Some Thoughts on the Psychology of Community: Parts 1 and 2
It was a delight to read so many thoughtful writers commenting on John Michael Greer’s article on Community. Although it was a while ago, I thought I would add a my own comments here. This will be a two-part post.
The Community of “Fun” and the Hunger of the Middle Class
Real “community” doesn’t produce the same warm, fuzzy feelings it did at summer camp (whether the sleep-away or the ‘Dirty Dancing’ kind). It also lacks the excitement and spirit of your high school athletics team. No one has the job of orienting you and helping you make new friends, or settling disputes when all hell breaks lose. If you try to “create community” with fun group exercises and neat activities, it is tough to do it in any meaningful way, because those already active in the community don’t need it (but will probably show up anyway…they get involved in everything!), and those who aren’t active, don’t. There’s no ‘instant-clan,’ unless organizers manage to keep that ‘summer camp’ feeling of fun. That requires a lot of fossil fuel, and let’s face it, when the going gets tough, do we really want people who demand a good time before they’ll keep showing up? No, while fun might bring them in, I believe the serious among us need more than entertainment to stay involved.
The excitement of Transition Towns suits the middle-class because they need to have a feeling of community more than other social classes. Perhaps it isn’t the working-class “Nascar” families that Kunstler rails against, who’ll become the biggest losers of this economic calamity, but middle and upper-middle class professionals. We’ve been brought up on the notion of ‘success’ as an ever expanding paycheck, and a ladder leading us ever higher. We’ve chosen education and career ‘advancement’ that has kept us moving from place to place. Many of us have moved from good neighborhoods to better neighborhoods, never quite stopping long enough to know the people around us deeply or invest in one single “patch of ground.” And “success” has locked us into an increasing amount of monthly debt, requiring more, not less time at work.
The Tie That Binds
The fabric, the very woven connection between people, between parents and their children, between families and extended families, is a loss that can’t be bought with the extra incomes and in fact, often stretch this very fabric. We’ve offered the kids “quality time,” iPods and high-speed internet instead of belly-to-belly conversations, or expecting them to be needed working members of our clan. These same kids are, themselves, often fried from years of being shuffled off from school to after-school, to sports and then to musical lessons. Working-class parents can’t afford those kind of extra-curricula activities for their kids. Kids are sent back home to the ‘old neighborhood’ and are watched by grandparents or the neighbors. Professionals might call this “sub-standard” care, because it lacks the developmentally appropriate toys and the video reading programs, but it has other benefits few people talk about. The kids get to know the people who they live around, play around, and eventually grow into adulthood around. They marry neighborhood sweethearts and high school football stars. Sure, the houses are smaller, but nobody cares if you put in a garden on your front lawn, or repair your beater car in your driveway.
Necessity brings the working-class closer, where they are forced to get to know (and sometimes hate) the very people they are required to live among. Most don’t have the ‘luxury’ of moving away to a better area, as they get older and more experienced in their jobs. They aren’t trying to “look good” to maintain some notion of professional status. They complain about their parents or relatives “knowing their business,” but studies tell us they are healthier mentally (but not physically) than their wealthier counterparts, who barely know their families or their kids after the parental equivalence of “speed dating.” Yes, the middle-class needs an intense injection of something called “community,” if only once a month, and all the better if it happens with people who share a similar class perspective, a similar philosophy and similar fears.
The working classes, take part-time work to stay home more to raise children not because they are more devoted parents, but because few women of that class can make enough to justify the expense. The additional salary often barely covers the cost of child care, clothing, and other necessities connected to full-time work, so they work at night when someone is home, or during school hours. For many, this ‘one and a half earner’ household will change as children grow older, and can be left alone, but the connections to their neighborhoods will be secure by then.
The women aren’t often left lonely in their working-class neighborhoods during the day. They have friends around, family around, to contact and ask for help. This is even more true of the very poor. I know I generalize, and it isn’t true for everyone in that class, but I believe it is true that necessity creates community. If you are a single mother in an office job, there is no point working, if all of your salary goes to childcare. The more you can get help, the more successfully you can survive. But that help, when it comes from local neighborhood people rather than institutions, provides “community” connections that can be quite valuable.
Work as Community
Anyone who’s watched television shows like “The Office” knows for certain that co-workers can provide their own type of ‘community,’ but instead of summer camp, it can feel more like prison camp. If you work in the same small town you also live in, chances are that you experience a heightened sense of community, whether that’s a good feeling or not. Before fossil fuel, it was common to work where you lived, because traveling more than a mile or two every day just didn’t make sense. Now adays, it is more typical for people to travel one way 16 miles taking 26 minutes or more to do so. In a rural area, it can easily be twice that.
