African Communalism versus Western Individualism:

African Communalism versus Western
Individualism: A false dichotomy
Posted by Graham Knight
This post is the personal opinion of the author and
may not reflect the views of the Humanist
Association of Ghana.
Professor Osei’s presentation at the International
Humanist Conference in Accra, 2012 entitled The
Relevance of Secular Humanism to the
Contemporary African Society asserted that the
Western construct of Humanism is bringing
excessive individualism to Africa in opposition to
its traditional values of communalism. Professor
Osei also said we need to think about the issue of
LGBT rights within this context.
To find a distinctly African expression of
humanism sounds like an attractive project, yet
the assertion has also been bothering me. I have
been pondering on these issues since that
presentation and hope I may have found a
resolution to the apparent conflict.
We need to recognise that the use of the terms
African and Western are problematic short-hands
in this context, because they group together
different cultures, seeing them as uniform. We all
know there is no country called Africa yet so often
people talk of the West as a place.
Also, sadly, I doubt that humanism is currently as
influential as to bear such a great influence on the
collective consciousness of Ghanaians as to lead
them into excessive individuality. Rather I would
argue that it is the economic system we live under
and urban life which is eroding communal ways of
I also believe there is a false dichotomy between
the individual and the collective. The benefits of
the collective are also expressed through the
benefits to the individual and if our individual
needs were not being met the collective would not
survive. Instead, we need to see the relationship
between communalism and individual rights as a
dialectical one.
In the past communalism was often maintained
through rules and taboos. Today everything is to
be questioned. For example we now challenge the
purity of ethnic groups by customs prohibiting
marriage between certain groups. This process
cannot be halted.
So we are now faced with making conscious moral
choices about the way we live with others which
humanism can inform. Communal ways of living
are certainly becoming more difficult with
modernity, but ways of caring for others are still
possible. The emergence of the State has also
taken over many of the responsibilities that
communities or individuals once had. The
functions of communalism now take
different forms although its appearance
has changed.
The ‘West’ is often accused of being individualistic
but this ignores the ways in which solidarity and
social responsibility still exist. Examples in the UK
for example, would be the tax contributions
individuals make to the welfare state which
provides cheap rent, free health care, money given
for the upbringing of your children , allowances
when you are unemployed or disabled and state
pensions. People also do voluntary work for ethical
causes, donate to charity, give blood, adopt
children, set up and work within community
neighbourhood projects, etc.
Human rights therefore, far from being due to
excessive individualism should be seen within the
context of the collective. Where individualism
separates people into different groups and assigns
them superior or devalued statuses, atomising
society, human rights recognises our common
The contemporary colonial legalistic and religious
condemnation of people with same-sex desire
creates false divisions and embodies forms of
sexual desire within the individual. The fight for
LGBT rights should not therefore be seen as
western individualism but as welcoming people
into the collective and acknowledging the role they
can also play as human beings.
Our job as humanists is to alert people to the
necessity of making moral choices about how we
connect and interact with those around us and to
find practical solutions to those challenges.


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