|Photo by Cathy Yeulet|
What is the nature of community? Today we often hear talk of "the black community", "the gay community", the "trans community" etc. To what degree can a single physical characteristic like race, gender or sexuality be the formative determinant of something which can genuinely be characterised as a community?
Merriam-Webster defines "community" as "a unified body of individuals" and then goes on to give a variety of examples.
Wikipedia says : "A community is a social unit with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity. Communities may share a sense of place situated in a given geographical area or in virtual space through communication platforms."
I begin with myself. I'm white, male and heterosexual. I don't feel that I'm a part of a white community or a male community or a heterosexual community. When I experience a sense of community it is irrespective of race, gender or sexuality and based on other factors.
There may be many factors which can be the basis of community, but here are some I can identify :
A family or a workplace can be a community regardless of any differences between the individuals who make it up.
People can be united by a shared cultural heritage, including shared history, myths and first language.
3. Belief system
People can be brought together by a shared belief system, such as a religion or political allegiance.
People can be brought together by a shared hobby, or shared interest in music, movies, literature or sport, etc.
5. A common threat
People can be united by a threat which is posed to all of them, for instance, when one country launches a military attack against another it is usually enough to cause the citizens of that country to unite in the spirit of self-preservation.
I think the reason we might talk about a "black community" or a "gay community" etc. is that we may perceive the group to be united by a common threat. Whether this is true now, is open to argument, but a stronger argument of this kind can be made when looking into the past. When racial segregation was legal and homosexuality was illegal, oppression might provide a unifying factor producing a sense of community amongst members of these identity groups.
To the extent that someone feels they are a part of a "black community" or a "gay community", is it because they are part of a community which is united by a particular cultural attitude to that shared characteristic? Will a black atheist necessarily feel more communal unity with a black Christian or Muslim, than with a white atheist? Will a gay conservative feel more communal unity with a gay radical or a straight conservative?
There is no doubt that there are communities within the black and gay demographics, based around the factors of proximity, culture, belief system or interest. But can each demographic as a whole be classed as a community? Where is the proof that race alone is a unifying factor which can compete with something like political affiliation? People who argue that there is a black community tend to then have to resort to claiming that some people are "not really black" because their political beliefs set them at odds with other members of the demographic.
Some find it politically useful to argue that demographics are communities, but evidence needs to be provided that this argument is meaningful.
One of the most extraordinary claims is that there is such a thing as "the LGBTQ+ community". Here it is not even a common identity characteristic which is considered to be the basis for a sense of unity, rather this is a group said to be unified by what they are not. The argument is that everyone who is not heterosexual has enough in common with everyone else who is not heterosexual to be unified by that fact.
Conflict is rife within all demographic groups, be they based on race, sex, sexuality or gender identity.
If we want to come together in meaningful and creative ways, I think we need to do this through :
1. Proximity - getting to know our neighbours.
2. Culture - learning about each others histories and traditions.
3. Belief systems - finding and embracing those beliefs which heal conflict and build community and using reason and science to eliminate beliefs which, because they are lies, can only feed division.
4. Shared interest - especially those, like music, which have always had to power to be the expression of a communal soul
5. Recognition of common threats - ecological, medical and social - and the need to cooperate as a community to address them.
Whatever our race, sex, sexuality or gender identity, that's fine. But we can't look to these qualities to unite us, and mustn't let these qualities divide us.