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Balancing Solidarity & Individualism in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond: a View from Vietnam

A Vietnamese colleague recently asked me this timely and important question in the age of COVID-19 and beyond: Solidarity is sometimes called ‘collectivism’. I want to see in my own daughters and our younger generation, in general, both the spirit of individualism (a strong sense of self), balanced with a spirit of solidarity/collectivism. From your decades working with youth both in the US and Vietnam, how (if there is one such recipe) can a member of the older generation like me help the younger generation achieve that?

The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic in both countries provides a partial answer to this question. Vietnam acted quickly and decisively to contain the coronavirus by closing the border with China, prohibiting flights from that and other countries, no longer issuing visas to foreign nationals, contact tracing, quarantines, and a short-lived nationwide shutdown. Government actions would have been diluted, however, if the people had not cooperated by wearing a face mask, observing social distancing and, at one point, only leaving their homes for essentials.

In contrast, the US, led by an incompetent, cruel, and narcissistic leader who politicized a public health issue and essentially did nothing, hoping and saying repeatedly that COVID-19 would magically disappear, and even egging on armed protestors who demanded that their states reopen their economies, all the while not wearing a mask and not following social distancing recommendations, failed to contain the coronavirus and is now paying the ultimate price, both human and economic, with no end in sight.

The Bitter Fruits of Hyperindividualism

The irrational and counterproductive opposition to wearing a face mask, for example, reflects the hyperindividualism that reigns supreme in the US, a country in which individual rights often trump those of the society, i.e., fellow citizens. This individualism on steroids is a perverted notion of freedom in which Freedom to takes precedence over freedom from, in this case, from COVID-19 infection and possible death – either directly or indirectly.

The widely reported coronavirus parties in the US are an especially appalling example of this twisted view of freedom and blatant disregard for human life. One of the many thousands of comments in response to an article in translation about young people in Alabama organizing these events came from a student at a talented and gifted school in Hanoi who remarked that “the level of stupidity is positively correlated with the development of the country.” An equally moronic and dangerous example is the US president organizing a political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after which COVID-19 cases in that city spiked.

Strength in Social Solidarity

By contrast, Vietnam is well-positioned with a younger generation that is more individualistic than that of its parents because of their country’s integration into the global community, the Internet, and the fact that they are growing up in a time of peace with no (physical) external enemies, yet still possesses a strong sense of solidarity (“mutual support within a group”) and identification with the collective, which is heightened in times of crisis. COVID-19 was presented and understood as an invisible enemy against which the people had to unite. This solidarity ensures that most people will behave in an empathetic and compassionate manner when need be.

Another key difference between the two countries that is a strength for Vietnam on so many levels is that there are more Vietnamese than US patriots as a percentage of the total population. (Most US Americans confuse patriotism with the toxic and dominant ideology of nationalism.) Patriotism is defined as “love for or devotion to one’s country,” including its people. It “puts country ahead of self,” as Adlai Stevenson once observed.

Individualism, defined as “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant,” and solidarity, defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group,” are by no means mutually exclusive. It’s all a matter of degree and balance. Ideally, individual rights should not supersede those of the collective and vice-versa. The US desperately needs to find a way to create this balance while Vietnam must strive to maintain it.

At its most basic level citizenship entails certain rights and responsibilities, including a sense of connectedness and belonging to the society in which one lives. It can also be defined as “the quality of an individual’s response to membership in a community.” In other words, no person is an island. Just as the world is interdependent, so too are societies, some blessed with more awareness of this reality than others.

By that measure, most US Americans have much to learn from the Vietnamese. Nationalism, defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups, is a formidable barrier on that path to enlightenment.

How to Achieve a Balance Between Individualism and Social Solidarity

If there is a recipe, Vietnam already has some of the essential ingredients. It simply needs to maintain the existing balance between individualism and social solidarity. This includes giving young people the necessary encouragement and space to constructively criticize their country in order to improve it. US Senator J. William Fulbright once stated that “to criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing,” a brilliant distillation of the essence of patriotism. (Most US Americans would do well to revisit and follow Fulbright’s timeless advice.)

A British Council New Generation Vietnam survey revealed that 72% of respondents believe their country will be better off in 15 years than it was before 2019, which reflects the well-documented optimism of the Vietnamese people. Their concerns and suggestions focus on corruption, political engagement, environmental protection, gender equality, and improving the economy and entrepreneurship.

One of the complaints is that young people “feel disconnected from broader, national issues.”

Everyday youth see themselves as having little power to influence society, except, perhaps, through social media and their close friends. They crave the ability to speak openly about issues seen in society: they want to have a voice. Moreover, they want to see tangible actions made in response. They want to be heard.

The desire to speak openly about societal issues is an example of a healthy balance between individualism and social solidarity, which is in fact patriotism.

Based on what I have seen during a decade and a half of living in Vietnam, the openness and willingness to learn from other countries as positive and negative role models reflects a natural predisposition to global citizenship, which means that one’s intellectual landscape, moral compass, sense of connectedness, and belonging extend to all of humanity.

Loyalty and devotion to one’s country are not mutually exclusive with global citizens’ rights and responsibilities as members of the global community. In this humane and just reality, “national interests” are not paramount but rather subjugated to and measured against the interests of fellow human beings in other countries.

In a globalized world, this mindset is yet another reason to be optimistic about Vietnam’s future at home and abroad. Meanwhile, to its detriment and that of the international community, most of the US remains mired in a debilitating mixture of nationalism and nativism.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived and worked in Vietnam since 2005.  He blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam

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