Posted tagged ‘community’

Universities and the ‘broken society’

August 16, 2011

For some time now the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been talking about what he calls Britain’s ‘broken society’. This theme has been part of his message since 2008 at least. Back then he listed the elements of the broken society as ‘issues of family breakdown, welfare dependency, failing schools, crime, and the problems that we see in too many of our communities.’ In the wake of the unrest in parts of England he was back to his theme yesterday, this time referring to ‘children without fathers, schools without discipline and communities without control.’ He stressed that his ministers would be told to ‘review every aspect of our work to mend our broken society’, and that he would in particular instigate ‘all out war on gangs and gang culture’.

It is, I believe, hugely important for politicians, who when faced with some crisis or other feel under pressure to ‘do something’, to put the scene into an historical perspective. Nothing we experience is ever as new as we think. Britain, or indeed any other country, does not particularly have a more ‘broken society’ now than it did in the past. A quick journey through the pages of a Dickens novel will quickly reveal a far more broken society than we are likely to discover today. Unrest, looting, anarchism, riots did not suddenly emerge, without any historical precedent, in 2011. They have some longevity, and this being so are unlikely to be amenable to a quick political fix in time for a general election cycle.

But if there is an interesting question here, it is how we see, understand, sustain and protect communities; or indeed, how we identify them. This week I have moved into a new home on a new (to me) street in a new town in a new country (Scotland), and I have been struck by the warmth of the welcome from people living several houses away, who I might have imagined would pay little attention to our arrival. There is a community there. Even in the responses to the English riots there were significant elements of community spirit and concern.

I don’t believe that today’s society is ‘broken’, and I am far from sure that it helps to describe it in this way; indeed doing so may reinforce the behaviours that are thought to be symptomatic of ‘brokenness’ Nor, frankly, do I subscribe to what I think is the rather facile suggestion that violent riots, at least in England, are an expression of political resistance to expenditure cutbacks. What may however be the matter is that it has become hard to see what constitutes today’s ‘society’ and how it could be held together, and this is in part because there is so little understanding of where to find contemporary communities. There has been some very interesting academic analysis on this – I would mention Benedict Anderson and Robert Bellah – and it might be useful to think a little more about the nature and purpose of social communities before setting out to fix them.

Society needs a successful narrative if it is to work, and one of our problems is that the narrative has become disjointed. It is the task of our universities in particular to re-energise this debate and to provide materials for the re-discovery of the community. It is an important task.


Online worlds

July 30, 2011

I recently attend a dinner party at which there was a lively debate about the online experience offered by social networking sites. The overwhelming majority view of those present (average age probably around 58) was that the internet was destroying the traditional concept of a ‘community’ by persuading social networkers that what they were experiencing represented genuine social interaction. It was however not, one person present suggested, a real experience st all: virtual networking was at best a fantasy. A real network needed real human interaction, real meetings, the touch of another human, and people looking into each others’ eyes.

Well, yesterday and today I have been in Los Angeles attending Vidcon, which describes itself as a ‘yearly conference for people who like video’. In fairness, that doesn’t describe it at all. It is a conference for those who reach out to the world on youtube, who broadcast themselves or who ‘follow’ others who do so. There are probably some 4,000 or so people attending the event. I am here to accompany my son, who is an enthusiastic fan of several youtube broadcasters.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I have found can best be described as a very lively and very real community. Many of these people have never met ‘in the flesh’ before, but they relate to each other instantly and know each other almost intimately. The opportunity to meet probably adds something, but it isn’t what has established the spirit of community: that derives specifically from the online element.

Maybe we just need to reconsider what constitutes ‘community’. In fact, through email and the web and social networking I know people all over the world, and often feel that they are part of that more intimate circle we regard as genuine friends. So on the whole it is my view that the internet, far from destroying the concept of a community, has enhanced it. If it shut down tomorrow, I would feel a great sense of personal loss.

So I feel that we should stop worrying about all the nasty things we fear the internet is doing socially; instead we should embrace it.

The power of the community

April 12, 2010

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was ‘no such thing as society’, and in recent years it has become commonplace for commentators to suggest that affluence, the internet and demographic changes had brought the traditional concept of the ‘community’ to an end. In fact, various academics and thinkers have been suggesting new models of society and community to arrest this apparent development.

Over the past couple of days I have been reminded, however, that the community still has immense power, particularly during times of stress, to comfort and unite. Watching the response of the Polish people to the plane crash that killed the country’s President and other leaders provided an example of the effect of community solidarity.

On Saturday I spend the day in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in the North of England, watching Newcastle United play Blackpool. Newcastle, as readers here know, has been promoted back into the English football premier league. The North of England has, over a decade or two, been seriously affected by the decline of traditional industries and the resulting unemployment and poverty. Amidst all this, Newcastle’s football club stood as the embodiment of the community in its hunger for something better. More than anywhere else that I am aware of, this sports club represents the community, and the community lives in part through it – which is one of the key reasons why I am a supporter of this club. You can now see the surge of optimism running through the city on the back of the club’s promotion: may it not all turn to ashes next year!

But one way or another, the idea of the community still lives.

Re-discovering community

December 11, 2009

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I moved to Ireland with my family in the early 1960s, when I was seven years old. We came from a heavily industrialised region of Germany to rural County Westmeath, and one of my earliest memories of that time is of the strong sense of community: there was a feeling of togetherness and of a common life and common interests that, at least at that young age, I had not been aware of in Germany. Of course an active community can also be claustrophobic, and in 1960s/1970s Ireland you became most aware of it when you realised you could do almost nothing that would not become public knowledge within hours. And of course we also know now that the community of the time was concealing some terrible secrets. But it also provided many supports and comforts.

