I versus We

In a recent column in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo asked a question that has preoccupied me for several years: given the wide diversity of global humanity–given the sheer numbers of humans who coexist on this planet with drastically different beliefs, personalities, experiences and cultural conditioning–is genuine co-operation and a measure of community even possible?

As Manjoo puts it,

 What if we’ve hit the limit of our capacity to get along? I don’t mean in the Mister Rogers way. I’m not talking about the tenor of our politics. My concern is more fundamental: Are we capable as a species of coordinating our actions at a scale necessary to address the most dire problems we face?

Because, I mean, look at us. With the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, humanity is contending with global, collective threats. But for both, our response has been bogged down less by a lack of ideas or invention than by a failure to align our actions as groups, either within nations or as a world community. We had little trouble producing effective vaccines against this scourge in record time — but how much does that matter if we can’t get it to most of the world’s people and if even those who have access to the shots won’t bother?

As Manjoo points out, most of the multiple ways in which we are inter-related and interdependent aren’t immediately evident. (As he says, the way deforestation in the Amazon rainforest  affects sea levels in Florida isn’t exactly obvious to the man on the street). But as he also notes, quite properly, the threat posed by the pandemic is another matter. Or at least, it should be.

Sometimes, though, our fates are so obviously intertwined, you want to scream. Vaccines work best when most of us get them. Either we all patch up this sinking ship or we all go down together. But what if lots of passengers insist the ship’s not sinking and the repairs are a scam? Or the richest passengers stockpile the rations? And the captain doesn’t trust the navigator and the navigator keeps changing her mind and the passengers keep assaulting the crew?

Can we ever put the common good of humanity above our individual and tribal commitments?

Research suggests that we humans do have the capacity to come together. Manjoo refers to groundbreaking work by Indiana University’s own Elinor Ostrom, a Nobel winner. Ostrom’s research went a long way toward debunking widespread belief in the “tragedy of the commons,” and showed “countless examples of people coming together to create rules and institutions to manage common resources.” Despite an enormous amount of neocon and rational-choice propaganda to the contrary,  Ostrom demonstrated that most people aren’t profit-maximizing automatons– that humans really can act on behalf of the common good, even when that action requires personal sacrifice.

However, Ostrom also understood that the nurturing of community requires institutions supportive of the common good. And therein lies my own concern.

Someone–I no longer recall who–said “It’s the culture, stupid.” What far too few of us seem to recognize about human society is the absolutely critical role that is played by culture and paradigms/worldviews–widespread assumptions about “the way things are” supported by embedded systems and institutions and habits of socialization.

What we desperately need are institutions supporting a culture that facilitates an appropriate balance between “I” and “we”–an overarching construct that enables each individual to pursue his or her own idiosyncratic telos while still being supportive of a strong community–and a recognition of how capacious our understanding of community must be.

The tribes fighting it out today are grounded in race, religion, and other (essentially superficial) markers of human identity. At some point–and thanks to the existential threat posed by climate change, we may be at that point–we need to redefine “we” as the human race. At a minimum, we need to come together to do those things that are necessary to keep the planet we inhabit capable of sustaining human life.

At some point, we need to realize that humanity is our tribe.

Maybe it’s because I’m old, maybe it’s because I’ve seen too many instances of people who are bound and determined to pursue obviously destructive paths, but I worry that too many of us have lost the ability to see beyond “I” to “we” and to envision a healthy balance between the two.

The pandemic and climate change are tests, and so far, at least, we’re failing.


  1. That someone was me and I’m honored that you would use it. Excellent essay and it was a good complement to Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American today, where which she touches on cultural differences at the base of our failure to modernize Afghanistan’s government and society.

  2. Your final concern isn’t an exact concern because we’ve been talking about the “sorting” taking place a lot on this blog. We are sorting along the lines of packs; this pack against this other pack, etc.

    To borrow a phrase from the ants, we are self-colonizing in factions who oppose others colonies.

    Mainly, this is an occurrence from oppressive systems that push from above.

    The Western Governments are oligarchies that have crushed the press and control the government. We, the people, have lost trust in these institutions though many don’t understand why. I still hear smart people say it’s because of Big Government. If that “Big Government” were serving the people, people would know it and feel it. They would trust it.

    However, we don’t trust them at all and shouldn’t. They haven’t served our best interests in ages. They also don’t know what they’re doing, which makes it even worse. The press works to cover up their incompetence, but that’s not even working. We all got to see the police brutality last year and military incompetence due to SmartPhones with cameras – not the press.

