Posted tagged ‘society’

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.

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.