January 16, 2013
What is a community? Any standard dictionary will define it as a group of people living together in a particular place, practicing a common ownership over the shared area. Generally there is no mention of moral standards when asked to uncover the meaning of a community, but why? Shouldn’t we wish to hold ourselves and our collective society to a standard that promotes the well-being of everyone. This definition seems to be pretty generic and may or may not fit the readers definition of community, yet its ubiquitous usage has become used with considerable regularity across a vast range of social settings, its prominence in the professional and political discourse is matched only by the vagueness and variability of the meaning it portends to achieve.
A shared environment with like-minded people in pursuance of similar goals for furthering the betterment of those surrounding the individual who embodies the whole, is a more profound and righteous meaning than the generic one given previously, though just like the words used to describe a community come together to form a more perfect union of the sentence, so should the people of a community. A word only holds the power to impress its meaning upon a collective group provided that group agrees upon a common meaning. If, as a society, we were to define a word a certain way, or allow it’s meaning to be skewed in such a way, then we eventually embody the meaning it has become and rather than we change to fit the word, the word or meaning is changed to fit our needs. That being said, community has come to mean nothing more than a collection of people sharing a space. Wendell Berry spoke about community in his book Long-Legged House stating that
“a community should not merely be classified as a condition of physical proximity, no matter how admirable the layout of the shopping center and the street. A community is the spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each others lives.”
A community should revolve around the knowledge people have about one another, their concern, their trust in one another and the freedom they have to express themselves with as being a part of what makes them whole.
It is easy to recognize, given the polarity between the definitions, one is more preferable to the other and that our world is no more a community than the warring tribes of Rapa Nui. Simply existing within the same space is but one prerequisite to fulfilling the true meaning of community. Recent events would have one believe that the love and support shown following a tragedy, is evidence that we do share a common bond. Yet, I feel if we truly existed within a community things like rampage shootings wouldn’t happen, both because it is an individuals duty to take care of the whole and likewise with the whole taking care of the troubled individual. Problems of mental illness will seemingly be quelled more swiftly as those around have a moral sense of duty to fix what seems to be broken, or to go even further I don’t think that it’s altogether outrageous to say that if we truly lived within the preferred definition of community, such things as violence, certainly of grand magnitude, would likely never happen.
Perhaps this disconnect is due in part to the size which our society has grown and the multitude of people reliant not upon each other but the machine that drives it. The society is nothing without individuals, but each one of them is more a product of the society than is the author.
Our failures stem from our acquiescence in believing that doing our part is merely good enough. We have all but divorced ourselves from acting on our moral duty and the transgressions of our progress have all but obscured our conscience with individualist tendencies. A strict problem with modernity is that to enable such growth and advancement, processes of specialization are inescapable to have reached our current state of modernity. Our modern cities, artificial enough as they are exist under the guise of being natural, and are not communities but crowds of individuals specializing in their chosen vocation. Be they businessmen, physicians or technicians, they are in fact still specialists. This is not only due to the fact that they have become experts in narrow disciplines, but also that they have come to accept the confinement of their specialty as the exact equivalent of the old idea of communal responsibility or neighborliness. The specialist who produces a new technique or drug may feel that his ”duty” to the community has been fulfilled. The moral implication of his impact on society is apt to coincide with his personal selfish aims, his impact whether or not it advances the common good, will nonetheless prove beneficial to his career. Thus a specialization, in any category is little more than a euphemism for moral loneliness.
Devoid of morality and focused upon himself, mans devolution has paralleled that of the community. The one most certainly accelerating the other in its cyclical advance, the question of establishing a starting point is a seeming impossibility. Our sense of community has degenerated into a chaos of individual desires, propagated by the myth of modern city as being the height of humanities cumulative accomplishment, all the while getting lost within, the fullest sense of the word, crowd, a disorderly gathering of people. The question we need to ask is not how or where it started, but why it continues? More specifically, if preindustrial societies were held together by common values, sentiments and norms, equally shared by all, what holds modern societies together? Given the fact that modern forms of organization and production have made people wholly unlike each other and hence no longer susceptible to solidarities, is there any wonder why community has taken on a new meaning?
In the pre-industrial world societies with small-scale, rural, and agrarian settlements were intensively communally dominant. In such a world, Majid Yar states the following in his paper outlining community:
“people were closely inter-connected through a range of localized relationships of social and economic inter-dependence, bolstered by the importance of extended kinship structures and family alliances. Moreover, people supposedly shared common and tradition-bound outlooks, such as those of morality and religion. The development of modern industrialized society, however, sent these traditional community forms into decline. Modern life, it is claimed, was characterized not by small-scale local existence, but by large-scale urban agglomerations, in which life became increasingly anonymous. Under the impact of social and cultural change, people became increasingly individualized, and so less connected to a wider sphere of intimate social relations. The decline of religion (a process of ‘secularization’) undermined the common belief-systems and moral guidelines that had previously tied people together.” †
Therefore, community was viewed as something of a cultural phenomenon of the past which came into its terminal decline by the processes of revolutionary, social, political and economic change as it swept the west in the course of the 19th century.
The onslaught of modernity brought prepackaged ideas promoting the staples of our society, namely Christianity and Democracy. They were sold to us as a fixture of a proper society, that all we had to do was believe or show up and vote in order for the “community” to become a community, yet neither this institution nor those of Christianity or Democracy had ever been fully implemented (and may even be considered experimental). We are told we exist within a community that embodies Christian values and Democratic ideals, but the result doesn’t fall far from the bounds of a marginal society. We have lost the necessary stamina needed to develop and initiate the true meaning of community on our society. The result is nothing short of a precocious disillusionment, brought on by weariness, cynicism, and self-interestedness.