Whether you like your co-workers or not, chances are you ‘have to’ be there every day (if you want to keep it), and ‘have to’ get along, if just superficially. Like summer camp, alliances form, back-stabbing happens, and people help out their friends, while tattling on their enemies. This happens in real communities too.
Companionship, Common Need, and The Favor Bank
While work can provide a sense of community, employment lacks the sine qua non of true community life, and I’d define that as ‘companionship’ and ‘common need.’ These two things can happen at work, for example when your best buddy covers for you when you’re late, but the situation does not automatically pull for it, as a condition of employment.
I agree with Greer that most people get the ‘companionship’ part, but lack a clear grasp of how essential ‘common need’ is. Most people hate to be ‘dependent’ upon other people for ‘favors.’ Despite the world functioning interpersonally as a ‘favor bank,’ we’ve shrunk down the “borrowers” and “lenders” to as few people as possible. The poor and the working class have an extended favor bank out of necessity. It is a point of pride for those shifting to the higher classes, that they don’t have to rely on their families or friends for stuff anymore. They don’t have to borrow things, they can buy their own. They can take a shuttle to the airport, so they don’t have to ask for a ride. We have “professionals” take care of our kids, instead of grandparents or neighbors. A pity.
People Who Need People are Lucky?
Religious teachings say “it is better to give than to receive” and social and clinical psychology has proven that to be absolutely true for emotional and health reasons. The average person who “gets” but never “gives back” suffers terribly. You can make an old person sick just by never allowing them to return the favor. If you want to kill a person off quickly, make them totally dependent on you, and prevent them from reciprocating in any meaningful way. Nursing homes do this. Always do for them, and if they try to do back, refuse their help, or treat it as if what they give you is worthless, lame or even harmful. You can watch their health deteriorate after a while.
This may be why many folks work hard never to be ‘indebted’ to anyone. They can’t stand that feeling of being given to, without immediately evening the score. They always have to ‘pay the check.’ It’s one of the reasons why professional ‘do-gooders’ are resented by the very people they thought should be grateful. So the give and take of mutual indebtedness is best, instead of one-way.
The Poverty of Affluence
Orlov points out correctly that communities form quickly and effortlessly among the poor, but they also form quickly and internationally among those who have lived with several generations of uber-wealth. The multi-generational super-rich, who never knew want, suffer the poverty of needing nothing. This affliction is so uncomfortable, it is only relieved by being around other multi-generational super-rich families who suffer the same affliction. See the documentary “Born Rich.”
The very wealthy used to promote the old-fashioned feeling of being “fortunate” to be rich and “responsible” to give back to a society that made them that way. But alas, giving away wealth is very hard to do if what you are hoping for is true gratitude. Giving away wealth publicly exposes the individual to the risk of being taken advantage of. Few people want to reveal their great wealth to anyone who does not also share their great fortune.
We humans tend to regard a healthy (tax beneficial) endowment from a very wealthy person as less meaningful than a smaller endowment from a person of lesser means. It is a lot easier to demonstrate friendship materially if you are poor than if you are extremely wealthy. No matter how much you give, the belief is that you could have given more. While communities welcome the contributions of our wealthiest members, there remains the belief that this is the natural order of things: The rich have a “duty” to give and the rest of us have a “right” to receive. Who we define as “wealthy” varies with our social class.
Community does have within it the requirements for reciprocity, but this reciprocity can’t be applied in equal measure between people of all social classes. People of means are expected to give “until it hurts” (and we imagine it never does), while the those of lesser means give smaller contributions that seem to mean more. We assume it is going to “hurt,” even if their contribution is relatively small.
Poverty, Greed and Reciprocity
What about the person who feels entitled to get and never to give? Humans like to help others, but we don’t expect this to go on one-way forever, and we don’t expect those who “get” as displaying an obvious sense of entitlement. What’s returned doesn’t have to be material, it can be given in mutual support, time, or attention.
In addition, often those who feel most entitled to “get,” never quite feel that they get enough. These people risk social ostracism in tight-knit communities, although they might get by more easily in larger cities.
But how do we know who “gets” without returning the gesture?
