Communities II | Oct 2000

FMBR Editorial: Oct, 2000

Communities II

Marshall Pease

Last May in the editorial “The Communities of Man,” I observed that mankind has come to depend on communities as an organizing principle to an extraordinary degree. Indeed, most of our lives we participate in a complex web of communities ranging from family and friends through various organizations and groups. Here I will expand the notion somewhat to include any group, formal or informal, in which we acknowledge membership and to which we grant a certain measure of authority. Whether formal or not and whether fully recognized as such or not, a community provides an environment in which our interactions with the other members are structured.

There are, it seems to me, two more or less distinct types of communities. The division is fuzzy, but seems significant. They differ in the principle roles they are expected to play in the lives of their members. Most of the formal, named communities exist to serve some specific on-going purpose or set of purposes. These are primarily based on cooperation and often demand it as a prerequisite of membership. This is explicitly true, for example, of businesses and governments. It is also true, if less explicitly, of family and groups of friends, churches, social organizations, etcetera.

The other type of community, usually an informal one, exists to serve the role of competition. The obvious example is in athletic communities, particularly in individual sports. The competitors in a particular sport such as track or field form a community. The purpose of the competition is broadly the affirmation of selfhood and self-worth. The competitors are bound together by their common goal – each trying to achieve his or her own personal validation, yet all conforming to the rules of the game. On the field they compete, yet each competitor usually has great respect for the other and often forms close friendships with them when not competing. They are a community precisely because of their competition.

This is not to say that all members of a community of the first type are either always, or even mostly, cooperative. Neither are all the activities of one of the second type competitive. The classification is rough at best, but it seems useful.

At first glance, we might think communities based on cooperation good since they call for subordinating personal desires to the common good. We might equally expect those based on competition to serve a narrow, selfish vision. Yet this is too simple. There are good and bad examples of both sorts. For example, businesses are essentially cooperative, yet the pursuit of corporate goals has often done considerable damage in other areas. Too often side effects are ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. Or consider war. War is almost always the result of conflicting goals quite sincerely held by both sides – at least by the citizenry if not always by their leaders. It erupts when the other side makes an equal claim to its goals as inalienable rights. A competitive community, on the other hand, can be much more open to possibilities. What will be accepted as a validation of personal worth may be limited by myopia but not usually by the tunnel vision that may afflict cooperative groups. Indeed, the ideal of transcendence that is the aim of many religions and disciplines can be said to be the ultimate attainment of selfhood.

So where does this lead us? I suggest we need to think hard about the nature of communities so we can learn to choose those that are truly worthy.

Marshall Pease, Oct 2000