Our society has and continues to grow apart, while at the same instance decides to promote an ethos of “community,” which no one can any longer fully comprehend outside the bounds of idealistic thought. Instead there exists a disillusioned populace, raised on the verisimilarly promise of how great tomorrow will be if only we continue down the path on which we currently reside will we come to internalize and thus enact a society bases on the true sense of community. We don’t take on this process alone, we are led by the promise of ideals espoused by those we elect, but as we acquiesce in their leadership they continue to tarnish path they follow. They say what we want to hear and as such we are all guilty of the same crimes.
The whole has been compromised by the many; we have become erratic atoms with narrowed vision and little resistance to the temptation of thought of the desirable over the expedient. The lowest form of “community,” whose people simply occupy the same space are guilty of trying to figure out the easiest way to get through the mess, preferring the temporary to the permanent, cures to preventions, and painkillers rather than cures. We don’t exude the necessary stamina to provoke a shift toward a preferred sense of community and this is so, both because it is difficult to uproot such grandiose foundations and that we are steadfast in our eagerness to explain away the problems of our society by boasting how great it is, even in its dysfunction.
The promotion of our grand society doesn’t subjugate the sense of community that we all need. German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies elucidated the difference in his book Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society), published first in 1887. Gemeinschaft, which aligns nicely with our definition of a true community, generally translates to community and refers to groupings based on feelings of togetherness and mutual bonds where its members become a means for the desirable goal to be kept up. At its very foundation, Tönnies states “the theory of Gemeinschaft is based on the idea that in the original or natural state there is a complete unity of human wills.”[Page 22] This unity of will is what precedes and in affect creates an existence of community not by creating and shaping individuals but by allowing for a general principle and form of justified unification to be initiated. And then there is Gesellschaft, understood as a group sustained by it being instrumental for its members achieving their individual goals. This coincidentally is more reminiscent of our current society, as Tönnies explains that nothing happens in:
“Gesellschaft that is more important for the individual’s wider group than it is for himself… everyone is out for himself alone and living in a state of tension against everyone else. The various spheres of power and activity are sharply demarcated, so that everyone resists contact with others and excludes them from his own spheres, regarding any such overtures as hostile. Such a negative attitude is the normal and basic way in which these power-conscious people relate to one another, and it is characteristic of Gesellschaft at any given moment in time. Nobody wants to do anything for anyone else, nobody wants to yield or give anything unless he gets something in return that he regards as at least an equal trade-oﬀ.” [Page 52]
Tönnies offers two contrasting system of collective social order, one is based on concord with the establishment of the harmony of wills and other based on a conventional departure of rational desires. His purpose was to illuminate disparities between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and for our purposes prove that the term community should no longer be used as a blanket statement and has in fact become transitory.
Community no longer embodies the same meaning as was understood by Tönnies, where the unity of wills was once an austere foundation, with the onset of modernity has been lost, replaced with a meaning that impinges on ambiguity, while its usage is ever more prevalent. The shift from unity to self-interestedness is most clearly seen within the confines of modern city where the specialists, the physicians and businessmen mentioned previously, feel absolved from responsibilities since they have made certain contributions in such that they no longer feel the need for further investment. Once this happens, a process of detachment delivers them from espoused “unity” unto the self-interestedness of personal desires, thus devolving the true meaning of community.
With a sense of unity marginalized, the communal duty to share the burden of caring for anyone other than ones self, and maybe immediate family, is absent. The closest we have to our ideal sense of community and perhaps the last bastion that can exemplify its authenticity is that of the rural community. Within the confines of rurality, responsibility has the possibility to be a personal, where the benefit of a shared experience becomes a unifying act and as such increases the likelihood that it would be. To illustrate the point, imagine a farmer whose neighbor had fallen on tough times and was hungry, the farmer offers him hospitality because it would be the natural thing to do within a united environment. The actions extended by the farmer revolve around the knowledge people have of one another, their concern, their trust in each other, the freedom they have to express themselves with one another and the established goal of a shared harmony.
Furthermore, in a society where most interactions are impersonal, there comes a precedent for detachment as the vital labors of communal duty cease to undertaken as they have been taken over by institutions. This, if not creates, solidifies the detachment between the giver and the receiver, enabling a distance so great nothing is negotiable by individuals. The rural farmer who happens upon his neighbor in need doesn’t phone the nearest bureau for assistance, he take it upon himself to carry out an act of moral duty as part of his community. This isn’t meant as a critique on the effectiveness of institutionalized assistance, but the affect it has on the Community and on the bonds of the people. Having an individual contribute, or even a certain knowledge of such an institution, the patron is freed from the concern of necessary engagement, which is one of the obligatory disciplines of citizenship within a Community. This further advances the rift by giving rise to the idea that an otherwise personal duty can be usurped by institutions by stating that, in fact, morality can be divided between public and private alike.
Perhaps it is no surprise that with such a divergence of meaning between that of community and community it isn’t so farfetched as to imagine a society so perfectly hypocritical; a democratic government without democratic citizens, or more aptly, a community without the sense of communion. The term community has become contrived; it has devolved into meaning little more than that of neighborhood. Interactions are impersonal; people are no more than another member in a crowd, whose narrative has little more affect than that of chaos within an abyss. Any defense of “community” is but a conservative gesture that faces away from the radical break required to release us from that which we are held hostage. “In truth,” John Zerzan asserts, “there is no community. And only by abandoning what is passed off in its name can we move on to redeem a vision of communion and vibrant connectedness in a world that bears no resemblance to this one.” † Only when we can accurately define community in the negative sense can we break from the condition driving us to the antithetical definition. Positivity attributed to the current state of community only furthers the lie of authenticity and a continuance of the illusion is to grant society as the harbinger of its own declassification if not destruction.