Many very thorny issues confront us today—from the future role of the federal government and promotion of human rights to screening for gun ownership and limitations on campaign contributions. At essence, these issues almost always concern the dynamic interplay between personal rights and community rights, the very testing ground for social justice.
Personal rights and prerogatives are about “I” and “mine”. They almost always take the form “I can…” or “This is my…”. By contrast, community rights take the form “We can…” or “This is our….” Social justice is about the balance between the two at any given time, and how that balance affects important subgroups like minorities, persons who are poor, etc.
Neither personal nor community rights are absolute. Because of this relativity, they constantly are being renegotiated in families, small groups, our communities, and in our society itself.
Although personal and community rights can coincide, e.g., personal and community safety, generally they collide and are in conflict. As a result, we spend considerable personal time and community time delineating the boundary between the two. Here, I want to explore how this situation arose in American society, and provide a few principles for advancing this negotiation in the future.
Western culture from the Greco-Roman period to the present has served to differentiate personal identity, i.e., who I am, from social identity, i.e., who we are. Likely, prior to the Renaissance, a strong sense of personal identity was virtually non-existent in most social groups. Subsequently, as tribal, kingdom, and religious identity waned, personal identity waxed.
The evolution of personal identity fostered the development of individual rights. In other words, the “I” led to the “mine”. And the converse also is true: the decline of the ‘we” promoted the decline of the “our”.
Some agreement exists that the culture of the United States represents the culmination of the “I” and “mine” in western civilization. From the earliest colonial period, people came to our shores to express the “I” and to promote “mine”. Usually, they sought to escape hierarchical European political systems that subjugated them.
The decline of the “we” can be seen in a myriad of different ways: public safety issues on our urban streets; general unconcern with our local communities; the unwillingness to volunteer services for a charitable or faith-based organization, etc., etc. Each of these examples identifies a different form of withdrawal from our public life as a society and from our collective obligation to promote social justice for all.
More than a decade ago, the excesses of the “I” even spawned a small counter social movement called communitarianism. It is very, very telling that this canary in the mine was not strong, and it disappeared.
The following principles will not correct this imbalance between the “I” and the “we”. At most, they will take a short step in that direction and help to promote social justice. To begin to restore the imbalance between the “I “and the “we”, we can: