Community, the Concept

Potentials, limitations.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

SVG Silh, CC 0
Source: SVG Silh, CC 0

Today, the word “community” is growing in popularity. It has largely replaced “neighborhood.” You're more often referred to not just as a businessperson but as a member of the "business community," the “Black community," the “faith community,” etc.

Speaking of "faith community," although I’m an atheist Jew, a client who’s the music director at a church invited me to watch him perform at Mass. I went today. The priest used the word “community” a half-dozen times.

Community is indeed an appealing concept—It’s hard to make it on your own. As Hillary Clinton famously said, it takes (at least for many people) a village.

The need for community goes well beyond survival. People crave community for friendship, for ideological kinship, as a source of romantic partners. Indeed, on Friday, a client, as we were identifying his goals, said it was important to find a community.

Alas, too often, people find the promise of community is not fulfilled by the reality.

I came of age in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s  when communes were big, both in the U.S. and around the world, notably Israel’s kibbutzim. But since then, the popularity of both have plummeted. The reason may, without too much reductionism, come down to, “The residents preached the communal but too often refused to clean the toilet."

I’ve just read Tara Westover’s book, Educated. It’s about growing up in a controlling religious family and community. She wrote that her life led her to develop her core philosophy: “Your odds improve if you only rely on yourself.”

As often is the case, pendulums swing too far. I’m wondering if our failure to consider the history of community and its offshoots is bestowing too great a halo around collectivism over individualism.

After all, individualism motivates. For example, we’re more likely to work hard if we’ll reap the rewards and suffer the consequences if we don't. In contrast, in today’s workplace and schools, we see the de-motivating effect of being on teams. People can and do slack, knowing the “fools” who are willing to work hard will cover for them. Too, individualism’s offshoot, competition, motivates most people. A runner without competition will run slower, and every sales or fundraising  manager knows that posting all the salespeople’s results will bring in more money.

We make decisions at work, outside of work, and as voters, about how much to prioritize collectivism versus individualism. At work, there has been an increase in membership in unions and workplace demography-based caucuses. Outside of work, even if we can afford our own apartment, increasing numbers of people are choosing to live in co-housing. In deciding whom to vote for, presidential candidates' collectivist messages are polling well.

Lest we be buffeted by transient ideological winds, it might be worth stepping outside the gale and asking yourself, case-by-case, what you deem wise.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

This is part of a series on undervalued values.