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rethinking community


Over the past year or so, I’ve been analyzing and criticizing a lot of ‘activist’ community dynamics. From ideological purity, the reputational economy, growth and accountability, abuse and harm, conflation of abuse and oppression, the problem of accessibility of language, dogmatism, using identity as an appeal to authority, fucking as praxis, arguing the importance of intent, to the role of pluralism in teh discourse, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this stuff.

All of which is prompting me to rethink the idea of ‘community’. As in many terms within activism, I think that ‘community’ has become so diluted as to hold very little meaning. A lot of people talk about it and why it is important, but… many of the ideas and claims are contradictory and, overall, incoherent. Worse yet, I think that the incorrect use of the concept has actually done a lot of harm to a lot of people.

musings on community

When someone hears ‘community’, they generally have some pretty clear notions based on the archetypal communities many of us encounter. The first and most obvious is family, which is a community bound by kinship ties (real or imagined). ‘Family as community’ comes along with a certain set of expectations and responsibilities (that vary from family to family). Another archetypal community are religious ones, since many people also grow up within a religious context. Again, religious communities come with expectations and responsibilities but in this case, these rules are usualy codified in some formal fashion. Variance does occur, but they tend to encompass larger groups of people (ie, the issue of ‘sectarianism’ in religion).

For a long, long time, these two types of community were the most salient and obvious ones. Then came nationalism came along and people started creating community identification based on secular, political concepts of expectations and responsibilties – again, many of which are clearly codified in some way that can be ‘objectively’ analyzed (ie, a constitution).

Some, but not all, nationalist communities aligned with pre-existing ethnic ones. But… ethnic communities really only became a thing after the rise of racism, they are sort of an interplay between nationalism and racism.

But once we get to these types of communities the rules are no longer as stable because they usually aren’t codified. They are fuzzy and constested communities. A great example is when you look at diasoric communities. Some people will say that you can only claim to be ‘filipino’ if you speak ‘filipino’. Some will say you are only filipino if you were raised within the traditions. Some will say that filial connection is enough. Some will restrict it to nationality.

If people will forgive me for mentioning evopsych, one of the few compelling theories within it are the ones about why religion was so important. Or the evolutionary function it had. In broad strokes, the claim is that religion allowed people to create communities larger than would be possible within a kinship community – which is usually most people’s primary community. In the modern age, we begin to use secular ideas for community creation (ideas like nationality or values like democracy). These secular foundations for communities serve much the same function, they create a shared sense of community identity that creates an environment where people are willing to cooperate and work with people outside of their families.

communities and activism

How is this relevant to activism? Well, because most activisty types of communities are attempts to create a shared community identity around a particular ideology – a set of values and ideas. In very broad terms, these types of communities are no different than the communities based on a shared notion of democracy. Or the shared notion of liberalism (as a social and political philosophy, rather than specific political parties). The only real difference between a liberal community and, say, a radical one is that one of them is backed by the state. In other words, one is a dominant ideology and the other not.

In the most generic sense, then, activist communities are communities. But they aren’t ‘good’ communities or, at least, they aren’t stable and sustainable communities. It makes me wonder what the key differences are between, for example, a religious community and a feminist one. Or are there any key differences?

For my part, I think its fairly clear that most religious communities are much, much more stable and sustainable than ideological ones1. I think its pretty undeniable to say that the Catholic church is more stable and sustainable than, idk, second-wave feminism.

(One of the key shared characteristics though, is the splitting of these larger groups into various sects. Christianity has many different denominations just as feminism has many different kinds.)

In what ways is the Catholic church better – as a community – than second-wave feminism? Are there ways in which second-wave feminism is a better community than Catholicism?

personal reflections on the differences

As an autistic person who struggles with understanding the implicit community rules and structures, I know I find the fact that the Catholic church has a very clear set of values and rules to be very appealing. These rules are codified and many are explicitly communicated to its members. There is also a clear structure and organization to the community.

(Families/kinship communities have the benefit of having very clear structures and organizations, even if they don’t usually have explicitly communicated rules and values.)