    Meanwhile, there are global projects that recognize the problem and are forming coalitions to serve each other’s interests. They care for the planet and each other. They don’t see borders and understand our interconnectedness at deeper levels.

    Religions were supposed to teach spirituality, but man screwed up that as well. We created dogma and rules to force people to be certain ways. That’s not spirituality. That’s not what Jesus taught or the Buddha. I believe even Confucius understood the basic connection of we – “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”

    Why does that sound like Jesus’s Golden Rule? Someone better send Todd Rokita an email and tell him to back off. 😉

  3. “The tribes fighting it out today are grounded in race, religion, and other (essentially superficial) markers of human identity.”

    I would add politics – nothing superficial about that divide – to race and religion. The Republicans have now taken on the “Afghanistan Situation” as an initial divisive effort and distraction from their actions in the shadows of our government to assure their takeover of Congress in 2022. The “I versus We” has never before been so evident as in the Nine Day War to take over the entire country of Afghanistan; what is not so evident is that their cultural/religious beliefs only differ in degrees. Even the population of that country, and other mid-eastern countries, do not see they have more sameness than differences. America and all of our allies cannot protect them from themselves; those Afghan MEN hanging onto the Air Force plane, leaving their women and children behind as they try to escape, should have been a telling picture for those who believe we should have stayed in that country. I wonder; what was in the minds of their women and children left to the Taliban?

  4. Once again, Rebecca Costa’s great book, “The Watchman’s Rattle” offers the premise for the current situation described above: Humans are much more evolved socially than we are biologically.

    It sounds like a paradox, but we have built massive cities and nations while retaining the primitive, basic instincts of survival as small, locally controlled tribes. In her’s and my opinion, the key to our survival – and the Earth’s – is whether enough humans can make the intellectual leap to grasp an expanded view of our existence. Will we be able to shuck the shackles of our tribalism enough to save ourselves from killing ourselves. Disease. Climate/Environment destruction. Thermonuclear weapons. All those things hang over our 8 billion heads like the sword of Damocles.

    How many of your friends and acquaintances understand the peril our species is in?

  5. Eleanor Ostrom’s work was about small communities that were mostly isolated from other communities. Perhaps when the population gets above a certain size, the interactions between members that provide stability break down.

  6. “Can we ever put the common good of humanity above our individual and tribal commitments?”

    I love this question and I choose to hold this profound question in trust for awhile before I attempt an answer. Thank you, Sheila.

  7. Vernon’s observation: “Humans are much more evolved socially than we are biologically.”

    That is so right on. Humans are by design biologically to be upright and moving frequently as hunters and gatherers. As we evolved socially, most of us are neither. We have strayed from tribal instincts that kept us strong and reasonably self reliant in the natural order. Just because we live longer while coping with debilitating back pain does not make us necessarily optimized to contribute to the greater good.

  8. Many thanks for an absolutely on-point post, Sheila. Vernon’s question, “Will we be able to shuck the shackles of our tribalism enough to save ourselves from killing ourselves” says it all. Sadly, I suspect not and wonder if I’m the only one who is saddened every time I see an obviously pregnant woman – a sight that used to make me smile. Those of us in the elder crowd are the lucky ones.

  9. Todd, I don’t think religions evolved to teach spirituality, but to answer questions. When we didn’t have the tools for science, the myths of religions answered questions about who and what we are and how the world works. There really is very little spiritualism in the Old Testament (outside of Psalms) or in the Koran. Buddhism might be the exception, but it really isn’t a religion so much as it is a way of life.

    The fact that we have screwed everything up is an indication that we are human and we are most certainly fallible. We don’t seem to have a single thing that we can rally around. Here in the good old US of A we have nearly 630,000 deaths from COVID. If those deaths don’t give us something to fight against what does? There is a small, but vocal community that is okay with putting our children at risk, just to “own the libs.” That’s horrifying!

  10. As I have suggested multiple times before (apologies), perhaps the tougher gap is now between “we” and “us”. The latter are the micro-interest groups enabled by the Internet and social media.

    Music is a great example. There used to be Classical, Jazz and Popular. Now there are hundreds of micro-genres, each with their fans, spokespeople, influencers, etc. Think about the hundreds of cable channels, each with a multitude of offerings and their groupies.

    There is no “us”. No Walter Cronkite. No “Great American Songbook”. Not even a drawing together from tragedy as after 9/11…Covid hasn’t done that, 1/6 hasn’t done that…

    There is no US…..

