The conflict between individual rights and collective rights
By Kenneth L. Williams

As far as conflicts are concerned, the age-old battle between individual and collective rights is one of the most prevalent ideological struggles in our society. It is also one of the defining facets of our relationship with non-Native mainstream society.

Like most great struggles, this conflict takes place on a number of different levels. First and foremost, it comes down to a question of values. In other words, it is very much about which is more important to us -- our personal and individual interests or the collective good of our community and our nation.

What always gets me is that, in theory, there really doesn't have to be a conflict between these two seemingly opposite points of view. They can just as easily complement each other, so long as we put them into proper perspective.

In a number of the conversations I've had over the years about this topic, one point that always comes up in the context of our traditional ideology is that the very strength of a unified collective is what protects and upholds the interests of our society's individual members. In essence, it's putting into practice the whole idea of "United, we stand."

Unfortunately, the problem with theories is that practical reality always seems to have a way of nullifying them.

The next level of this conflict gets right into the realm of practical reality. More specifically, it takes the form of legalities and matters of governance.

Suppose you have a hypothetical individual -- an entrepreneur who wants to conduct a business venture on his or her own private property. Let's say the venture is somewhat controversial, causing those in close proximity to have concerns.

Let's also suppose you have a governing authority that represents the interests of the collective. This authority, as we understand such things today, would have to have a number of rules and regulations in place so that the governance of the society as a whole can be carried out with some measure of consistency.

In the meantime, one of the rules of the governing authority can be used to allow any individual the right to override one or more of the other rules. The dilemma surrounding this particular rule is: The rule was put in place to allow for a necessary degree of flexibility. However, since it does allow for some discretionary leeway, it can also let back in some of the inconsistencies that all the other rules were put there to prevent in the first place.

Indeed, this rule becomes a proverbial "double-edged sword". But despite any of the rules, people are just naturally going to champion their own interests first anyway. It's sad to say, but in this day and age, it only seems to be human nature to bend or break the rules.

In the above scenario, we would have to ask ourselves a number of questions. The following are in no particular order:

How much point is there to having rules if some individuals are going to operate around them anyway, with or without the implied blessing of the collective or its governing authority?

What exactly is the governing authority supposed to do when one individual is allowed to do something on his or her own property, but neighbouring individuals protest out of concern for their properties?

Should the governing authority do away with its discretionary rule if that rule allows certain individuals a little too much discretion of their own?

Can the governing authority itself actually speak to the true interests of the entire collective, or in reality are they merely arbitrators acting between competing individual interests?

What can the governing authority do to ensure that the wishes of the entire collective are truly being respected?

What responsibilities do individuals themselves have to the collective as a whole?

Should the collective have the right to override its own governing authority in matters of serious concern?

Just how serious would such a concern have to be?

If any individual chooses to belong to the "silent majority" does he or she implicitly give the governing authority the right to speak on his or her behalf in matters concerning the collective?

These questions could easily go on and on. Rather than take up more space, I will consider the issue of what happens when the governing authority puts itself (and by extension, the collective) in potentially compromising positions -- simply because the existing bureaucracy and existing rules tend to give too much free rein to individuals.

Freedom and rights for the law-abiding majority of individuals is a good thing. However, is it really such a good thing when it only takes one unscrupulous person to use the existing system in a manipulative and self-serving manner?

All too often, these individuals get what they're entitled to, but that isn't enough. These types always seem to exceed the bounds of what the rules allow, and when the governing authority tries to curtail their activities, it can't, because its hands are tied by its own rules. What unfortunate irony!

Sadly, this is the true cutting edge of assimilation. The non-Native colonialist regimes imposed their own forms of governance upon our Peoples, and these forms of governance are all about rules for dealing with those who choose to break the rules. By their very nature, these forms of governance give implicit permission to the rule-breakers to run amok.

Indeed, the whole idea of having rules, by its very nature, implies that the individuals in the given society cannot adequately govern themselves as human beings.

Whatever happened to the traditional way of teaching our future generations about responsibility to their brothers and sisters? In my mind, the truest form of traditional governance begins in the home, and begins in the earliest stages of our individual development. In achieving that goal, it is the collective that can finally be protected by good-minded individuals.

In our relations with the outside governments, we often see this very clash of ideologies in another context. Their side, with their precious Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stands its ground on protecting the rights of the individual. Meanwhile, our side, with all our traditional rhetoric about rights of the collective, stays stuck in a knee-deep pile of our own individualistic rules.

Maybe while the fight goes on with the outside powers at the negotiating table, the true contest that needs to be settled within the community lies between who we once were and who we've become.

Whatever the case may be, when it's not "United, we stand," it's "Divided, we fall."

This article was first published in the Nov. 7, 2003, issue of The Eastern Door, a weekly publication serving the residents of the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. Subscriptions are available through writing to The Eastern Door, Box 1170, Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, QC J0L 1B0.