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.