  11. Most people aren’t profit maximizing automatons, however SOME people are. And those people tend to attract money/power/influence. So, when all (or most) your leaders (political, corporate, religious, etc.) are, it blows up the whole thing. The good “most people” can’t fix problems when the powerfully selfish control everything. It’s a real conundrum.

  12. We not only need to shift from to human race as “we”, but shift the human race to the human family, and on to the Indigenous view worldwide of all life as ” our relatives”.

  13. Need further evidence? Check out the international outcry to get “educated women” out of Afghanistan. The uneducated are, of course, not us….

  14. Let’s move from theory to where the rubber meets the road. The I vs. We choice can be affected by disease and lust for power irrespective of the state of the culture. I’m thinking the narcissism of a Trump who has just labelled booster shots “a scam.” I’m also thinking of others in power who hypocritically protect themselves from the pandemic but deny such protection for those they supposedly serve. There is no “we” among such as these other than as political pretense in their quest for power; it’s all “I.” 650,000 Americans dead? Collateral damage.

    Some one third of our voting citizens have fallen for the Putin/Trump propaganda designed to undermine our institutions which in turn undergird our democracy and (see 1/6) pave the way for dictatorship. The steady barrage of “I” from sick minds lusting for power is having its effects as demonstrated by the one third’s disdain for science, Proud Boys at School Board meetings, massive disinformation campaigns etc.

    What to do with these barbarians at the gate? What the some two thirds of us are doing, but with more intensity and purpose, all designed to protect and expand our tattered democracy and the institutions that undergird it since, as I often write, our democracy is the most precious asset we hold in common, and one of the last few thing left worth dying for.

  15. Recommend Robert Putnams’ book The Upswing– How America Came Together a Century Ago and How WE Can Do It Again.

    “… The lessons we glean from the I-we-I century are two-sided: We learn that once before Americans have gotten themselves out of a mess like the one we’re in now, but we also learn that in that first Progressive era and the decades that followed, we didn’t set our sights high enough for what “we” could really be… . The question we face today is… whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we’ve made in terms of individual liberties. Both values are American, and we require a balance and integration of both.

    Robert Putnam The Upswing—How America Came Together a Century Ago and How WE Can Do It Again, 2021

  16. Thank you Sheila. Great insights as usual. As a Christian, my perspective is that we are at the point that if the creator does not step in to change our direction, we are headed down a dead-end road. Humanity simply cannot survive unless hearts are changed. The train to destruction is barreling down the track with the driver (Mr. Capitalism) and the engineer (the wealthy) in control. What we need now is nothing less than a miracle.

  17. The boiling frogs metaphor illustrates that life is not much concerned with slow acting catastrophes and when we add more to the human population every day we hardly notice. However, there are a little under 3X as many of us today as when most of us here were born.

    We also have become connected by computer networks enough so that when a mother cries in Afghanistan we hear it 12,000 miles away and so does the rest of the world.

    “Despite an enormous amount of neocon and rational-choice propaganda to the contrary, Ostrom demonstrated that most people aren’t profit-maximizing automatons– that humans really can act on behalf of the common good, even when that action requires personal sacrifice.”

    However, our sense of community is still held back by tribal culture that hasn’t yet completely left even if it is completely obsolete.

    Computers may tie us together but heartstrings aren’t as networked yet and rarely stretch beyond the range of our senses.

    So, the real question is: will our culture catch up with our reality before we close the door on intelligent life? We don’t really know, do we?

  18. Anthony, St Teresa of Avila stated that “Christ has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet.”
    Atheists don’t wait for God to rescue us. The miracle would be if we all stopped and listened for the wisdom of that voice from within, that Higher Power guiding us toward caring for others and not just ourselves.

    I don’t really need my creator to tell me what’s going on because the earth is telling me through erratic weather patterns, i.e. drought, floods,and wildfires never before seen.

    The problem is not just tribalism ( i.e. Suny vs Shiite, conservative right vs progressive left ) but also the way the extremely wealthy refuse to look at the suffering of others. They are very out of touch with how people outside their social class live. They are blind to the way the middle class struggles and the unmet needs of the poor. They have adopted the Calvinist belief in predestination. Their fear of scarcity creates their greed, hoarding of wealth. But my guess is that many of them feel empty inside.

    There are lots of stories that demonstrate that we do have the capacity to work for the greater good even at great sacrifice to ourselves. There’s a man in Minnesota who is refurbishing 100 homes for those who can’t get a mortgage. They have a rent to buy system that allows those people to build credit. He is not making a profit.

