Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities

George Rupp
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0-231-17428-2
A Review by Susan Froetschel

Individualism – thinking for oneself, pursuing goals in one’s self-interest – has growing appeal worldwide due to globalization. Along the way, many have hoped that the self-interest among individuals could run in tandem with the common good.

Yet the world is increasingly polarized and communities struggle to get along. That may be part of the reason that globalization has bypassed the goal of an inclusive global community, suggests George Rupp in his book Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities. The book, described by Rupp as a “hybrid of memoir and series of systematic reflection on core issues of our time,” argues that Western individualism must strive to engage with other traditions rather than reject others’ convictions. Rupp also grapples with how individualism can lead to rejection of community and how tolerance in an inclusive community might lead to secularism and lack of conviction.

The processes captured in rapid globalization of education, communications, business and technology connect many, but also encourage constant comparisons and test the convictions of a global audience searching for what works and what doesn’t. “The challenge that the processes of globalization pose for communities everywhere is to nurture particular traditions and intimate relationships while at the same time affirming an inclusiveness that is open to all,” Rupp writes. “Commitment to the values of individualism requires that a community be open to outsiders yet also prepared to see its own shortcomings.”

And there’s the challenge. Too many, both the powerful and their followers, find it easier to scapegoat and exclude than tackle their own shortcomings. As a former president of the International Rescue Committee, Rupp is intimately familiar with the deep disappointment and frustration of people repeatedly let down by governments and charitable organizations over the provision of basic needs.

Instant assessments go hand in hand with criticism. Convictions endure regular testing as “we live in an era of unprecedented global interaction, the convictions of people everywhere also matter to all of us whether we know it or not.” The world no longer has one right answer, he notes, and multiple perspectives may combine into solutions. For any challenge, policymakers must be prepared to consider the core values that motivate all parties. Corruption, ignorance, fear and power games threaten the multi-perspective approach.

Polarization is another threat for inclusive communities. Some members are convinced their convictions are right, while others resist debate and aim for blanket tolerance. “But in an age of globalization, neither of these positions is viable, even if both have been serviceable in more provincial times,” Rupp writes. He urges the advocates of individualism to respect the role of communal practice, tradition and religion. He encourages curiosity and appreciation for others’ beliefs and learning about other cultures – and suggests that in turn can strengthen one’s own commitment.

Few countries take full advantage of their pockets of diversity to counter provincialism. Many people who live in diverse communities resolve such conflicts by adopting multiple identities for school, business or religious practice. Many try keep the details of their beliefs to themselves, hoping that words and deeds relay the core values.

Prayer and hope won’t vanish, and spirituality continues to shape routines for many. Missionaries and other religious believers have spurred cross-cultural exchanges even as extremists resist  questions or comparisons of any sort. Even the most advanced societies struggle with coercion in schools, evangelizing, bullying and quarreling over politics and religious belief. 

Rupp points out that individuals often embrace potential change more swiftly than leaders. The most confident societies with the best education systems develop critical thinking and a tolerance for ambiguity, uncertainty, and readiness for discussions with opponents and reappraisal.

That is how communities and institutions are formed to address global challenges including sustainability, inequality, globalization and fear of mortality as expressed through excessive health care.

Cooperation is required. Globalization has resulted in greater prosperity, participation in governance and rapid change. “The unattractive features of these trends are rooted in an uncritical individualism,” he writes. “Paradoxically, globalization may in some respects exacerbate this individualism because, in both economic and cultural ways, it seems to relate individuals to each other without relating to any intervening institutions.”

Still, individualism can create new institutions and trends. Individuals are less dependent on traditional institutions to learn, work, worship or protest – and many choose to separate from organizations driven by consumerism, greed and coercion. Strangers find one another in online communities and explore new ideas, especially when traditional institutions fail to keep stride modern interpretations of justice.

The book includes a section on the war on Syria, but offers little advice for handling ruthless extremists who reject inclusion and compromise. Rupp urges religious leaders to speak out and he suggests that religious communities, including both Sunni and Shia representatives, could lead in coalition-building. Inclusive government, he concludes, is the only option for stabilization in war-torn lands like Syria. The suggestion, like a possibility of good governance for Syria, seems a stretch after a complex war in its sixth year that has left more than 10 percent of the population dead and displaced almost half.

The conflict, he notes, is another tragic reminder that prevention of catastrophe is less costly than intervention, even as the United States and other nations have fallen into patterns of spending more on intervention and security than on foreign aid and development. In the late 1940s, foreign aid represented 18 percent of the US federal budget, and today it’s less than 0.3 percent while military spending accounts for about 16 percent.

Rupp admits the lessons of his book may at times seem like platitudes or clichés, but that is the fate of common sense, oft repeated and too often ignored. Some of his stances risk alienating those who lack strong religious beliefs, especially by linking secularism and individualism, then totalitarianism and secularism. The book does not address political leaders who adopt a mantle of religious beliefs to fit in and control, nor does it address how bad behavior and bullying in the name of one religion can increase mistrust about all beliefs.

The goal of an ever-broadening community that can select the finest of traditions while embracing the values of individualism, inclusion and self-reflection seems an impossible, aspirational task. Rupp pleads guilty to being an idealist and refusing to settle for complacency. In this slim volume he offers insights about the increasingly interconnected yet individualistic world, and concludes that greater inclusion can be pragmatic and does not require homogeneity, a principle that can be embraced by both the religious and secularists.

Inclusion does not flow in one direction, though, and some traditions and communities simply won’t survive.

Susan Froetschel is the managing editor of YaleGlobal Online. She is the author of mystery novels, including Allure of Deceit, about the unintended consequences of charitable giving in Afghanistan.

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