I heard something on the Freakonomics podcast the other week that was fascinating and added a whole new dimension to something in a way I’d never considered (or would even be likely to consider). It had to do with the notion of individuality at the level of society, ie, whether a particular society was, as a whole, more or less individualistic. While I’d always envisioned the gradient between (and let’s for the moment not get hung up on these specific terms) individualist and conformist, individualist has it’s own gradient: vertical and horizontal individualism.
In a horizontally individualistic society, people are encouraged to define themselves, seek independence, be expressed, value privacy, and be creative.
In a vertically individualistic society, the above is true, but (and this is the big but), they are very competitive in their individualism.
In the vertical societies, it isn’t just seeing other people as individuals, it’s about seeing them as individuals with whom we are in competition with. Though, it’s likely more accurate to say that it is about seeing them as individuals with whom we have to be in competition with. It isn’t “hey, this is me”, it’s “hey, this is me, and this is what makes me superior to you.”*
Which is fascinating! And opens up new avenues of exploration and mindfulness. As a hidden context it would shape our experience and views and behaviour in all sorts of ways.** Just to start, it would seem that the constant comparing and jockeying for position would create an equal and continual sense of instability and insecurity… the game is always on, and we have to be ready to play it at any time.
I always love getting a new lens and angle to see both new things and see things newly. I’m know there’s plenty more to discover, and I’m keen on what will open up and what I’ll see out of exploring this distinction. Even more so for the barriers I can put aside towards greater connection and peace of mind.
* Right down to the practice of religion, which, given the tenets of certain religions, is rather contrary…
** As this is a societal distinction, there are also some strong outcomes across the society, where the more vertical individualistic the society is, the more inequity and hardship there is, and the poorer the commons.