    There’s Dig Deep which is creating water supply systems for Native Americans so they can have better access to clean water.

    I hope that each of us on this blog chooses to do what we can to serve the greater good no matter what others choose to do or not do. I choose to believe that many(though not all) find meaning in serving the greater good.

  19. It’s gut wrenching to hear a mother wailing in Afghanistan even if she’s 12,000 miles over our horizon and that primes us to blame someone we wish to be wrong. Consider this though: the military that we sent to reassure the mom is designed for destroying rather than restoring and never could have mended her broken heart.

    What ended was years of failure temporarily obscured by slick talking heads.

    Now we can decide what, if anything, we can actually do to help the world live as we take for granted.

  20. Patriarchy and Capitalism go hand in hand. The basic structure of Capitalism is that the harder you work, i.e. the happier you make the person above you on the ladder of success, the better off you will be. This view emphasize the advantages of moving up the ladder of success and enourages us to work harder for “the man”.

    But if you look at the bottom of that ladder, you would be looking at the homeless, who under a capitalist system are worthless, and not even worth investing anything in. The next rung is the uemployable. Still consedered worthless in the Capitalist system, but probably surviving through kindness of relatives and working in the the black marker, probably in drugs. The next step are the minimum wage workers, who, as is true of every rung on the ladder are getting as little as the Capitalist system can pay them and and still get enough workers. And from this point on up, everyone gets as little as the system can get away with paying them and still get the work done.

    But then the whole idea that we are each on a ladder fighting for more pay makes our society in to a competitive battle ground which discourages supportive community.

    And then, to keep us from uniting against the people on top, they do everything they can to turn us against one another so that we won’t rise together against them. Hence the encouragement of poor whites during slave times and Jim Crow to have power over blacks to make them feel better about themselves and keep them from joining with the blacks against the powers that be.

    I could go on and on, but I think by now you get the point. Have you noticed how trump accuses everyone else of what he is doing – “they rigged the election” while he is trying to rig it, etc. Another example is the Q-Anon conspiracies. The right wingers are following conspiriacies fed to them by the conservative rich, when in actuality it’s the conservative who are, and have been, through their conservative systems, driving a conspiracy to keep us apart and get more power and more of the money. Yea, I know, it sounds a little flakey, but think about it!

  21. Peggy, you are right about the religion issue.
    I used to hope, years ago, that we’d get to see “Space Aliens,” for real, in the hope that that might move us to recognize that we are nothing but one big tribe, if you will.
    Vernon, I think that some of my dearer friends, and family, who are dearer, I suppose, because we share similar perspectives, understand how endangered we have become; not that there are many who are “dearer.” I won’t speak for acquaintances, but I expect they do not recognize the danger.
    The American myths of “American exceptionalism,” and “rugged individualism,” which latter, I recently read, was spread by that tail-dragging president Hoover, get in the way of our own country’s ability to work together.
    I also read, yesterday, that the GQP has quietly accepted that Global Warming is happening, is man-made, but, nevertheless, stick to their rabid capitalist ideas about not cleaning up the industrial tribe’s act.
    Lester, I agree, totally, with your 1st posting, but not the second one. I think that the issue there is not that the uneducated women are not “Us,” but that the educated ones are in danger, given the Taliban’s perspective. And, there are, I’m guessing, many fewer of the educated ones. We are not going to try to remove all females from the country.
    Robin thank you for the calm, response to Anthony’s virtual prayer. And, righter, we have a difference in perspective, that puts, or can put, people in differing “tribes,” even within this very self-selected group.
    I think that one could say that interdependence is what there is, all else is a myth.

  22. Mitch – WADR – so the uneducated Afghan women are not in danger…from never getting educated? From being “given” to Taliban soldiers as wives?

  23. I am by no means a Marxist. I am a successful entrepreneur made possible by the North American capitalist economy, but there is no doubt in my mind that what we are seeing is the result of unregulated capitalism that Marx predicted would bring down the world. The greed and its byproduct narcissism that is inherent in Capitalism makes it impossible for people to work together for the common good or even recognize what the common good. is.

  24. Lester, you are right. Sadly, we can not empty the country of all its women. And, as much as we might dislike the reality, we can’t impose our values on the Afghan, or that matter, on any other nation.
    We have enough of a problem, it is evident, providing a decent education to our own people, but that’s another matter.

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