The Forest vs. the Trees



“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Does it seem to you that MLK’s dream is farther out of reach than ever? It seems so to me.

I don’t know that it’s always been this way, but it strikes me that one of the main differences (if not the main difference) between the left and the right today (possibly thanks to Marxism) is collectivism vs. individualism. The hallmark of the “progressive” left is identity politics: parsing human beings according to common characteristics, often immutable ones, and painting with very broad brush strokes every member of this apparent monolith. In reaction, the right protests, “Hey, now! Wait a minute! Whatever became of the dream of being judged by the content of one’s character? As an individual?”

The influence of identity politics is counterintuitive but visible. The more we focus on the collective (or at least different collectives), the more divided and polarized we become. As individuals are increasingly seen only as part of one collective or another or intersecting collectives (the more “marginalized” the better), the more we see the different collectives at each other’s throats.

The more we view individuals as individuals, the more we have to learn to get to know each other. The more we get to know each other, the less we’ll see one collective pitted against another. Instead of standing afar off and seeing only the forest blending into one amorphous blur, individualism requires that we get up close and begin to see trees, standing out from one another. The closer we get, the closer we’ll be. That’s usually how it works. (I mean that it’s harder to dislike individuals with faces than it is to dislike a faceless mass.)

If we are to be judged on the content of our character, character grows directly out of our thinking, so the first place to begin taking an individual’s measure is by weighing out his or her ideas. And here again is a difference in the collective left and the individual right. The “progressive” left has been steadily marching in the direction of forced idea-conformity. No dissenting voices or unauthorized opinions allowed. Violaters will be prosecuted to the full extent of mob rule. Subjected to the wrath of the Twitterati. And the consequences are not just social-media shaming. They’ve moved into IRL. Popping up in my search page news feed with alarming regularity are stories of this celebrity and that celebrity or even this regular person and that regular person fired for some unpopular opinion they once expressed in their Twitter feed in the distant past when free speech was still a thing.

But on the other hand, I also see the dangers of too much individualism: Self-centredness. Narcissism.  Pure subjectivism. Interestingly and inconsistently, subjectivism along with collectivism has simultaneously become the hallmark of the left. What one feels is the ultimate reality. All the reality one needs. To hurt one’s feelings is to commit an act of violence against one’s person because feelings are all the reality one has. This has become the rationale behind the thought-and-opinion policing. No one’s feelings must be hurt! Except the ones voicing the viewpoints deemed unacceptable. Then it’s okay to call them any kinds of names, strip them of their livelihood, dox their addresses, and otherwise persecute them, even with actual violence. (There are so many reasons I’ve started willingly wearing the label of conservative when the alternatives are considered. The ideas of the “progressive” left have produced some very unsavoury character-content.)

I believe there must be a happy middle ground somewhere between narcissism and collectivism where we can begin to understand our identities as individuals, certainly, but also as  individuals connected to all other kinds of individuals. Where we begin to see others as individuals more and more and oneself more and more as a part of a collective.

I see this balance in the Bible (of course! You knew I wouldn’t get through a post without bringing up that book, didn’t you?). There I do see that individuals are judged as individuals, by the contents of their characters. A son, while affected by them, is not held responsible for the crimes of the father (Deut. 24:16, Ezekiel 18:20). But we are also inextricably linked. What we do affects each other. And what affects one affects all (1 Cor. 12:26).

We are individual trees, but together we make up a forest. It’s a mistake to lose sight of the trees and only see the forest, but it’s equally an error to be unable to see the forest for the trees.





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