Toronto’s 2015 Spur Festival focused on a key paradox of contemporary society: individually we are isolated, collectively we are connected, but together we are alone.
This theme relates to the broader concepts of individualism and community. We tend to view individuals as autonomous, distinct persons—it follows that people should be free to express their will and that society should respect human agency. At the same time, individuals are part and parcel of their community—this suggests that individual identity is illusory and that the greater good of the collective is what matters.
Aside from serving as interesting philosophical discourse, these questions also arise in public policy circles. Consider, for example, the provision of religious education in Ontario’s public schools. Religion is often viewed as a personal choice and western liberal societies tend to separate religion from state. However, in Ontario, Catholic schools are funded by the public purse, suggesting that religion and state (or individualism and community) are interlinked.
To further complicate the issue, spirituality is generally viewed as a personal journey—religion is experienced and interpreted differently by different people. Yet, these experiences and interpretations often take place in communal settings—a person is often introduced to, celebrates, and shares religious beliefs and activities with others.
In light of this paradox, I propose we re-think the concepts of individualism and community, and how they relate to public policy discourse. Instead of assessing individualism and community, let’s explore the human condition.
A paradox in progress, the human condition involves individual isolation in a connected collective. Policy-makers need to better understand this paradox in order to design, implement, and evaluate policies that better reflect what it means to be human.