Just how much of yourself do you need to change to belong to a community? What are you giving over when signing on that dotted line, whether it’s an actual sheet of paper, verbal declaration or taking on the community’s label? There is much talk about tribalism and the seemingly inherent problems it creates, pitting one group against another in some form of quest for supremacy. However, tribalism does not demand such conflict, nor does it require a mentality of versus, as if a contrary perspective must be viewed through a militaristic lens. Community…
“…offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers. As if we came to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” (Block, 2008)
This interdependence that Block discusses is in line with the relational reality at the heart of human existence. We are driven to make sense of our lives and doing so requires determining just what is true, i.e. what beliefs we are to identify with to help us derive meaning from the behavior we put into practice. It is within community that we find the means of searching for truth and what is acceptable to believe. This starts with our families and is added onto with our peers as we grow up. Eventually it gets spread out into broader categories of political parties, religious organizations and other social identifications.
Important to be remembered is just because we’ve moved on from old communities and/or expanded into others, in no way do the ideas we held previously fade away into nothing. As a consequence we never reach a point of complete objectivity, where there exists no influence upon our minds beyond our individual thoughts/emotions. These social identities are intimately linked aspects of who we are. There is no “I” without the connections that have come before and exist now. If there’s any doubt about this, remember the next time a parent knows just what button to push, an old romantic interest gets your heart racing or thoughts of experiences past inspire new behavior.
Do We Need Conformity?
Recognizing the innate and inevitable role that community plays in the building of our sense of self and the selection of our beliefs, leads to questions of our own autonomy and independence. This is where the problem of social conformity rises, when the group identity has become so pervasively powerful that to question outside the proscribed ideological box is to invite ridicule, ostracism and a fragmentation of personal identity.
“James Robertson, author of American Myth, American Reality (1980), writes that myth is not only the story itself, but also unconscious attitudes extrapolated from stories and applied to real-world events. Myth is unconsciously drawn on and handed down from generation to generation as a model for understanding human nature and the world we live in (Robertson 1980: xv). Our thoughts and actions are based on sets of assumptions, often accepted without question and transmitted to friends, acquaintances, and offspring through our deeds and expressions without the slightest bit of conscious awareness. Since many of these messages are communicated non-verbally, the recipient is left with the impression that their conclusions are self-evident and require no further inspection. Opposition to these basic truths is seen as undesirable because it challenges and subordinates our sacred world-view; the illusion that ours is the only way.” (Morris, 2016)
Block (2008) mentions that a community has the feeling of having “come to the right place and are affirmed for that choice.” Morris, utilizing Jungian archetypes, explores this further with an understanding of myth. Rather than just a story, myth includes unconscious lessons that were handed down through families, and assumptions taken from within the connections of our friends and family, with the whole structure being taken as “self-evident.” This is the power of community, the ability to form a worldview and instill it within people in such a way that it is not questioned.
Thus we come back to the question of conformity. It’s not so much that we need conformity and therefore seek it out, no, it’s that we’re driven to it by the very nature of our communal lives. This is not necessarily a bad situation. Structures for determining truth, the means of contemplating ethical behavior, customs, etc. are all part of what it is to live as human beings. Where these forms of conformity lead us astray is when such is no longer capable of holding enough of the ever-changing world to allow us the freedom to expand and seek out the near-infinite potential laden within humanity. We feel this pull every time we do that which we should and not what we desire, every time we ask a question and are told this is the way it is.
We have, then, a two-sided force focused on determining the right way to live: one that is prodding us to join and be counted, another that is wanting to be noticed from within the crowd. Neither is necessarily anti-human, only when one is ignored to the dismissal or detriment of the other does the rot of stagnation grow.
“The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?” (Block, 2008)
We are no more going to remove the pressure and need for community than we are going to remove completely the notion that individual voices are meaningful. Shifts in community come from a recognition that there is a coherency for a reason, to bring together disparate people in a homogenous search for a well-lived life, but that such a pressure should not quiet the voices raised in thoughtful inquiry. They too are in the same search as the rest of us and perhaps, just maybe, it will be their voice inspiring others, that together, with a newly vitalized community, will send us onto new paths of discovery.
Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Morris, R. B. (2016). American cultural myth and the orphan archetype. European Journal of American Culture, 35(2), 127–145. doi:10.1386/ejac.35.2.127_1
David Teachout is a counselor and coach in the pacific northwest, working with a diverse clientele who are building lives of integrated healthy relationships. Read more about relational living at http://lifeweavings.org