African Communalism versus Western Individualism: A false dichotomy

This post is the personal opinion of the author and may not reflect the views of the Humanist Association of Ghana.

Professor Osei’s presentation at the International Humanist Conference in Accra, 2012 entitled The Relevance of Secular Humanism to the Contemporary African Society asserted that the Western construct of Humanism is bringing excessive individualism to Africa in opposition to its traditional values of communalism. Professor Osei also said we need to think about the issue of LGBT rights within this context.

To find a distinctly African expression of humanism sounds like an attractive project, yet the assertion has also been bothering me. I have been pondering on these issues since that presentation and hope I may have found a resolution to the apparent conflict.

We need to recognise that the use of the terms African and Western are problematic short-hands in this context, because they group together different cultures, seeing them as uniform. We all know there is no country called Africa yet so often people talk of the West as a place.

Also, sadly, I doubt that humanism is currently as influential as to bear such a great influence on the collective consciousness of Ghanaians as to lead them into excessive individuality. Rather I would argue that it is the economic system we live under and urban life which is eroding communal ways of living.

I also believe there is a false dichotomy between the individual and the collective. The benefits of the collective are also expressed through the benefits to the individual and if our individual needs were not being met the collective would not survive. Instead, we need to see the relationship between communalism and individual rights as a dialectical one.

In the past communalism was often maintained through rules and taboos. Today everything is to be questioned. For example we now challenge the purity of ethnic groups by customs prohibiting marriage between certain groups. This process cannot be halted.

So we are now faced with making conscious moral choices about the way we live with others which humanism can inform. Communal ways of living are certainly becoming more difficult with modernity, but ways of caring for others are still possible. The emergence of the State has also taken over many of the responsibilities that communities or individuals once had. The functions of communalism now take different forms although its appearance has changed.

The ‘West’ is often accused of being individualistic but this ignores the ways in which solidarity and social responsibility still exist. Examples in the UK for example, would be the tax contributions individuals make to the welfare state which provides cheap rent, free health care, money given for the upbringing of your children , allowances when you are unemployed or disabled and state pensions. People also do voluntary work for ethical causes, donate to charity, give blood, adopt children, set up and work within community neighbourhood projects, etc.

Human rights therefore, far from being due to excessive individualism should be seen within the context of the collective. Where individualism separates people into different groups and assigns them superior or devalued statuses, atomising society, human rights recognises our common bonds.

The contemporary colonial legalistic and religious condemnation of people with same-sex desire creates false divisions and embodies forms of sexual desire within the individual. The fight for LGBT rights should not therefore be seen as western individualism but as welcoming people into the collective and acknowledging the role they can also play as human beings.

Our job as humanists is to alert people to the necessity of making moral choices about how we connect and interact with those around us and to find practical solutions to those challenges.

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About Graham Knight

I was a music teacher in a college in London. I became allergic to my culture and disillusioned with the decline of the education system. I came to Ghana and thought I had arrived in paradise. Then I noticed the cracks, learnt to value things about my own culture again and also form a more balanced view of my life here. I can't imagine living anywhere else.

7 responses to “African Communalism versus Western Individualism: A false dichotomy”

  1. safisy says :

    Telling someone they are individualistic/ Westernized is a quick and easy way of dismissing them and their interests as unjustified and harmful to the community. Is it really true that in traditional societies, or, for that matter, in Ghanaian society (societies) the community used to be primal? Maybe a closer look would reveal that even in communalism, some people’s interests were better served than others (hierarchy!), and then the question is whether it isn’t hypocritical to call it communialism if in reality some people benefit from other people’s subservience etc. Which society can boast of a completely equal exchange so that everyone feels equally free, happy and respected, or at least not unduly charged with work, low status, sacrifice or obedience? That is where the point of view of the individual comes in. It is a necessary complementary perspective if a good balance of interests is to be established. The so-called “harmony” in traditional societies usually rested on the imposed silence and surrender of some of their members. And these members are the first to be accused of “individualism” if they start to speak out. The powerful are often accepted to speak for the community, and are therefore not accused of being individualistic, even if what they defend is first and foremost their own interest.

  2. NORM R. ALLEN JR. says :

    I like What Safisy and Graham have to say. We certainly have to guard against the tyranny of the majority in the name of communalism. Moreover, we have to understand the important and complex relationship between the individual and society. They are both important, and one cannot exist without the other.

  3. is ur boy... says :

    How does ‘Humanism’ explain morality and ethics without a transcendent base?

    • Graham Knight says :

      Very simply. I spoke about this briefly on Morality and Humanism but there are probably better resources online. If we all went around killing each other our species would not be here to be talking about this. Some things have evolved through basic survival “common sense” and others because we can feel the suffering of others because we have also experienced it. We therefore wish to avoid behaviours that would hurt others. There a lot of information on this out there and a lot of research being produced too. We can even see ‘moral’ behaviour in some animals.
      We don’t need a “transcendent base” and we judge religious texts on the basis of our human morality, hence we no longer use the bible to justify slavery and don’t expect women and girls to be virgins for a marriage to be valid or to marry a man who raped them.

      • IUB... says :

        In some cultures they love their neighbors and in other cultures they eat them. According to Naturalism’s premise that we are random products of Time + Matter + Chance none of these two cultures necessarily upholds a ‘better’ way of life; we are always only responding to our DNA.

        I guess whats tough for me to grasp is, if everything is random how can anything be essentially good and/or evil? Morality or any ethical reasoning then becomes a purely subjective exercise of which no one [or group] is sovereign.

      • Graham Knight says :

        Well not everything is random and we are not entirely the product of chance. No biologist says that. But there is one sovereign group – the human species. Collectively we have decided certain rules – killing is generally bad depending on the context, stealing is generally bad depending on the context. Because we are all one species with the same biological roots, we know what suffering feels like so can empathise with others who suffer and want to do something about it. We may have ate our neighbours in the past but our morality grows as we do too. Within a broad framework of morals we have difficult questions – abortion, stem-cell research, etc which people within the same religion are confused about. How do we solve these problems? In an adult way through discussion and research. Religious morality is relative. That’s why biblical laws that advocate stoning, murder, marrying your rapist, keeping women silent in church, applied only to the contexts and periods in which they where written.

  4. koo says :

    excuse my tenses..I typed in a rush

    African communualism needs a complete overhauling. Now societies have become more complex and large. African communualism works in societies that are small in nature, and everyone in it knows exactly what is going on. It has a loose set of ‘SHADOW’ responsibilities, which are mostly expected of its members to undertake. For example, when a family is bereaved, the orphans are shared among the members to be taken care off. Can such a system withstand this current trends, I doubt

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