Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Community: Button Up Your Coat, Brother!

I’ve finished reading Amitai Etzioni’s book, My Brother’s Keeper. It’s an apt title for a moral polemic against , and I’m attracted to his views despite my initial skepticism. When he was teaching in the Harvard Business School (see photo) he found that most of the students considered it okay to lie whenever it was in their firm’s interests. (No wonder the scandal occurred a couple of decades later.) Etzioni concluded that the only way to change the culture in a measurable way was through a social — so he decided to start one. He largely succeeded, though I’m not sure I’d call it a social movement (its roots are not in the grass) but rather an movement or “school of thought” about political affairs. I’m not sure how well it’s doing these days because it seems to depend on schmoozing with heads of and Etzioni admits that he’s getting old and running out of energy. But he actually did work in the White House and later had frequent meetings bending the ears of the , Tony Blair, Helmut Kohl, and on and on. He calls his movement “” and claims that hundreds of famous writers belong to it. I know the general perspective of an impressive few, including Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah, and Charles Taylor. As a name-dropper, has plenty of names to play with.

Myself, I’ve never grappled with the problem of community, though I ought to; my friend Ann Swidler was one of the co-authors of Habits of the Heart, a study of American individualism that Etzioni admires. Now’s the time, I guess.

The main Communitarian doctrine puts responsibilities on an equal (if not higher) level than rights. Instead of handling most social problems through government intervention, it suggests treating them as issues and holding us personally responsible for managing them. For example, Etzioni is dubious about government schemes that pay people to look after the elderly, since that only commodifies relationships that should be personal and familial. My friend Arlie is troubled by the same point and has been writing a book about the of personal care. (I admit that this has never troubled me.)

Etzioni grew up on a kibbutz and still recalls the strong sense of mutuality that he experienced within that community. He wants to evoke the same spirit in today’s American society to offset the prevailing self-centered individualism. I can see his point and, at least this morning, I’m leaning more in that direction. However, he doesn’t really reflect on the down-side of .

Communitarians want to revive our moral sensibilities and stimulate us to act on them. At one point, Etzioni asks three “what-would-you-do-if” questions to assess our willingness to intervene when we see a wrong being done. I passed two of the items, but not the third; I wasn’t sure whether I would stop and reproach a pair of lovers who were carving their initials into a tree. (I don’t actually know whether that harms the tree. Is it worse than tattooing one’s arm or piercing one’s bellybutton? I don’t like those practices either but I don’t scold strangers on the street for mutilating themselves, whereas I’d try to stop an assault or murder.)

The logic is impeccable. If you don’t want government to legislate on every conceivable topic (and Communitarians don’t) then you have to “gently chide” those who violate your community’s moral standards. In some societies, people are urged to be their brothers’ keepers instead of minding their own business. I remember reading a book decades ago by the psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who said that children were brought up better in Russia than America. They spent more time in group care, where they were taught to and to take care of each other. In a Soviet school, if the teacher left the room, pandemonium did not break out, as in the United States, for the children were trained to monitor each other’s behavior and uphold the standards they had been taught. (This educational philosophy was developed by a guy named Makarenko, who had run successful orphanages on those principles during and after the Russian Revolution.)

This community-orientation has diminished in Russia today, leaving people uncertain what ethics to believe in, but a decade or two ago, there was still considerable mutual monitoring. A stranger might stop you on the street and advise you to button up your overcoat. One Canadian friend recounted having gone to a bank in Moscow, where she was studying for a year, intending to withdraw money. The teller advised her against taking out so much cash. She had to explain that she was getting married and would need an unusual amount. On another occasion, when walking through a library carrying a dozen books, my friend was stopped by a librarian, who told her that it was “uncultured” to carry so many at one time; she should make two trips instead!

I‘m uncertain what to think of this ethic. Extreme seems to go with the totalitarian social control of the communist days. Did the librarian also denounce her neighbor to the secret police? What would follow if my Canadian friend were to reply, “Mind your own business!”?

No doubt social interactions are more polite in an individualistic culture. People don’t even criticize their own friends – much less strangers — even when they are concerned about them. If we want more mutuality and even more intimacy, we have to authorize each other to make blunt comments. On balance, I’m prepared to do that, though I feel uncomfortable after I’ve done so — especially if I’ve appeared rude. Civil society, the realm outside of government, requires a great sense of responsibility for each other. It is too easy to retreat into polite conversations about private matters – family, health, styles, new consumer items, office politics — instead of larger public issues that may be contentious. Folk wisdom in North America advises people to avoid politics and religion. Those are the topics I most enjoy discussing – and certainly the topics that are most important for our collective life.

Community spirit varies from one society to another. Etzioni see it most fully manifested in Scandinavia. He does not find it well developed nowadays in , mainly because of the conflicts between different communities — obviously between Arabs and Jews, but also between secular and religious Jews. Personally, I think that certain other societies are even more individualistic than North America: societies in particular. I remember reading Aung San Suu Kyi’s opinion that it was hard to organize nonviolent resistance to the dictatorship in Burma because Burmese people are not affiliated to any particular temple as a community, the way Christians are to their own parish church. Also, salvation for the Buddhist is entirely a result of personal meditation and insight; no monk, community, or congregation can help. That moral isolation is radical individualism. Probably a moderate balance between the extremes is best.

(See Etzioni’s blog: http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog/.)


Anonymous rex said...

If I consider 'my (or our), business' to be 'the well-being of all life', then I am 'minding my own business' when (without any arrogance) I tell others that it seems to me that what they are doing could be somewhat damaging. Of course, since we all need respect, I must be as respectful as I can be when I do so! [And I must do so 'without any arrogance' because I know that because I am human, I could be mistaken!]
Also, because I am committed to respect all life, I must (when it seems appropriate) invite others to 'keep me on the ball' or before too long none of us will have any 'ball' to be on!

9:06 AM  

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