Tuesday, October 27, 2009

continuing community conundrums

In an otherwise excellent letter in today's Guardian, Veronica Ward comments on Deborah Orr's argument that inequalities of income complicate the picture of diversity. She uses the word "community" three times in the letter and each time it would make much more sense if she hadn't. Sadly the letter is a great example of how the self-important (and yet ultimately empty) term leads us astray and makes us think we are saying something much more meaningful than we actually are. The letter is worth quoting at length as it rightly sets out how appalling everyday representations of the working class have become:
"what is shocking is the lengths some communities will go to ensure they are cut off from communities not comfortably like theirs. In education, particularly, they ensure that their children do not meet their counterparts on lower incomes. This avoidance and stereotyping of large sections of our community .... is insidious and shocking". This is absolutely right - but why has she felt the need to use the c word not once but three times here? What does it add? It would have been just as clear if she had used the term "people" instead of the first two uses of the term "communities". This would at least make it clear that this self-segregation is both potentially an individual as well as a collective choice.
Had she used the term"society" rather than "community" it would have been clear that this is actually a societal problem rather than one "within sections of a community" (whatever that means)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The language of community has gone on holiday

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein notes that "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday". Our frequent (ab)use of the term "community" seems to me to be a case of language being on permanent vacation or even a kind of "gardening leave". We become bewitched by our own misuse of the language of community in ways that I have tried to describe in this blogspot. At one and the same time it is both "cosy" and unquestioned as well as actually being "distancing" and discriminatory. It sounds as though it is an uncomplicated concept that points to a real set of social relations when in fact it is the intellectual equivalent of blancmange. It conveys a special, even "unified and holy" state of affairs even when it is actually only being used to describe the people who live in a particular area or who share a common and often arbitrary characteristic (such as ethnic background, type of profession - "the business community", hobby - "the golfing community" or disability - the"deaf community"). It is often used where it literally doesn't exist "a gated community", a "virtual community", "the Islington community" etc. In these instances almost any other term is less mystificatory - why can't we just say "business people", "golfers", "deaf people", "Islington people" etc.?

Not surprisingly any attempt to construct a sensible social policy based on this woolly nonsense(especially around "cohesion" or "regeneration") is doomed to both failure and incoherence.

"Community" is neither cohesive or coherent. There is a sense in which the concept is highly "adhesive" - it sticks around and cannot be got rid of . Like a bad penny it keeps turning up. It has a sort of cloying desperation when it is used by politicians. It gets stuck in almost any inappropriate situation so that it ends up becoming oxymoronic or tautologous. It is abit like getting chewing gum in your hair - the more you try and get rid of it the more tangled it gets - best to chop it off!

Confucius was once asked how he would deal with a particular problem for the administration of his government and instead of replying at the level of social policy he called instead for a "rectification of names" - a clarification of the langauge used to describe the situation: "If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant. If what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone. If this remains undone, morals and art (ie society) will deteriorate. If justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above all." (Analects 13.3).

Well Amen to that!

Lets try and avoid this dangerous and ideologically loaded concept of community where we can, rather than bring it into every possible conversation as if to bless and sanctify the proceedings. Otherwise we are going to keep spinning around like Alice:

"Then you should say what you mean" the March Hare went on.
"I do!", Alice hastily replied "at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing you know"
"Not the same a bit!" said the Hatter. "Why you might as well say that 'I see what I eat' is the same thing as 'Ieat what I see'!" (Lewis Carroll)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mobility and community

In an excellent article (http://progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=4777) about the difference between a conservative and a social democratic concept of social mobility, Karen Buck MP says the following in her first paragraph:

"Beware of concepts that seem, superficially, to have politicial endorsement from across the politicial spectrum. There will be something about that concept that is slippery and hard to pin down. A few years ago the cry went up for "community". The word became the subject of endless seminars and thinktank reports, was talked about with great erudition by Amitai Etzioni and Robert Puttnam, was deemed to be the holy grail for society, and specifically as an object behind various regeneration schemes ('New Deal for Communities') and then - vanished! Where today , is the rigorous new thinking, the big money and the government programmes geared towards community building? Nowhere, and primarily because, the closer we got, the less we could define a common meaning, still less a shared approach to achieving it. Did we want communities of people 'like us', familiar with a shared culture and history? Did we mean something that bound together those very different cultures, values and lifestyles? Did we want more mobility? Or less? Did we not, perhaps, want women the traditional nurturers of family and neighbourhood, back in the home to carry on that now neglected task?"

This is absolutely right and is music to my ears! In particular she points to a growing feminist critique of the notion of community which hides a deeply reactionary view of women's role in society. She also hints at the fact that community can be used as a concept that inhibits mobility and the breaking down of inequalities. Because of course talk of community heads us off from talking about economic inequalities (class) and makes us think we are describing a static structure rather than a dynamic process that is open to change. Right on the money!