Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Problem of Community

I've been thinking a lot about community lately.  People always seem to talk about it as though it's a good thing, all comforting and supportive and "one big happy family."  But much of my experience has been with communities that ostracize, that enforce conformity, that give certain people special privileges and expect unquestioning obedience to authority.

In these modern times, communities which value diversity, tolerance, and individual freedom do exist.  (I've even heard that there's a very large community which was founded on the principles of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.)  However, communities do not become diverse and tolerant just because people in the community say, "We are diverse and tolerant."  It takes more than lip service, more than an intellectual belief in equality.  I believe that even an honest desire to be tolerant is not enough.

 Way back in 1981, Bernice Johnson Reagon delivered a speech which probably said all there is to say about community and diversity.  She referred to it as "coalition" and made it clear that it's hard work.  I can't even choose my favorite quote from that speech - go read it yourself.

When I think about community, I find myself asking the question:  "How does this community handle difference?"  Different life experiences, different sexual orientations, different races, different genders and gender identities, plain old differences of opinion of every sort.  The sad fact is that even if you could surround yourself with people who look exactly like you, who profess the same religious and political beliefs, who grew up in the same town, went to the same schools and read all the same books as you, you would still find differences of opinion and some of those people would still refuse to behave the way you think they ought to behave.

Difference is inescapable.  You have to either reject it or respect it.  The means of rejection are many:  if anyone disagrees with you, they're wrong/lying/stupid/crazy/immoral/selfish/out to destroy civilization.  Or maybe they just hate you personally and are trying to make you look bad.  In any case, their opinions don't count.  Some people find difference to be extremely threatening . . . as if the presence of another opinion in the universe completely invalidates their own worldview.  As if their own sense of self is so fragile that it can't sustain the notion of other ways to live one's life.  (And in many cases it seems to be pure jealousy that other people get to do things that are supposedly "forbidden.")  I bet people like that hope and pray that they never have to pay attention to anyone who's different from them.

I just realized today that all my life I've had to deal with people who were very different from me.  I've always felt like a freak.  It's easy to sit around and complain that "nobody understands me."  Today it dawned on me that I never understood them either.  That causes just as much difficulty as being misunderstood - maybe more.  On the one hand, I got really tired of people expecting me to conform to their rules. On the other hand, I had to face the fact that we're all different. They're not going to change their ways.  I'm not either.  And if I want to be respected for who I am, then I have to somehow find a way to respect them too.

Ironically, respecting difference entails the recognition of what we have in common:  we're all human.

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