I think one of the reasons why I spend so much time analyzing and critiqueing ideological communities is because I’m trying to figure out how to function within them (or at least how I could funtion within them, should I want to participate). One of the reasons why I’ve never become very deeply involved in any ideological community is because there are too many unwritten rules that I don’t understand and, by and large, very few of them have a clear organization and structure.

structure and rules

To also be clear: all communities have an organization and structure. Even the ones that attempt to disavow this still have them (I’m looking at you anarchism). In the absence of clear structures and organization, this is how reputations become currency. Its also why so many of the leaders within these communities are able to dodge accountability – since there is no clear way to identify the leaders and no clear method of holding them accountable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a Thought Leader dodge accountability by claiming that they aren’t a leader. And, unfortunately, most times this claim can’t really be disproved. And so they become unaccountable for the harm they do to the community via their influence.

And that’s the thing. A lot of ideological communities are ‘structured’ by unwritten rules that change at the whim of unidentifiable leaders. It creates an uncertain environment wherein people rarely ever have a clear understanding of their place in the community; thus, they also have no clear understanding of their responsibilities to the community. Likewise, there is rarely any clear method for addressing harm within the community.

These are the failings of ideological communities. Now, this isn’t to say that the way that religious communities structure themselves has no flaws. They quite obviously do. But many of the flaws within religious communities are also flaws within ideological ones (flaws like dogmatism, extremism, etc). But religious communities do, at least, usually have clearly communicated rules and responsibilities. They also tend to have visible structures and leaders. And I think it might very well be these elements that give greater stability to religious communities.

Also… I’m just now realizing that part of the problem here is meta-ethical. Most contemporary ideological communities shy away from codifying community rules. Written rules that people are expected to follow are more grounded in deontological ethical approaches. In other words, your goodness is determined by your ability to apply and stay within the bounds of the rules. The problem with ideological communities is that, much like their disingenuous disavowal of structure, they believe that not codifying their community rules means that they don’t have any. Instead, it just renders the rules invisible and subject to arbitrary change.

As much as many ideological communities attempt to embody a purely consequentalist ethics, this doesn’t actually happen in practise. It might actually be impossible for a purely consequentalist community to exist… unless we leave these calculations to a computer and allow ourselves to blindly follow along with those decisions. Something which doesn’t really seem likely.

a Real World example

As noted above… the fact that religious communities usually have explicit rules and obvious structures doesn’t really save them from many of the problems that plague contemporary ideological communities. People with power still abuse that power. So I’m not quite arguing that our ideological communities must do these things but I think, overall, I’d like to see more actual discussion and attempts to address this problem, rather than relying implicit rules and structures.

You can also see how there is a current backlash against what I’m describing here. That conferences of many kinds have begun to codify ‘codes of conduct’ address the very problems I’m describing here. In the conference world, at least, people have com to realize that not having explicit rules to guide conduct at these gatherings, generally leads to much Badness. There is a certain value and advantage to deontological ethics.

The other advantage, as we can see from codes of conduct, is that overtly communicated rules can help ensure that the consequences for breaking them are proportional to the infraction. One of the major problems with ideological communities that, very frequently, someone will unknowingly break a rule and the subsequent punishment is often massively disproportionate to the infraction.

concluding thoughts

I’m losing focus so I’m going to stop here. But… this little essay kind of went in a direction I wasn’t expecting… I started writing this with the intent of stating that contemporary ideological communities weren’t really communities. And that this false sense of communities is what ends up causing so much harm to the people who attempt find community within a movement.

To some extent, I still think this is somewhat true. But it is equally true that, to the extent that they are communities, they are disfunctional. And, despite the problems, their general unwillingness to have visible structures and rules makes them dangerous places for some kinds of people. Certainly, I could claim that its ableist since this basically precludes anyone like me who is, by and large, unable to intuit invisible rules from other people’s behaviours.

But also… I just think its disingenuous. Since they clearly do have rules and structures. Pretending like they don’t just ensures that they remain unexamined and unchallenged. And that whatever biases existed within the people and context in which these rules and structures are formed (or changed) become entrenched with no real way to critique them or refine or clarify.