Being online has a weird effect on people.
When I read my timelines, I hear much about one community or another being spoken of in very broad terms, without so much as a whimper about what these communities mean. If I play a game, am I a gamer? If I once was a librarian, will I always be a part of the library community? If I have an autistic son does that make me part of the autism community or do I also have to be aneurotypical to belong? If I liked Anthrax at some time in my life, am I a metal head?
Sometimes we seek ‘communities’ out and other times ‘communities’ are pushed on us. But what do they mean? Well, I think you need to distinguish between what are material communities and what are post-material or symbolic communities. Although that is the sort of separation that will be harder to define in some cases than in others.
But perhaps we can start with the idea of community as being versus community as doing. Community as being is mostly a symbolic thing. I am French in the sense that my parents were (mostly) French. I am not French in the sense that I speak the language fluently. Being French is mostly a symbolic notion of the French community. It means I can pretend to have a lot in common with some of my favourite French people like Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard and Bruno Latour. The irony of all this is that while I have an affinity for these philosophers, I lack the actual ability to communicate with them! This distinction is what I mean by material versus post-material visions of community. In symbolic (post-material) terms I have access to the French community because of my last name. In material terms, I offer them nothing nor they me – there’s no real relationship that defines us as being in the same group.
But these symbolic ideas about identity do make a difference. Bourdieu’s Distinction offers a pretty convincing catalogue about what determines people’s tastes (usually class identity). If you are French, you get pay-offs for looking the part, even if you don’t do French. That’s why I typically brag about wanting to be an old man with a flask of Calvados, espouse the value of free speech (likely to a greater extent than others) and have tourtiere for Christmas Eve. It’s also why Nova Scotia has a tartan, when the actual social make-up of the province is almost anything but Scottish.
On the other hand, there is something in the post-material idea of community that lets us off the hook. In a discussion about the anti-vaccine movement I heard someone talk about an affinity for “the autistic community” as if that had salience beyond the words used. The autistic community I know includes a range of people including social workers, parents, sisters, brothers, babysitters, health professionals, psychiatrists and, of course, people with ASD. For my son, autism is something that is thrust upon him, he’ll have none of it. He belongs to an “autistic community” for two main reasons: 1) He is not accepted in the mainstream at school and 2) he benefits from treatments that are offered to him by health and social services. Otherwise his “community” consists of a few loyal friends, frequently of people older than he and his family. There are people around him that do “autism” and he variously loves and hates them for it. But the key point here is that in the “doing” community, he has people who both support him and hold him accountable when he doesn’t meet the expectations of the group. To me, that’s the “real” (material) autism community. It stands in contrast to the more idealist “autistic” community consisting of Sheldon Cooper, the silicon valley and any number of ubercool geeks. It’s possible that I am being unfair to my anti-vaccine person (by the way, vaccines do not cause autism and yes, you should vaccinate your kids. Also, if you don’t vaccinate your kids, I do think its okay for the government to force you to to protect others), but I did not see any evidence of “doing” autism in her/his tweets.
On the other hand, my son has material needs as well. And frankly, there are very rare and and special people who are willing to provide these to him. Things like friendship and support and understanding. People do not learn these things by receiving information, hearing recitals of theory or watching memes. Instead, they discover how to give these things through conversation, not only the in the occasional generosity of silence (“please listen”), but also the generosity of authentic feelings about the world.
I thought about this after reading this article by a male feminist writing about people in the MRA. Behind every marxist, capitalist, feminist, mra, gamergater, libertarian, hippy, yuppy hipster is a real story of how they got to where they are. It is a real gift when you can get that story, no matter how privileged or oppressed the person is. To me, critical theory (or rather their practitioners) forget this at times. And that power is more fluid than personal or group identities. The only thing worse than having power and privilege is not bothering to use it to make the world a better place.
Socrates says that getting to that point of clarity and learning requires nothing short of intellectual midwifery. Whoever you are, it’s inside you and getting it out is going to be painful, arduous and messy. We need more people with the kind of empathy and understanding that bring new things to this world.