When I was studying geography and economics at Penn State, we had some great discussions about what it meant to live in society: what our responsibilities were, and how those responsibilities reflected back on us, as (then) students, but still still productive members of “the greatest society in history”. Much of my thinking was tempered by my time in Bible College and in a commune, as well as classes in “economic geography” and business. Much though we might argue about different implications, there are certain aspects of it that are unavoidable. We all live in a “community” today. We enjoy the benefits of that community: physically (roads, bridges, homes, garbage collection, water distribution, etc.), economically (food, travel, jobs, money, etc.), and socially (laws, police, armies, voting, TV, etc.). We certainly “all” contribute to this community, through taxes and work (unless you can afford to pay someone to find loopholes so you don’t have to). Voting is another contribution, although many of us don’t do that, either. I’ve been talking to a number of people about this lately, and it seems there are some varied perspectives on exactly what responsibility to our community means.
I’ve read a number of books on exactly what constitutes a community, as different from a simple group of people. People have “grouped” together many times throughout history, if for no other reason than protection, but this does not necessarily mean they have achieved “community”. The definition that I tend to use goes along with one that was developed in a book, “For the Common Good”, by Herman Daly and John Cobb:
“A society should not be called a community unless (1) there is extensive participation by its members in the decisions by which its life if governed, (2) the society as a whole takes responsibility for the members, and (3) this responsibility includes respect for the diverse individuality of these m embers. By these definitions there can be a totalitarian society, but there can be no totalitarian community. To illustrate in another way, for the alienated youth in large cities, those cities remain the societies of which they are members, but they do not constitute, for them, communities.”(page 172)
In our world and our culture, we tend to feel that individuals have no responsibility back to the community or to each other, other than what is explicitly set out legally (which therefore varies over time). It is a common belief that “things will work themselves out”, and that therefore “we don’t want to get involved”. As a result of this dwindling sense of responsibility of each toward the whole (there was a lot more of it in past decades), we see a host of ailments: marketers doing anything to sell a product, politicians making back-room deals, profit as an end to itself and a rising sense of insecurity and political distrust.
The common result of this is that we all feel alienated; we don’t know “where people are coming from”. We then respond by building our own communities, behind gates and secure fencing. I would submit, however, that this is the kind of social grouping that has dominated human history. As I first mentioned in this post, these are more of a “grouping” than a “community”. One of the true benefits of an active democracy is that it gives us the capacity and the means by which to build the kind of community that has never been seen in our history. It is ironic that at a time when we have all the tools to be able to build just such a community, we are falling backward. We are so concerned with maximizing our own well-being that we’ve forgotten what it means to live in community.