Friday, September 16, 2016

BFFs are Totally a Commie Plot

I'm gonna talk about some things that will sound like Communism to some folks now.

Specifically:  from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

If that sounds familiar (which it should), it's because it's a paraphrase of one of the central tenets espoused in The Communist Manifesto, which is where people might get the idea that I'm talking Communism.  I am.

I'm also talking community.

In recent decades, as Americans have stopped living in large extended family groups, as we've moved for jobs or schools or partners to cities where family and the friends of childhood don't provide a close-knit peer group, a lot of us have sought to recreate that social network.

We build tribes, squads, groups, phamilies, whatever word we choose to designate "these people are My People, they are more than friends, we are a unified entity," and what we are creating are communities.  Some are huge (the 'Burner community' or the 'pagan community' which have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of associated people).  Some are small, like a group of six or seven who meet up for dinner each week.  They're online, they're in-person, they spring up at annual events.

We talk a lot about 'intentional community' and 'building community' and 'community standards', all of which is shorthand for "we were all raised with different sets of ethics and morals, with different ways of treating people and establishing relationships, and we need to navigate the process of developing a consistent set of ethics and mores for a group that will thrive and support all its members."

It's a struggle to create space that includes free speech and excludes expressions of hate and bigotry.  Where laughter has a place, but people don't mock each other.  Where those in need are supported, but those with more than they need aren't exploited to do it.  All these things are important, but that last one is especially so, because it contains the seeds of ruination for every community:  unequal resource flow.

This may sound cold, but it's true:  all relationships are transactional, most of them unconsciously.  You may not think "My friend bought me dinner when I was broke, so now I 'owe' her dinner when she is broke," or "My friend has spent seven hours listening to me complain about my job, and I have spent six and a half hours listening to him bitch about his partner, so in half an hour his time is up," but you can probably describe several times your friends have helped you out, and part of the value of any relationship is how much you have personally gotten out of it.

In healthy relationships, the transactions are most likely both unconscious and balanced.  You don't stop to think what your best friend has done for you lately before doing something for them.  You just know that this person makes you laugh, gives you insights, provides real value to your life in being there, and that having a relationship that makes your life better generally makes you want to make the other person's life better.  As the scale expands and more people are added into the relationship, it becomes a community and the value of healthy relationships within that community increases.

One of the things that makes a community a community is the sharing of resources to improve the condition of everyone in the community.  Resources can mean a lot of things: money, space, time, creativity, energy, emotional labor, physical labor, intellectual labor, physical assets like cars or tools, anything that the members of the community share with each other.  That sharing allows the community to do more than its members could do alone, and it 'evens out' the experiences of the individuals, because having that resource pool to tap instead of needing to go it alone expands your ability to handle problems.  Healthy community operates on the same principles as ideal Communist theory: we all put in what we can, and we all take out what we need, and it all balances eventually.

We've all seen it: you've got your friend group, your buddies, and over a few years you build a really solid structure.  No one ever has to carry a sofa alone, everyone has someone to cheer them up after a breakup, you know that if you were about to be homeless there'd be a couch with your name on it till you got back on your feet.  It's all good, all easy, all balanced.

Then something shifts.  Maybe a new member comes in and doesn't quite understand the established give-and-take.  Maybe an existing member suffers several setbacks in a row and just stops trying.  Maybe someone has a sudden windfall that drastically improves their personal resources.  Whatever happens, it exposes a problem you'd never realised: everyone is not working with the same understanding of how community resources should be shared, or even what should be community resources.  The transactional nature of the relationships becomes both apparent, and ugly.

This is a make-or-break point for a community.  If you're genuinely willing to face hard questions with integrity, and talk openly about your own philosophies on support structures and resources, you can come away stronger.  If you try to avoid conflict and force the peace, you can end up with a badly unbalanced community.  It can manifest as someone taking a disproportionate share of the community's focus and resources without demonstrating any inclination to share their own.  It can *also* manifest as someone providing a much greater share of the community's resources, and expecting that to 'buy' them a greater voice in the ethics and philosophies of the community.  There are a lot of possibilities for where the imbalance can lead.  In any case, it's usually based in an expectation that someone should 'win' at relationships and someone else should 'lose' at them: the capitalist model of human relationships.

I've been a manager, moderator, guide, or leader in a number of different communities, and the percentage of them that ultimately failed because of resource inequality is high.  My own failing as a leader was that I was not willing to put the health of the community as a whole ahead of each individual feeling completely included and happy on the terms they dictated.  In trying to meet everyone's demands, leaders empower a few greedy and entitled individuals to destroy what we've built, when we should defend it.

The hardest thing: sometimes this means kicking someone out of your community, or just letting them walk away without trying to win them back.  Someone who may be fun and funny, but who also doesn't feel inclined to support or share with others, while gladly availing themselves of what others offer.  Sometimes it means telling someone that they have to fall, because they have worn everyone out with catching them and they refuse to stop jumping off cliffs.  It *hurts* to do this.  You feel like a bad person, a bad friend.  Guilty.

It means standing up to a bully, saying "I don't care how much you give, you don't 'own' this."  That's scary too, because maybe your community's gotten used to having what this person shares, and if you make them mad they'll take it, and leave.  Will everyone blame you that you can't have pool parties any more, because you told the guy with the pool to stop making sexist comments to the women in the group?

We need to be willing to stand up for the value of our communities as their own entities, as discrete things, and be open and honest about expectations in the group, community ethics and ideals, and goals.  We need to get honest about the real value of people's intangible contributions to our communities, and respect creative, emotional, or intellectual labor on behalf of the community as essential and worthy.

The days of the widespread family unit with consistent traditions and philosophy are gone, and if the structures we're building to replace it are to survive, they can't be based in capitalist theories of 'value' that view 'success' as coming out ahead of others.  They have to be based in a communal understanding that we all do well when we *all* do well.

No comments:

Post a Comment