Fostering Community

Today, I woke up to a new world. We all did. I ate the same breakfast, walked the same commute to work, but the sense that things were very different now — a deep, silent, aching cry — sat solemnly in my stomach.

I awoke to feel a profound division within our society — a fissure which I’d known existed, but which only now could I truly sense, so wholly & so vividly. Donald Trump’s election into office was, of course, what caused me to feel this today, but that was just the latest in a series of events which have emphasised so clearly our deeply fractured world. I awoke to a similar feeling on the day after the UK’s EU referendum. That sensation arises again each time more innocent people are killed by the police. Each time, it is a struggle to remind myself that it is not a matter of us vs. them, no matter how much it may feel that way.

A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation.

The divisions that I feel in the world are clearly felt by so many others — and for lots of people, they are not just felt, but lived out. Today, my social media feeds have been awash with people crying out for ways to foster a sense of community and togetherness — something that right now feels so far away.

Community. It’s a word that’s everywhere right now, but a feeling that is very distant.

Reading Austin Kleon’s notes on John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down, I was struck by the very clear distinction Gatto makes between networks and communities. Communities, Gatto says, are places that expose our humanity, in all its forms, whilst networks only take the bits of ourselves that they need, in order for the network to function:

Networks divide people, first from themselves and then from each other, on the grounds that this is the efficient way to perform a task. It may well be, but it is a lousy way to feel good about being alive. Networks make people lonely.

One of the strongest sentiments following the election result — one that follows almost every election result — is that sense of detachment from the other side. Our social media channels are filled only with people who agree with us. We hear of those who disagree, but filtered through the distorted lens of the media, or anonymised into poll samples — so rarely do we interact with them in a meaningful way.

Gatto is writing before social networks, before the internet, and yet his ideas feel all the more prescient because of them. He is writing about real-world networks — schools, companies, chess clubs — but social networks are built upon the same structures: they take the parts of ourselves that they need, and present them as if that were the whole. They split us up based on who we are and what we believe, with little thought as to the consequences of these divisions. We are now seeing those consequences.

If we are to turn this tide — to make people feel safe and welcome within their own countries — we need to think less in terms of networks, and more in terms of communities. How do we turn the systems in our lives — both online and off — into ones which open us up to more people — to wider perspectives — rather than closing us off into our own?

Networks are an important part of our society, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just starting to feel like that’s all we’re capable of creating. Where are the systems that erase boundaries, rather than putting new ones up? Systems that blur the lines between work and play, between productivity and idleness, between sincerity and humour, rather than enforcing them?

We’ve got enough divisions within our society right now. We’ve drawn enough lines. We need to start thinking about how to build up communities that rub those lines out. How do you forge a community that brings together people who would never normally interact? How do you build a community that constantly introduces its members to ideas that contradict and challenge their own? And how do you do this whilst still making these communities safe, welcoming places?

I want to repeat this until you are sick of hearing it. Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot. [They will] ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd.

That feeling — of being lonely in the middle of a crowd — is one that will ring true for a lot of us today. It’s easy to feel that this is a vote against you. That the rest of the country has decided you’re not welcome, that you don’t deserve to be listened to.

You do. We just need to create the communities that will listen.

Nov 9, 2016