We’ll cover that in our next segment…
As a kid, I knew that one of my father’s friends was a cheapskate. The cheapskate, at a social function, didn’t buy drinks at the table until later in the evening, when all of the “women” had stopped drinking alcohol. He’d “disappear” when it was time to order another round. I vowed, at the tender age of 8, never to marry a cheapskate, because I never wanted my husband to be talked about so disparagingly. (Please take note this was the time when “Mad Men” notions of gender roles ruled.) The cheapskate was, in social biological terms, a “free rider.” More here.
My father was not merely ‘gossiping.’ He was providing his children with a social education. Free-riders are the target of ridicule and develop a poor reputation. Eventually, everyone in your community will know you as a ‘free rider’ and will be hesitant to help you or share freely with you and yours. As the community’s resources become increasingly scarce, free riding will become increasingly endangered as a survival strategy.
Gossip, often disparaged as a form of communication, is an essential avenue for determining reciprocity and transmitting information about another’s reputation.
Women, the keepers of community relationships, are often accused of being the “gossips.” Few people willingly volunteer to be the target of public ridicule, so gossip shapes social behavior, discourages free riding, and encourages reciprocity in smaller communities and “pay it forward” attitudes in larger ones.
People internally have a sense of fairness, and few want to be found coming up short as stingy or a free rider. The person who keeps showing up at the pot luck empty-handed, or the person who stuffs three large doggie bags on the way out, eventually becomes a target of gossip, even more so if they carry around a sense of “entitlement.”
Gossip, instead of being a ‘bad’ thing, is essential to community networking, and creates a set of checks and balances between people within a community. It is the avenue through which one develops a “reputation,” either good or bad.
“Nasty gossip” is one which only intends to destroy someone’s reputation, without offering any obvious community benefit. When we hear nasty gossip we may think: “Why are you saying that? That’s none of your business!” but what we really mean is “That’s none of MY business!” Nasty gossip that is harsh and unfair, or blatantly untrue, tends to harm the reputation of the gossiper.
On the other hand, when your sibling calls you to say “Call your mother, she’s upset at you because you forgot her birthday!” this info is immediately useful to us in repairing familial relationships.
Are those without Health Insurance Free-Riders?
Last night, I heard on NPR’s Marketplace, a discussion of the health care provision that would require every person to carry health insurance. Those who don’t pay for health insurance, the argument went, are, in effect, free-riders, who increase the cost of health care for the rest of us.
However, these “free riders” were not only the young, who believed that they were healthy and so therefore could spend this income elsewhere, but also those who had recently lost their jobs. Are you a free rider if you are unable to pay the high premiums? No, few view the situation that way. In addition, few people in this country view health insurers as acting on behalf of the public good, but instead see them as the “Snidely Whiplash” character who shouts “Pay the rent!s” and drive widows and orphans from their homes. Individual mandates are viewed as benefiting not the larger community, but instead are exploitative costs that benefit a handful of elites.
Lying vs. Bullshit
This NPR “Marketplace” piece is a perfect example of what Harry Frankfurt would call “bullshit” as opposed to lying. Bullshit completely disregards the truth in favor of media spin, impression management, and the like.
For the bullshitter, … all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may pertain to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
In Frankfurt’s view, bullshit is worse than lying, because “the liar considers the truth, insofar as to avoid it, whereas the bullshitter is indifferent to the truth in favor of a particular agenda.” In a culture full of bullshitters, “news reporters” claim to seek “truth” but this gets lost on a grand scale. “Investigating” is replaced with “advocating” or appeasing advertisers. What is left out of the conversation becomes more important to the act of disregarding the truth than what is spun as information. When we consensually agree that an individual or the mainstream media spins nothing but “bullshit,” we tend to disregard them altogether, unlike the liar, where we might at least determine some minor parameter, of the truth, by assuming the reverse could be true or that the lie is somewhat related.
In the 1970s Americans entertained people in their homes 14-15 times a year, a little over once a month. In the late 1990s that number had dropped to eight times a year, a decline of 45% in less than two decades.” Alone, Suburban, and Sorted
Another essential element of community is sharing time together. Trusting someone happens over time and through engagement in mutually meaningful work. If you only know someone in a ‘social’ context, you don’t know them very well at all. But increasingly, fewer Americans are even spending social time together.
Socializing, particularly with people who we have little in common with except geography, requires a toleration of differences and emotional intelligence. Hopkins can refuse the dinner invitation of his neighbors because he’s too tired or too busy, as long as he returns the gesture somewhere down the line. This could be done in a variety of ways, such as returning the invitation at some later date, delivering a small gift or card acknowledging his appreciation for being invited, or calling a week later to thank them again and requesting that he be thought of the next time. Few people continue to invite those who’ve refused them repeatedly, or those who never show any indication of reciprocity.
