Thursday, August 12, 2010

Obstacles to Community

Ooh, I've been looking forward to writing this post! Not because it's a happy topic, but because there's just a ton of depth to it. I think there are two main obstacles to community (that encompass a lot) and then further ones that are easier to surmount, but still problematic. I won't go over every one of the "further" obstacles (you probably wouldn't want me to, anyway), but I chose two that I have personal experience with. Want elaboration on anything? Comment on, commenters.

Big Obstacle #1: Current cultural ideas/values.

When I talk about culture, I can only really speak for American culture. However, American cultural ideas haven't stayed here but have been exported all over the world. One idea that I've written about a lot is that marriage-type relationships are portrayed as an ultimate source of fulfillment, the goal for everyone, and the solution to all our problems. There's also the idea that rather than citizens, we are "consumers" and that the other solution to our problems is to buy more stuff. Related to consumerism is what I call "the cult of busyness". It's almost seen as "cool" to be too busy to function. Katherine Gibson writes, "We've become time warriors. With '24/7' as our battle cry and armed with e-everything, we thrust and parry on a time-stressed, overworked battlefield". I think that's a pretty accurate description. Americans are chronically overworked and we experience the toxic stress to go with it. So who has time for community? These values create the second major obstacle:

Big Obstacle #2: Knowledge, Ability, and Interest.

Some people will never be interested in community, no matter what. But I think there are a far greater number who might be very interested indeed, they are just unaware of the benefits of community, what it is, what it could be, or all of those. It's like some sport or food or fashion statement that I haven't heard of yet: If it's outside my realm of knowledge, how do I even know to be curious? There's also the idea that building community is too hard, takes too much time, involves skills you don't have, or that it should just be done by someone else. Or maybe there's the notion that community is some relic of a bygone time. I think these assumptions, fears, and points of ignorance are the places where the biggest changes can be made. Talking about community-related issues, like I try to do on this blog, may not seem like much. But I'd like to think it helps to break down this particular obstacle. And when enough people get over this obstacle, I think that some of our harmful cultural ideas will start to crumble as well.

Now, for one of those secondary obstacles: Rampant Relocation. I chose this because it relates to my personal experience-- I've lived in 8 different towns by the age of 25. And I don't think this is unusual. Relocation has advantages along with disadvantages. While it can be hard to build community when people are missing their old homes or dreaming of the next one, sometimes transplants to an area are the most amenable to new forms of community. That new-person advantage was my experience in San Francisco. However, I didn't even make the 3-year mark there. Financial, employment, and personal issues forced me to leave the city. And even though I only moved an hour away, I found it pretty much impossible to maintain the community that I was just starting to find there. Relocation is far from a lone issue-- it touches on the shortage of affordable housing in cities, and the volatility of the job market, among other things.

Bad Urban/Town Planning can be overcome, but it's damn annoying. While it's always been a pet peeve, it's on my mind even more lately, since I'm reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is all about urban planning failures. As an example, take a neighborhood I lived in during my high school years. I lived in a townhouse complex. And this is what bordered it:
  • More townhouses, behind high walls
  • A busy road that might have had one crosswalk on a half-mile long stretch
  • A huge, abandoned industrial park
  • Other houses, again, behind a wall
  • Gas stations and car dealerships
Are we having fun yet? There was nothing in the area that might compel people to leave their houses on foot, meaning that local human interactions were extremely minimal. Nothing about our surroundings suggested the possibility of community. And this is not a unique neighborhood. Included in this category is sprawl, bad or non-existent public transportation, and the spread of chain businesses that are not invested in their local areas. Like I said, this can all be overcome, but people will need to work a lot harder to create local communities in badly-planned areas. Oh, and guess what's going to be built in that old industrial park? More townhouses. Let me guess, they're probably going to be behind high walls. Potential community theme song?

Next up: How this all relates to the emergence of an asexual community. No, I didn't forget this was a blog about asexuality...


heidi said...

Le sigh! I will never own a TV. I love Mythbusters but I'm busy enough without a TV. Methinks that's where communication and community all started breaking down. We all wanted to watch something different and quit talking =X

Side tangent: just finished reading The Last American Man (not at all what I expected, thankfully), and was pleasantly surprised to see that p.59/60 listed a bunch of asexual type western heroes... rather, Paul Bunyon had an ox and not a wife? Hm. Anyway, the point was that western heroes were polite and chivalrous and iconically alone. Makes one ponder. Anywhoo...

Ily said...

Thanks for the comment! Aww, poor TV, always getting blamed for stuff. ;-) There's a few shows I like to watch, but I don't think TV-free people are missing out on much. I feel like if you're not interested in interacting with people, or just drained from a long day, there are plenty of things you can do alone, from reading a book to watching TV to surfing the internet. In my mind, the biggest problem with TV isn't its solitary nature, but that it promotes the "buying stuff solves your problems" mindset that I mentioned. Because people aren't just comparing their lifestyles to their neighbors, but to everyone who is visible on TV (or the internet).

heidi said...

True enough with the buying - makes Sesame Street look like the perfect marketing genius. There aren't just dogs/cats/frogs, it's named creatures who cannot be anything else. Like Barbie and Dora the Explorer. Le sigh!

Btw, I recall an article about trying to get electricity to a rural village in India - not for the light, but for the TV, because they had a bit of a population problem! Interesting approach, eh?