On the Uses and Abuses of 'Community'[l]
For a long time, even before the "Zaklash", I was thinking about writing a post about the so-called "OSR Community" and my suspicions about that way of thinking about online groupings. But somebody has pre-empted me and so it seems like a good time to marshal my half-formed thoughts on the matter.
"Community" is a much-abused term in the English language. There are two nefarious ways in which it is used, both of them related.
The first is when somebody uses the word to speak about large groups of people in an abstract, monolithic way which does not remotely reflect the variety of viewpoints within them: thus you will hear people talking about "the Polish community", "communities in North Yorkshire", "the black community", the "trans community", "working-class communities", and so on and what those "communities" are purported to think. (The black community thinks [X], communities in North Yorkshire are opposed to [Y], working-class communities are worried about [Z], and so on: well, okay, which black people, which people in North Yorkshire, which working-class people, and are they all of the same mind?)
The second is when it is used by somebody who is setting him- or herself up as being an authoritative voice for speaking on behalf of a group that he or she belongs to - usually on the basis of nothing other than a trumped-up ego. Thus you will encounter people in the public sphere who like to say that they speak on behalf of the Polish community, the trans community, working-class communities, or whatever, without any sort of legitimate justification for doing so.
You saw both of the abuses of that poor benighted word during the "Zaklash" thing, I am sure. I don't think there's much to be gained from naming names, but if you were following the blogs, reddit and G+ during that time you will I am sure have noticed that the air was thick with hot air about what "our community thinks" (as though an amorphous grouping of tens of thousands of people can "think" any one thing) and also will have observed a large number of people coming out of the woodwork to set themselves up as community spokespeople ("Here I am to tell everybody what we all think").
This is all completely awful and stupid. Let's think about "community" seriously.
Where I live, there is a community. I know my neighbours in the eight or so houses that are within shouting distance. We're not great mates or anything, but we say "hello" to each other, take each other's bins out each Tuesday morning to be collected, and watch out for each other. Ian, an old gent who lives opposite, occasionally pops over to warn us that he's heard about a burglary in the next street over or whatever. Now and again we'll chat about politics - he used to be a local councilor. Another neighbour is a guitarist and sometimes we'll swap CDs (yes, some people still do this!). There's a frail old widow who we all keep an eye on and help with gardening and the like. It's nice: there is what I would call an appropriate, common-sense level of interaction - we know each other, we interact where it would be helpful, but none of use gives a fuck if we happen to share different views and nobody pries. What's even better is that we're all pretty different. There are old people, young families, and middle-aged unmarried couples, all with our varying perspectives on life, and that makes it actually interesting to chat to them. Life is more richly textured having them around.
What are the characteristics of this community? First, we're grouped together by accident. Nobody chose his or her neighbours. We're neighbours because we happen to live near each other. Second, we "commune" in the sense that we help one another when it is needed and are available to each other for those purposes. Third, we do not universally "think" anything or much care what each other thinks, certainly not when it comes to politics. And fourth, we didn't come together for a purpose - we are I suppose what Michael Oakeshott would have called a "civil association", meaning that we share a sense of loyalty to each other and to certain (unwritten) rules of conduct - like not spying on each other and not insulting each other and making sure to say "hello" - but have no specific goal or objective other than rubbing along.
One good thing about real communities like this is that we all actually know who each other is and can interact physically. What this means is that if somebody from outside (a local politician or policeman or whatever) did actually want to find out what we "think", we could get together and ask each other and come up with a consensus view. We're not reliant on bogus spokespersons claiming to know what we think and putting words in our mouths.
Another good thing about real communities like this is that you don't get anonymous outsiders coming and going and claiming to be part of "the community" one second before disappearing, or claiming to be part of "the community" and then trashing its social norms. The community is what it is. You can only join it or leave it with difficulty and with an act of serious commitment.
The other good thing about real communities like this is that you can engage in corrective behaviour to a certain extent. Got a noisy neighbour? You can have a chat with the neighbour on the other side, go and see the offender, and ask him to get back in line. If he does, no hard feelings. If he doesn't, he gets shunned until he does. You don't want to idealise this, of course. If a gang of crack dealers moved into a house nearby and started running all-night parties, an external force like the police would have to get involved. Similarly, one spouse might be physically abusing the other behind closed doors, unbeknownst to the rest of us. But to a significant extent the community is self-managing in a humane and forgiving way; somebody does something to push the tolerance of the rest of the group, and they get politely, gently brought back into compliance with the social norms.
Online "communities" lack most of these features and shouldn't be mistaken for the real thing. In particular, they shouldn't be seen as a substitute for being part of a real-world physical community - the kind of thing that makes your life richer through exposure to people from different age groups, backgrounds and walks of life, and which gives you a sense of having something useful to contribute (even if it's just taking the old widow's dog for a walk).
Even more importantly, they shouldn't be seen as having the consensual characteristics of the relatively small, physical, closed community that exists in a street or village square or whatever. No one person or even group of people can speak for an online community because nobody knows who is in that "community" or what they all think, and there is no way to accurately find out. I can ask my neighbours what they think and represent the diversity of their views to an outsider if required to do so. I cannot do the same for readers of this blog and I most certainly cannot do so for the so-called "community" surrounding the OSR. And if I ever do appear to be trying to do this, you are well within my rights to tell me to go fuck myself, because nobody appointed me to do it.- - - - - -
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