ps. Also possibly why this (,8599,2015481,00.html) has shown to work very well in asian societies.