"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, February 5, 2018

Belonging And The Need For Collective Identity–How Community Has Become A Higher Good Rather Than A Means To An End

Man is a social animal, and communities are as important now as they were in the Paleolithic to ensure survival.  Cooperation among like members of a tribe, village, or region has always been essential to survival and longevity.  Different communities have valued the place and value of the individual differently giving more or less importance to individual enterprise and expression, but in all cases a culture is known more for its collectivity – its culture – than specific members of it.

At the same time this sense of collective identity and culture have contributed to war.  Communities endowed with a sense of identity and loyalty will do anything to protect themselves.  Such protection has always included expansion of the perimeter, acquisition of more land and territory to provide a buffer between one community and the next.  Survival has always been based on natural resources – arable land, favorable climate, and water – and when these resources become scarce or when their carrying capacity diminishes with increased population, communities become aggressors.

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In short, there is little more to community than survival.  An aggregation of individuals into groups gives strength in numbers, and this calculus has never changed over time.  America, perhaps the most individualistic nation on earth relies as much on social groupings for strength and survival as the most primitive Amazonian tribe.  While in many quarters groups are given a higher, intrinsic value, they still remain only operational units in service to the welfare and interests of their members.

In what has been called the most fractious political era in American history, allegiance to political philosophy and the parties that promote it has never been more passionate and determined.  There seems to be no way to close the cultural divide between liberals and conservatives for the differences are not only profound but more tenaciously held.  How to reconcile these differences when they are based on world view, convictions and beliefs about perfectibility, human nature, and the role of the individual within society?

These political passions have been extended to ancillary but related causes.  Environmentalism is part of a more general philosophy of human progress.  There is no such thing as a hardwired, ineluctable human nature; and that the violence, aggression, territorialism, and acquisitiveness experience throughout history need not necessarily continue if we organize for positive, productive change.  The movement for civil rights is as much a statement of higher purpose (social harmony, universal justice, morality) than a political and economic one.  Those with passionate, personal allegiance to this cause believe they are doing right and aspiring to a higher good rather than just facilitating a necessary social adjustment.  Protecting the planet has less to do with mitigating man-made influences which affect climate than it does with aspiration to a higher good.  Society, like the individuals which comprise it, has become greedy, insatiable, and immoral in its pursuit of wealth; and stopping the assault on the world’s natural life.

Those who adhere to more conservative values group together for the same type of philosophical reasons. A society which devalues the worth of the individual and places collective action over individual enterprise will necessarily fail in its objectives.  It is the individual who has been endowed with God-given rights, a spiritual endowment, and the intelligence and energy to succeed.  Communities, necessary for order, law, and a degree of social organization, are the beneficiaries of individual enterprise, never the other way around. Conservatives are no less passionate about their beliefs than any other political grouping, and join together just as militantly.

This may all be straightforward and understandable – politics and political philosophy have a bearing on taxes, land disposition, opportunity, and prosperity – why do we insist to such a degree on belonging to groups which have little to do with the promotion of our interests? Labels and denominations are common everywhere from religious faith to football.  Belonging to men’s groups, PTAs, neighborhood associations, and a thousand other groups organized to promote or protect, serve, accommodate, or defend seems to have far more benefit for the member than their beneficiaries.

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While community organization and action have been acclaimed for their commitment and interest, change is more function of macro-economic and –political investment than any small-scale collective enterprise.  If one were truly interested in the ends rather than the means, then focus would be exclusively on effecting policy change or even changing the nature of governance.   The current political debate in the United States over tax law will have dramatic outcomes; and will affect every American citizen for good or bad.  Similarly, if one were truly serious about the dangers of corporate America, then individuals would stop buying products, change their patterns of investment, resist and thwart corporate intrusion into medicine, insurance, and commercial services.  Belonging to groups which have a singular and objective purpose – to change public policy and corporate investment – would make sense.  Passion and identity are diversions and belonging to groups which espouse ‘higher values’ makes little sense.

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Some observers have suggested that as society becomes more complex - more socially, politically, and economically diverse in a bewildering information age – the more anxious people become, and not only need the support of groups which tend to their interests but groups of likeminded, sharing, and supportive people. Membership in a church where social commitment is as important as spiritual evolution provides a special level of comfort that does not exist outside the congregation.  Where else can one hear that faith and social justice are one? Where else do moral right and spiritual right coincide?  Residents of old, wealthy communities may join together to stop Wall Street investment and the intrusion of corporate interests into what has always been a unique, traditional, cultural enclave.  They do so to protect their patrimony and the integrity of land and community and in so doing strengthen their sense of place and belonging. Not only will a simple way of life be disrupted by ‘New York’ interests, but the likely end of an old and storied history of tradition, money, and class.

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So what about football, and why are fans so passionate in their support of local teams? The biggest college stadiums accommodate more than one hundred thousand people, are always full every week of the season.  Fans support the Mets, the Giants, the Phils, or the Nats even though the team itself – players, managers, top management, and ownership – may have changed completely.  The team a fan in New York  or Chicago started to support twenty years ago is unrecognizable today.  All that is left is the name. Why is that enough to generate such enthusiasm, passion, and undying support?

The late-night listeners to WFAN, a sports radio station in New York not only call in to comment on trades, ownership, or management; but to share their feelings.  A loss by the Yankees or the Mets is not simply a loss but a letdown.  A victory is not only a move upward in the standings but a vindication of team and individual worth.  Fans always speak personally. We should trade for so-and-so…We need to get more bats in the lineup.  These are the fans with season’s tickets, paraphernalia, and membership in the community of supporters.  What does such fandom provide?  Diversion from 9-5, divorce, settlements, wives, and politics? Or a label when none other is available?

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The true, unencumbered, unaffiliated individual is a rare bird, an outlier, and a threat.  A lack of affiliation is taken for a lack of commitment; and a lack of commitment can only mean a lack of moral values, faith, and sincerity.  Anyone who does not belong to something is suspect.  Belonging is a higher value which shows the better side of humanity.  A person who belongs cannot, ipso facto, be niggardly or selfish.  Belonging bestows value as well as provide it.

What’s more remarkable about the need for belonging is the fact that we all die alone.  Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of the same name, has constructed his life to limit any meaningful personal engagement with his family, colleagues, or associates; and he was surprised at the unexpected early end to his life that he was totally alone.  He was afraid of dying, not because of what he was leaving behind, but that he was facing an uncertain eternity alone.  We all die alone, Tolstoy said.  Nothing else matters, and nothing that has come before matters.  Such an epiphany should not come so late, he implied, but better late than never.

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