Social Interest – Still a Challenge for Our Time

Toward the end of Alfred Adler’s life, he published a book titled Social Interest – A Challenge for Mankind. About thirty years later, his colleague Rudolf Dreikurs published Social Equality: The Challenge of Today. It seems that mankind needs to be reminded of the importance of these two closely related concepts.

Adler taught that human beings possess an innate drive to belong and to fit in with others. The German word he used, Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, is hard to translate (and harder to pronounce), but is often translated as “social interest” or “community feeling.” Adler believed that many problems in living, on the individual, family, community, and national levels, stem from a failure of people to develop this innate drive. It is not easy to stifle the urge to belong, but it can happen when people are abused, deprived of basic human needs, or paradoxically when they are pampered or indulged. The results of a lack of development of social interest may take the form of the classic “inferiority complex,” a term Adler popularized. They may also take the form of a desire for power and control, domination, and a perpetuation of abuse of others. On a social level, prejudice and the devaluing of groups of people can be seen. For Adler, true social interest included a recognition that “we are all in this together,” and that we must transcend tribalistic loyalties and accept our common welfare as the most important goal of human civilization.

We seem to be having trouble with that one.

As Dreikurs pointed out so forcefully, it s impossible to allow social interest to operate as long as people see others as different… Seeing others as “them,” as strangers. The term “xenophobia” is a good description of this combination of ignorance, fear, and resentment, and it poisons our public discourse now much as it did in Dreikurs’ lifetime. And, much as in Adler’s lifetime, the lack of community feeling allows evils like genocide and oppression to continue in various parts of the world.

Dreikurs’ remedy for the ills of human life – from the family to the nation – was to encourage people to treat each other as equals, and to look for the ties that bind us rather than the differences that divide us. Seeing others as better or worse than ourselves was against Adler’s and Dreikurs’ philosophy. Most of all, teaching our children to see others as different or not as good as people like themselves was a way to thwart the development of social interest.

Dreikurs thought that a true democracy, with everyone having an equal voice regardless of their wealth, power, influence, status, or even how smart they are, was the ideal milieu to foster social interest. He suggested that families, organizations, and schools should emulate democratic principles as much as possible. Power was a socially useless way to solve problems, and human worth should be recognized. The Constitution and Bill of Rights were appealing to Adler and Dreikurs, who fled the totalitarian regime of Hitler when they came to the United States.

I would certainly hope that in the 21st century, we as a nation can live up to the high ideals with which these two great thinkers credited us.

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