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Forget Community: I Just Want Some Friends

by Justin Pritchett
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Forget Community: I Just Want Some Friends

Humans, it is cliché but true to assert, are social creatures. We live with one another in a complex matrix of socio-politco-cultural norms and structures incorporating myth, symbols, rituals et al into our individual identities. With this as a given, what then do we make of an institution’s deliberate and formal attempt to create community? Community sounds nice. It is appealing to have people who love, support, and occasionally bake for you. However, community is an abstraction. We may experience being-in-community, but community as such is an attempted ‘objectification’ of the lived reality. If we take a closer look at the lived experience of being a social human, I think we will find that we experience being-in-relationship not community.

Perhaps that seems an unnecessary distinction. But consider the basic western family. Two individuals relate one-on-one, develop norms, rituals, and expected behaviors to communicate different situations. As a simple example, one couple cooks together as an expression of care and concern while another couple prefers to eat out- this is the development of a proto-group. In the family example, the two get hitched and then through adoption or the inexhaustibly appealing but messy process of baby making incorporate another person into the family unit. The child, or little-person, develops relationships to the other two. These are individual relationships. Father-daughter and mother-daughter relationships are not simply logically distinct, but experientially distinct. No father can claim the experiential reality of mothers. Similarly, the mother experience, is radically distinct from the frightened-excited-confused observer role taken by the baffled and dumb-founded father- a product, I am told, of the confluence of ‘Hey, look at what I did,’ ‘Holy Crap, what did I just do?’ perspectives. All this is to say that the relationship each parent establishes with the little tyke is necessarily distinct. The combination of each parent relationship to the child and the inter-parent relationship then constitutes the group of the family. The child is not simply a passive receptor of the previously existing culture but an active participant, shaping the culture through individual personal acts etc.  Hence, a family with a child with a taste for t-ball will look substantially different than the family with the kid who wants to shoot squirrels in the back yard form his bedroom window. The cultures will be especially distinct if the parents attempt to resist the kid’s influence.

The point: if we take the family as a microcosmic community and look at the structure of the experience we see that the individual relationships established between the persons involved inform and develop the shared community. Though the mechanics of courting and reproduction vary, the basic experience of relating to one’s family, nuclear and extended is the same. This can then be extended out from the family to larger cultural units of class, ethnicity, nationhood etc. I can foresee the objection now: but the culture shapes the individual relationships, blah, blah, blah. Sure. No doubt. But it only informs individual relationships in so far as the individuals engage in the group identity.

Take for instance an individual of secular academic background being dumped without warning into, say, a confessional academic culture- like a hypothetical evangelical graduate school (not a seminary). This hypothetical individual, say a he, will not be a member of the community as such. Rather, through individual relationships he will come to relate to the group- just like as a child he came to relate to his family through the individual relationships with its members. The slow process of cultural conversion- translating myth, symbol, and ritual meanings into those shared by the existing group and vice versa takes time and individual relationship- not formal group development strategies. Over the course of these relational developments cross-cultural meaning communication can eventually occur. We can make friends. This is the process of acculturation. The effect of a culture on an individual is gradual and communicated through relationships. Once we have individual friendships we can engage the community- not the other way around. Without the individual relationships of our basic humanity, communities are alienating, judgmental, and void of meaning- even in the presence of baked goods.

Recognizing the possible and, I reckon, inevitable counterarguments to this limited essay, I would like to challenge the Regent emphasis on community. To individuals from diverse backgrounds, interests, and what-have-yous, the formal insistence of communal involvement is alienating in the worst way. It is only through the development of individual relationships that we can even conceivably come to relate to the matrix of existing relationships- otherwise we are simply foreigners in a strange land. I am an American- but through a few Canadian friends maybe I’ll learn the value of thanking the bus driver for doing his job. Or, maybe not.

Humans, it is cliché but true to assert, are social creatures. We live with one another in a complex matrix of socio-politco-cultural norms and structures incorporating myth, symbols, rituals et al into our individual identities. With this as a given, what then do we make of an institution’s deliberate and formal attempt to create community? Community sounds nice. It is appealing to have people who love, support, and occasionally bake for you. However, community is an abstraction. We may experience being-in-community, but community as such is an attempted ‘objectification’ of the lived reality. If we take a closer look at the lived experience of being a social human, I think we will find that we experience being-in-relationship not community.

Perhaps that seems an unnecessary distinction. But consider the basic western family. Two individuals relate one-on-one, develop norms, rituals, and expected behaviors to communicate different situations. As a simple example, one couple cooks together as an expression of care and concern while another couple prefers to eat out- this is the development of a proto-group. In the family example, the two get hitched and then through adoption or the inexhaustibly appealing but messy process of baby making incorporate another person into the family unit. The child, or little-person, develops relationships to the other two. These are individual relationships. Father-daughter and mother-daughter relationships are not simply logically distinct, but experientially distinct. No father can claim the experiential reality of mothers. Similarly, the mother experience, is radically distinct from the frightened-excited-confused observer role taken by the baffled and dumb-founded father- a product, I am told, of the confluence of ‘Hey, look at what I did,’ ‘Holy Crap, what did I just do?’ perspectives. All this is to say that the relationship each parent establishes with the little tyke is necessarily distinct. The combination of each parent relationship to the child and the inter-parent relationship then constitutes the group of the family. The child is not simply a passive receptor of the previously existing culture but an active participant, shaping the culture through individual personal acts etc.  Hence, a family with a child with a taste for t-ball will look substantially different than the family with the kid who wants to shoot squirrels in the back yard form his bedroom window. The cultures will be especially distinct if the parents attempt to resist the kid’s influence.

The point: if we take the family as a microcosmic community and look at the structure of the experience we see that the individual relationships established between the persons involved inform and develop the shared community. Though the mechanics of courting and reproduction vary, the basic experience of relating to one’s family, nuclear and extended is the same. This can then be extended out from the family to larger cultural units of class, ethnicity, nationhood etc. I can foresee the objection now: but the culture shapes the individual relationships, blah, blah, blah. Sure. No doubt. But it only informs individual relationships in so far as the individuals engage in the group identity.

Take for instance an individual of secular academic background being dumped without warning into, say, a confessional academic culture- like a hypothetical evangelical graduate school (not a seminary). This hypothetical individual, say a he, will not be a member of the community as such. Rather, through individual relationships he will come to relate to the group- just like as a child he came to relate to his family through the individual relationships with its members. The slow process of cultural conversion- translating myth, symbol, and ritual meanings into those shared by the existing group and vice versa takes time and individual relationship- not formal group development strategies. Over the course of these relational developments cross-cultural meaning communication can eventually occur. We can make friends. This is the process of acculturation. The effect of a culture on an individual is gradual and communicated through relationships. Once we have individual friendships we can engage the community- not the other way around. Without the individual relationships of our basic humanity, communities are alienating, judgmental, and void of meaning- even in the presence of baked goods.

Recognizing the possible and, I reckon, inevitable counterarguments to this limited essay, I would like to challenge the Regent emphasis on community. To individuals from diverse backgrounds, interests, and what-have-yous, the formal insistence of communal involvement is alienating in the worst way. It is only through the development of individual relationships that we can even conceivably come to relate to the matrix of existing relationships- otherwise we are simply foreigners in a strange land. I am an American- but through a few Canadian friends maybe I’ll learn the value of thanking the bus driver for doing his job. Or, maybe not.