Wednesday, April 9, 2014

On Community: Do we get to choose?

In the film Arranged, a friendship develops between an Orthodox Jew and a devout Muslim, both teachers at the same school. One day, the two put their young charges in a circle. Each child has to write or perhaps draw a single-word attribute about themselves. The teachers then have each student state their attribute. Initially, the children choose predictable and positive words, such as beautiful, kind or funny. But when a young black boy's turn comes, he holds up the word Nasty. 

The faces of the young teachers themselves grow grim and nasty. Are you sure that's what you mean they ask him coldly. He nods yes. As a result, the teachers  force him to leave the circle, stigmatized and isolated, then deliver a moral message to the other students: we can choose our friends.

I wondered that these teachers did not ask the boy what he meant by nasty. As we know, language is slippery and  a word that has a negative connotation to one person or cultural group might have a positive connotation to another. I immediately thought of the classic use of "bad" meaning "good" in some subcultures. Maybe to this boy, nasty meant brave or bold or adventurous.  But how could we know? Like many people with power, the teachers simply imposed their own assumed interpretation on his text.

But what if they had spoken to him, and he had affirmed their understanding of nasty as disgusting or undesirable? What if that was his self image? Wouldn't excluding him from the group merely reinforce his perception that he was a bad person?  Wouldn't it force him into an outer conformity to gain a minimal level of acceptance, while doing nothing to address his inner anguish?

I also wondered how these two women could be oblivious to the idea that this youngster had possibly internalized  racist stereotypes about blacks that permeate our culture. Should he be punished for this? 

One  of the biggest challenges facing community involves how to treat those who are different.

The movie's solution, that we can choose our associates, feeds into an individualist notion of community as a consumer choice. It's also factually untrue in most cases. We largely can't choose our family, our schoolmates, our workmates, our neighbors or the people we share civic space or the planet or history with. Personally, I don't choose to be in the same species as Adolph Hitler, but I am. I don't choose to live in a society where many would cut off people's food stamps or refuse to accept global warming, but I do.  We can try to control community, but in the end we will inevitably have to contend with difficult or disagreeable people. The dream of insulating ourselves from the feared or despised other becomes the nightmare of genocide. And even with genocide, the hated others have a way of multiplying, like the sorcerer's apprentice's broom, the more you try to eradicate them.

Community, especially spiritual community, is not based on exclusion and control. It recognizes instead that we are mutually interdependent, that attempts to control others are soul killing for all involved and that people who confront us in uncomfortable ways have lessons to teach us.  In contrast, cliques allow us to believe we are different from or better than others and reinforce this by walling out those deemed lesser. They are not real communities because they can exclude a member the minute he or she becomes unacceptable, which often coincides with the moment of greatest need. True community, on the other hand, ideally serves those at their weakest points, and fosters humility, openness and growth as we learn to embrace those who are different and perhaps disagreeable.

Of course, no human can fully embrace everyone else. How do we decide when the permeable, inclusive boundaries that characterize a healthy community should become more rigid? And who decides?

Sent from my iPad

No comments: