George Herbert Mead made an important distinction between I and Me. His contention was that all of us are both individualistic and innovative beings (I) and social and relation beings (Me). These two interdependent aspects are part of every human being and create an inevitable dualistic plurality between need for autonomy and need for belonging.
These two orientations have some interesting implications for how we look at “We” i.e. our idea of a collective. Many societies (for example, India) have traditionally placed greater emphasis on the relational (Me) side. In this scenario, “We” acquires an all pervasive presence leaving very little space for I. In contrast, the modern day societies place emphasis on I. In this scenario, “We” becomes essentially a convenient collation of I’s, which must exist primarily to serve the needs of the I, with no distinct identity of its own. In fact, any assertion of salience on part of the We is often experienced as an intrusion and unnecessary limitation to the freedom of “I” to embrace any identity that it wishes to.
Thus, differentiations based on collective identities(e.g. race, religion, gender, etc.) become problematic. Such differentiations are often seen as (and many times are) discriminatory, prejudicial and stereotypes. Reference to racial/gender differences carry with them the risk of being labeled as racist/sexist. Besides the obvious confusion between differentiation and discrimination, there is also the apprehension of dilution of individual salience. While there is an understandable concern that people should not be seen ONLY in terms of the collective identity of their belonging system, often it manifests itself through a complete denial of the collective identity of the individual. The underlying belief seems to be that human beings are only I and there is no Me in them. Some of the manifestations of this stance are-
a) human beings have ( or at least should have) unlimited freedom to chose who they are and who they wish to become,
b) messages and influences received from systems of belonging should not play any part in this process of “individuation” and
c) people should be seen and engaged with only in terms of their “personal attributes” and all references to the codings from their belonging system are necessarily prejudicial.
These beliefs are particularly strong amongst people who Joseph Heinrich has called WEIRD( see my blog piece on “Democratic Condescension). WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated,Industrialised,Rich and Democratic). Heinrich’s hypothesis is that a large part of our understanding about human condition is based upon this “statistical minority” , which we then apply to the entire human race..
For the greater part of my life, I have subscribed to this perspective of the WEIRD, and to a large extent still do. In many ways, both my personal and professional lives have been governed by this perspective. However, I am also becoming aware of the limitations that it has imposed on my understanding of people who do not share this perspective. Rather than acknowledge that the relationship between I , Me and We is configured differently in them, I have been quick to judge them as immature, dependent, parochial and regressive.
I have also begin to realise that in this process, I have actually not transcended the codings of my belonging system, I have merely shifted my allegiance from one reference group to another. Perhaps real “individuation” does not happen with turning one’s back on Me, but only through the difficult path of co-holding both I and Me.
Do share how you have experienced the relationship between I, Me and We in yourself.