Nurturing Community, Countering Individualism

Human beings are innately compassionate. When we explore ourselves deeply and connect with the ground of being, we realize all life is interwoven, we feel at one with the Earth community, and we love others as we love ourselves.

At the same time, however, being authentic can release antisocial impulses that undermine community, such as fear, hate and the urge to dominate. Moreover, powerful, self-interested external forces manipulate people by triggering those negative, primal impulses.

A recent essay by Stanley Fish, “‘Transparency’ Is the Mother of Fake News,” is a critique of the claim that the unfettered, free flow of information on the Internet will benefit society. Fish’s argument applies to other realms as well, such as education, personal growth, creativity, and spirituality.

Fish argues:

There is no way to assure that “new information is used to further public objectives.” ...It can, that is, be woven into a narrative that constricts rather than expands the area of free, rational choice.... [and serve as] instruments in the production of … inequalities….

The more that the answer to everything is assumed to be [transparency], the easier it will be for interest and motives to operate under transparency’s cover.... [and] float free of the standards of judgment ... where manipulation and deception find no obstacles.

[These] prophets [of the “free” Internet] will fail to see the political implications of what they are trying to do….

When speech (or information or data) is just sitting there inert, unattached to any perspective, when there are no guidelines, monitors, gatekeepers or filters, what you have are innumerable bits (like Lego) available for assimilation into any project a clever verbal engineer might imagine; and what you don’t have is any mechanism that can stop or challenge the construction project or even assess it….

Any opinion will write if there [is] nothing but your own interpretive desire [that] prevents you from assembling or reassembling bits of unmoored data lying around in the world into a story that serves your purposes….

What is found in a landscape where data detached from any context abounds is the fracturing of the word into ever proliferating pieces of discourse, all existing side by side, indifferently approved, and without any way of distinguishing among them, of telling which of them are true or at least have a claim to be true….

No one believes anybody, or (it is the same thing) everyone believes anybody….

To counter oppressive external forces, individualism is not adequate. Educators can’t merely tell students, “You can be whatever you want.” Spiritual leaders can’t merely say, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Therapists can’t merely say, “Become self-aware.” Political activists can’t merely say, “Let the majority rule.” Artists can’t merely affirm, “Art for the sake of art.”

A compassionate society can’t leave people totally on their own, vulnerable. Positive social change requires a balance between self-determination and mutual support. By developing face-to-face communities rooted in a compassionate worldview, individuals can fortify themselves against external threats and internal weaknesses.

How best to do that is a never-ending learning process that changes as conditions change. Peer learning, especially the power of example witnessed in person within supportive communities, is a particularly effective method.

A compassionate worldview, however, can easily become a rigid ideology. We assume we have the final answer. Our convictions lead to disrespect for those who disagree. We forget how to make judgments without being judgmental. We worship certain policies and insist that others endorse those policies in order to be included in our community. Our beliefs become a litmus test that we use to excommunicate nonbelievers.

Grounding abstractions in reality can reduce the risk of dogmatism. By addressing tangible concerns, a common ground of agreement on values that is also rooted in concrete principles can help a community stay together over time, rather than splintering over doctrinaire disputes.

With those thoughts in mind, I’ve been working with some friends and associates to draft a statement of principles and values, “Change Myself, Change the World: A Commitment (Draft)” It seems that such a statement could become the foundation for a holistic network that nurtures the whole person -- within the framework of a compassionate worldview that faces negativity and affirms positive, pragmatic idealism -- with a balance between the abstract and the concrete.

A related project is “Possible Methods for How Group Members Can Support Each Other with Their Self-Development.” This list presents possible specific activities that groups -- such as book clubs, study groups, social service agencies, and political action organizations -- might use to provide mutual support and advance positive social change.

Those documents aim to help develop a perspective that can help social-change agents avoid the dangers of both individualism and ideology. Feedback on those drafts is welcome. Working together, perhaps we can nurture effective, holistic social change.