When one attends dinners, it is customary to hold a dinner in return. As Sharon Astyk has said, it isn’t a matter of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ with gourmet delights. That doesn’t matter a wit. If you don’t return the invitation to the people who first invited you, they will think you didn’t have a good time, or didn’t like them (ask me how I know.) So developing community requires the commitment of time and energy, and the social graces to figure out what is expected of you and to fulfill that expectation.
Bridging and the Community
- Communities with lots of bridging relationships, filled with norms of good will, cooperation and reciprocity, have more social capital than communities fractured into small gated communities with norms of cynicism, unhelpfulness and distrust toward one’s neighbors. Dr. Richard Beck
If you live in a community where you feel a “them and us” mentality, the place may be lacking avenues for more casual and cooperative social and civic contact. Greer spoke about the loss of Fellowships, but the same can be said for Granges, PTA participation, bowling leagues, religious participation and the like. As trust deteriorates, people form connections with people who share narrower and narrower perspectives about the world. This is a danger of Transition Towns if the central underlying premise of getting together is that those who attend must accept the premise of Peak Oil or Climate Change.
Cynicism heightens in a “them and us” social world. It is harder to argue with the premise that “we are neighbors so we have common interests based on geography.”
The Busy Stay Busy Getting Stuff Done
People demonstrate their trustworthiness when we rely on them to do something, and they then do it well. If someone is never called upon, it is hard to know how trustworthy they actually are. Being the life of the party only goes so far, unless their contribution is outstanding. The phrase “if you want something done, ask a busy person” speaks to the fact that those who are busy have repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to perform for the public good. The 80/20 rule applies here—20% of the people do 80% of the community work. If you want to be involved in your community, and you don’t have time to be one of those 20%, be their friend and assistant. You’ll know who these people are when you ask around, because you will hear their names mentioned again and again in many different community activities. You may need to forgive their personality flaws, perhaps their “controlling nature,” but that becomes easier when you understand the extent of their good works.
Emotional Intelligence and Social Graces
According to Wikipedia, “social graces are skills used to interact politely in social situations. They include manners, etiquette (the specific accepted rules within a culture for the application of universal manners), deportment and fashion. These skills were once taught to young women at a finishing school or charm school. The focus of social graces has changed over the last century, recently with an emphasis on business etiquette and international protocol.” They also were taught by parents. Greer respects the Masonic Lodge he’s joined and so dons a tie, as is expected of him. The Lodge demands this show of respect and he demonstrates his respect by complying. We’ll ‘clean up’ and ‘look presentable’ at the funeral of a beloved relative, if we respond to the social expectations of the situation. We’ll bring meals to the bereaved without asking “Do you want me to cook something for you?” If our cooking is horrid, we’ll arrange for meals to be dropped off by those more skilled in the culinary arts, until the bereaved cries “Stop!” We’ll do the same for those with new babies, broken limbs, horrible flues and the like. True social graces allow those being helped to believe that they do us a great honor by allowing us to help them in their time of need. And it is true, they do.
Sometimes, the internal pressures to conform socially even overtake the most rebellious of us. There is a scene in the movie “Nixon/Frost,” where the rebellious investigator is going to meet the President, and with bravado announces (at 46 sec. in the clip) his plans to be disrespectful (“Are you going to shake his hand?” “Are you kidding, after everything he’s done to this country?”) When the time comes, however, and he’s face-to-face with the man and the office, he’s submissively polite.
While social behavior can vary greatly from one situation to another, and depends upon one’s rank, to ‘fit into’ a community requires sensitivity to local norms. Truly, if you hate your social norms, hate the people who embrace those norms, and after extensive searching can find no other type, you are an object of pity. You have, as I see it, several options: (1) move; (2) adapt or (3) transform the norms. I have no proof of this, but I believe #3 is exceptionally hard to do, while the other two may be easier. Work done by people much smarter than me has gotten people of dramatically differing views together to discover that they had more in common than their rhetoric would have suggested. Then again, these were the people who showed up to talk, which would have made it a biased sample, to be sure.
If you can’t move or adapt, see if you can find one ‘cross-over’ who appears to fit in, but is open to those who don’t conform. See if you can learn from them what is the best part of the community, and who is most like them. Do things for them to be helpful, without an immediate (think decades) need to have this returned. Get involved in less contentious civic duties.
But get involved.
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