Later I moved to Dublin, and Dublin itself moved into an age of growing prosperity and aggressive materialism, and the sense of community was much less apparent. And yet it could make an unexpected appearance occasionally. I remember, just after I took office as President of DCU, visiting Ballymun (the outer city district just North of DCU, which for a couple of decades had been a centre of urban blight, high rise apartments, bad services, crime and deprivation); what struck me more than the poverty and the rampant social problems was the amazing diversity of voluntary social organisations and societies.

And now, as we have lost our recent up-start prosperity, what appears to be happening is that we are witnessing a return of community ideals. Some recent market research discovered that advertising that makes at least an oblique reference to community values and activities resonates more with potential customers than that which addresses just the consumer-related benefits. Also, organisations that depend on volunteers to run their often charitable activities have witnessed an explosion of offers of help.

It seems that material adversity is bringing out the people and putting them in touch with the community. But there may also be other things at work. Consider, for example, the apparent decline of email as a communications method of choice; this is not a sign that people are returning to writing letters on vellum paper with quill pens, but rather that email is perhaps seen as too private and individualistic, and that communication through social networking sites and applications is attracting younger people in particular: the concept of community for the digital age.

The idea of the community has also been harnessed for social theory and semi-ideological purposes. The German-Jewish sociologist Amitai Etzioni was one of the founders of the ‘communitarian‘ frame of reference, which influenced a number of politicians, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Another noted academic with communitarian ideas is Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who has been influential amongst some politicians in Ireland.  Although it cannot be said that this has become an ideology, nevertheless it has contributed to an interest in the community as a basis for social and economic policies. And it has reinforced the idea that aggressive individualism, unimpeded by any recognition of society, will tend to unravel after a while.

So as we try to make sense of all the events of the past two years or so, it seems that our sense of the community is being re-awakened. That cannot be a bad thing.

Finding some social space

July 5, 2009

For a couple of years in the late 1970s, I was part of a small group that travelled around the Irish Midlands every so often to take part in what was then a popular phenomenon: the whist drive. Whist, as I hope at least some readers will know, is a team card game., and a ‘whist drive’ is an event at which teams compete for a prize. To be honest, I don’t really know how widespread whist drives were at that time, but they were in fashion in Counties Westmeath and Offaly (which is as far as we got) back then; and if I say so myself, I was rather a good player.

But what I remember most from those days is not the game but the occasion. The players were an extraordinary social mix, from all sections of society, and in addition to the game there was a lot of conversation over refreshments. And in many respects I found that social side of the events even more interesting than the playing.

I had forgotten about this until a passer-by in the town where we currently are asked today whether there was a ‘bingo hall’ anywhere in the vicinity. I confess I have only ever played bingo once or twice, and I have no idea whether there is any such thing as an operational bingo hall here. Somehow I doubt it, because the era for such diversions seems to be over. And that made me remember the whist drives.

Of course there is entertainment of much greater sophistication available today, a good bit of it heavily technological. But not much of it takes place in spaces where people gather and socialise. And even when people manifestly want to gather – as can be seen with many young people – we don’t offer them the space in which to do it; and then we wonder why they annex a space that suits them and from which they create apprehension in others. Moving them on from that is not the answer – we need to give them the infrastructure for social interaction.

We cannot turn the clock back: it is unlikely that are going to return to whist drives and bingo. But we need to find the modern equivalent, and the locations for it. We already know and have the online virtual locations, but I believe we also need the physical ones. Now that our recently acquired wealth is coming under threat, it is time to re-discover a sense of community.

Common courtesies

August 2, 2008

I confess you may find this to be another of those posts on this blog that show me to be some ghastly middle-aged traditionalist. But here I go anyway.

This morning, as I was about to leave a shop, I saw an elderly man with a walking stick who was about to enter; so I stood back and held the door open for him. He walked past and grunted something, perhaps to me and perhaps not; and a couple of teenage girls who were watching had a fit of giggles.

And these days, almost every day of the week at some point I will see a group of youths, usually young men, standing around verbally molesting passers by.

Of course none of these phenomena are unique to our age, and as I have pointed out in other contexts, those who believe that there was once a golden age (whatever that may have been) are deluding themselves. But for all that, I do wonder whether the concept of ‘manners’ has peculiarly disappeared from our social environment at this point in history. As a young boy I went to a boarding school, and every menu for our meals had the words at the foot of the page, ‘manners maketh man’ (sorry, that was not yet an inclusive age in terms of gender). And then, some years later when I was studying for my driving test, the state-published booklet setting out driving theory began with the statement that at the heart of all good driving were the three ‘C’s: ‘care’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘consideration’.

If I bemoan the fact (if it is a fact) that we have lost a sense of manners, it is not because I am yearning to be treated with the respect due to my great age, or that I have some sort of old-fashioned desire for Victorian primness – though there is an interesting analysis of Victorian manners in Gertrude Himmelfarb’s book, The De-moralization Of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (1996). Rather, it is because I believe that manners and courtesy are part of the glue that allows us to have communities with a sense of community spirit. The basic premise of the idea of a community is that we feel concern for and solidarity with others; and it is hard to generate that condition if on the whole our attitude and behaviour towards others is one of contempt or even just disregard.

On the other hand, manners and courtesy will seem counter-intuitive to people if we do not provide them with the social infrastructures into which these concepts can fit easily. If we maintain local communities without social spaces and supports and without opportunities for young people in particular to make social contributions we cannot be surprised if people discover a sense of fun experienced on the back of other people’s discomfort. Society needs to get people’s respect, but it also needs to earn it. And if someone of my generation wants to be shown respect by today’s youth, we also need to show them respect.

My fear at the moment is that we treat ‘manners’ as some sort of outdated practice that we should now regard as vaguely embarrassing. We need to find a way back from that position, but perhaps we also need to foster a better understanding of what society – and community – really is.