Friday, 19 March 2010

Six Degrees of Community

Fear the slapstick!  Image by Sobebunny via Wikipedia, released under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.Terry Pratchett has one of his characters suspect uneasily, whenever they hear somebody talking about 'the community', that this doesn't include them or anybody they know. My reaction is, at best, the same. Worse is when some communitarian clown earnestly attempts to debunk the relevance of human individuals as anything other than meat puppets for their precious 'communities' - Mike Gibson pins down a fine example from one Alasdair MacIntyre here. Since such supreme 'community' cashes out to me as little more than universal possession by the extended egos of some insane clown posse or other, any invocation of it will swiftly set my teeth chattering with rage like a rubbishy makeshift machine-gun. It would be easy to rant on against this community jargon ad lib. Easy, but wrong.

Firstly, I do in fact believe that Homo sapiens/Pan narrans is a genuinely social animal, and that communities are a large part of what it is to be a human individual.

Secondly, there is a puzzle here: why do so many normal people get warm fuzzies when clowns from the policymaking community Onan on and on about their sordid power fantasies in this way? I don't think it's generally because they wish either to commune with them or to be communed upon. I'm more inclined to suspect there's another bit of sophistry in play. Whenever a clown toots his hooter about some community or other, of professional necessity he talks about it as a unitary thing - usually geographical or special-interest. He may well be sincere in so doing. But really, amongst any given group of people, there are several different levels of community all compacted into this one concept.

The level of community I observe with the rest of my household is a very different thing from the one I observe - or ought to observe - with Stanmore Stan the Bank Heist Man. Since Dr Whiteface fills a bigger pair of shoes than mine in the least voluntary and most broadly defined community, he has a natural interest in convincing everybody that this is what community means. So does every Bozo who's pledged fealty to him. By the same logic, though, my interest lies in disrupting his claim. One simple individualist approach is to avoid the C-word altogether. Another is to claim that 'real community' is an explicit and voluntary association of individuals, and that the other kinds don't count. I'm instinctively sympathetic to this.

But instinct isn't always a sure guide, and in this case its definition is as flattening and almost as self-serving as that proposed by Dr Whiteface. Here's an alternative way of thinking about it: a spectrum of different levels at which people can be in or out of community with everybody else in their world. The number and names of my levels are as arbitrary as the colours of the rainbow, but are intended to be similarly user-friendly.

Anti-Community: Some level of war or other. I have no more to say about this here, except that everybody is obviously and unhappily eligible for it.

Peace, or Null Community: Absolute rugged individualism with respect to the people involved, but with none of them (by their own lights) prepared to initiate force against another. Each minding our own business and not the other's, because if we have much dealing with one another, we are going to end up fighting.

Honesty: The basic level at which people can expect to have regular dealings to their mutual gain. Conformity to a known set of laws and customs as a sufficient condition for not having force initiated against me - even if my neighbour, by their own lights, has more than sufficient reason to bust me on the nose. In this sphere I'd also place the keeping of whatever contracts the community norms consider solemn.

Civility: The grease on the wheels of an honest society. Courtesy, plain dealing, and in general not trying to 'game' honesty by walking right up to the edge of the line and crowding my neighbour over. This excludes such activities as malicious provocation, letter-of-the-law lying, and using superior wit or wealth to lawfully box victims into corners where they would frankly be better off acting dishonestly. Also, not tacitly supporting dishonesty for personal gain.

Solidarity: A higher octave of civility, fit for an expansive and magnanimous association. Actively trying to make sure that my neighbour and I share the gains from any dealings between us, nor bargaining for a greater share than the most I deem my part warrants. This will not be, "All of it!" Also, being ready positively to aid them when they are wronged or threatened - to at least the degree I would hope for their aid. Frowning down incivility, even against the disliked; conversely, not wilfully fomenting it by action or omission.

Kindred: My bread between thee and hunger, my walls between thee and the night, my hand and heart and mind between thee and harm. And thou dost as much for me, when my need comes. Not a state to be entered into rashly, inadvisedly, nor wantonly!

Now, here is the thing: the higher a level of community I share with the people about me, the better it is for everybody. So (saith the clown) The Community should force, nudge, or simply harangue us all to treat each other as kindred, until all the world is one big happy family. Not so?


Sez I: And while you are at it, why not hustle the whole world into one big impartial group marriage also, and then we will all be in lurrrrrrrrve!?! Voluntary commitment to a community is like giving - a good thing. Involuntary commitment is like stealing - a bad one. Mind-messing and guilt-tripping people until they give away what you want, or marry whom you tell them, is not social virtue but personal viciousness, heinous in proportion to its invasiveness and intimacy.

When the forms of magnanimity are demanded by checkbox and rote, all greatness withers to meanness. Nobody can impose any positive level of community worth having. At most, they can turn it from something like a mortal living person to something like a rotting undead leviathan.

The clown says: all or none. Give bread, give shelter, give blood and breath whenever The Community (that is Dr Whiteface) demands it - or we are out of peace with you, and here we come in our Krazy Kar to drag you off to torment or the morgue.

And I say: clown, they are not the same. You are stronger than I, for a time: I will not break peace with you. Here is what you demand, since you must have it so. But never think that stealing my bread and salt makes you kindred of mine! I am mostly in honesty and somewhat in civility with you, out of both pity and policy; but when you take the piss out of my comrades and my kindred, beware of a day I work towards, when everybody forgets you are something out of nightmare and laughs at you with a wide heart; even, clown, even at Dr Whiteface himself! What will you do then, clown, who think community is only one thing, and keep nothing but your indifferent honesty to commend you to anyone?

And the clown hits me with his slapstick, and I take his point in good part. But I still think I had a good point of my own.


  1. You've got it so right. It's the difference between the friendly off-licence man recommending this new beer he's got because he thinks we'll like it, and the supermarket sending targeted advertising based on our discount-card profile.

  2. Yes - that's a fine example, at a different angle to the line I'd been concentrating on. The supermarket is acting honestly (in this instance) but probably annoyingly and doesn't care, whereas the off-licence man is showing solidarity with my interests rather than just selling me whatever I'll buy that gives him the max profit margin. And if he benefits from this in the long term, this is just as it should be.

    I know one supermarket chain that has decided its best interests lie in hiring a proper fishmonger and mostly letting them behave like (a good) one. I know another that began with a similar policy and closed it down, moving in everything towards more of a shelve-and-promote policy. This entailed their getting rid of wet fish altogether: presumably they just can't shift them that way.

    I'm sort of ambivalent about the more enlightened policy, because it puts pressure on existing independents, yet is apt to get dropped off-hand in the next round of corporate musical chairs. On the other hand, I live in a heavily West Indian area, where both quantity and quality of demand for fresh fish is typically high: until I move out, I need never fear a shortage of good fishmongers. A lot of people don't have that luxury.


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