What does community mean in the 21st century?
Human beings are gregarious. Since the dawn of time, we have created groups, societies and communities. But if our need to congregate and be social is timeless, the form that our communities take is deeply influenced by historical circumstances. The concept of community is central to Judaism and to the ethos of the Jewish people. But community—our way of being together, our way of organizing our collective lives—has changed and evolved as the world has transformed. In the 21st century, in societies rocked by philosophical, technological, social and economic upheavals, in a world where many of the old patterns of behavior, affiliation and identity have changed, the traditional model of community is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic adds a layer of complexity to these changes, accelerating processes and making some ways of association obsolete. What then is the future of community?
—Nadine Epstein, editor-in-chief and CEO of Moment
—Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network
Interviews by Diane M. Bolz, Sarah Breger, Lilly Gelman, George E. Johnson,
Amy E. Schwartz, Francie Weinman Schwartz, Ellen Wexler and Laurence Wolff
COMMUNITY, LIKE ALL HUMAN CONCEPTS, varies from here to there and changes over time: tribe, village, guild, town, neighborhood, union, fraternity, bowling league, parent-teacher association, church, mosque, synagogue. Throughout history, people have mourned for the communities of the past, though what is missed is usually a nostalgic and gauzy version of them.
Starting in the 20th century, the rate of change in the course of human events accelerated as never before, and it shows no signs of slowing. The experience and shape of community are in flux, and that is deeply unsettling and even frightening. But everyone forgets that we’ve always lived through dramatic changes. American Jews moved from walking to storefront shtiebls to parking at giant suburban synagogues—a transformation unimaginable to their great-great-grandparents.
Current Jewish conversations about the demise of community seem focused on the end of synagogues. No doubt about it: Membership is down. We are in the midst of another great change, but—make that “and”—we’re good at change. We’ve moved—by force or aspiration—to virtually all countries; learned to speak, preach and tell stories in all the languages; absorbed manners and wisdom from host cultures. As a people, we have changed with the times and flourished.
The decline of temple membership is of concern, but hold the panic. The Jewish community is diffuse and not limited to synagogues, big community centers, corporate federations or famous charities. I found community while working to establish Mayyim Hayyim, the community mikvah and education center in Newton, Massachusetts. Mayyim Hayyim began and continues as an independent nonprofit—unaffiliated with any movement, created for everyone and anyone Jewish and Jewish-adjacent.
Along the way, my personal sense of community expanded from “synagogue Jew” to feeling myself part of a larger, more diverse and amorphous Jewish world. Through Mayyim Hayyim, I am now connected to a new global community working to open the experience of mikvah to everyone, regardless of affiliation, observance or gender identity—a place where everybody is welcome to learn.
Creating community around specific interests can be sustaining. There are people in the Jewish music world singing and playing together and tzedek/justice warriors building coalitions. Millennials and Gen Z Jews are masters at affiliating around their passions, one of which is bringing Jewish institutions to the racial justice table, facing inwards as well as out. Much of their work—and their community connection—happened online even before the pandemic. As a result of COVID-19, many more of us are finding our way there as well: We study and teach online, we mourn and celebrate via Zoom, we plan for the future online. And while most of us miss the ineffable pleasure of each other’s physical presence, the community provided by the web is real.
Family is a bedrock form of community, but even this has changed and expanded radically over the past few decades. Family used to mean a heterosexual couple with children, a unit that might be connected by blood to grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles. Now we know that families come in all configurations and that all families deserve respect and welcome.
So, let’s think big. I’ve always been partial to the notion of cohousing as a model for communal life: not silos like senior living here and summer camps there. Not exactly kibbutzim either, where collective decision-making would be impossible for us American Jews. I’m thinking of a space where people of different generations live in concert—balancing the need for privacy and autonomy (your kitchen may be kosher, mine not at all) balanced by joy (access to babies) and economies (I don’t really need my very own washer/dryer, do you?). It could foster a wise and gracious form of community. It could crash and burn. But as none of our rabbis never said, “Better to dream than to kvetch.”
Anita Diamant is the author of 13 books including The Red Tent, The Jewish Wedding Now and Period. End of Sentence: A New Chapter in the Fight for Menstrual Justice
I’LL START WITH THE BOOK OF EXODUS. I was taught a lot about community by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who said, “First, the community is a group of people with a common story.” So the Exodus story is a story that holds the Jewish people together. And then Sacks made the observation that the creation of the universe is described in Genesis in nine verses, but the building of the Tabernacle is described in Exodus in hundreds of verses. The lesson is that not only is a community a group of people with a common story, but it’s a group of people with a common project, and the process of building the Tabernacle created a community out of the tribes of Israel.
I think that’s still true—a story and a project. The problem is that we don’t have a common story anymore, because the old story we had didn’t include all Americans. And we seem to have lost the common project, and even a common truth. And so to me, the key disease we have is distrust. If you ask people “Do you trust your neighbors?” it used to be 60 percent did, and now it’s 33 percent, and 19 percent of millennials. The younger you go, the more distrust there is. Usually distrust is earned. People are distrustful when people have let them down, and young people feel that a lot of people have let them down. To rebuild community, you have to build trusting relationships on the local level.
The other half of my life is involved in this thing called Weave: The Social Fabric Project, and we go to a neighborhood or town, and we ask “Who is trusted here?” Usually it’s some person who is serving the community in some way and who just shows up for people. For example, there’s a group in Baltimore called Thread, and they surround thousands of underperforming Baltimore students with a network of volunteers who function as extended family. The volunteers will show up on the kid’s doorstep every morning to drive him or her to school, and even if the kid rejects them, they keep showing up. That’s a way of establishing trust—you can reject me, but I’m still going to show up. I’m not sure there are any shortcuts to just building a lot more organizations and relationships of that nature to slowly build trust from the bottom up.
Americans used to see themselves a lot more as members of a community. In the 1950s in Chicago, when you were asked “Where are you from?” you didn’t say “I’m from Chicago,” you said “I’m from 59th and Pulaski.” Your block—that was your place. Those were your people. Then, starting in the mid-1960s, we began to see ourselves as autonomous individuals, that life was sort of an individual journey, and that we could make ourselves happy individually. We adopted a culture that emphasized freedom more than community. I think we were right to do that. There was a lot of conformity in the 1950s. But for the past 60 years, we’ve overshot the mark. We’ve gone too far out on the edge of self and not enough toward society. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett have a book titled The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, which came out this year. It shows all the bad social effects that came from this cultural shift, and those include greater inequality, greater polarization, lower social mobility and lower social support.
I have faith in pendulums. If we have shifted a little too far toward individual freedom, I think there’s a great interest in community right now, because we see how it’s fraying. Some people recognize the problem and are trying to find ways to build new forms of community. They’re not just going to go back to the rural small town, or the Kiwanis Club, but maybe there are new forms of community we can discover. Nextdoor, for instance, is sort of like Facebook for neighborhoods.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times. His books include The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.
IN A SIMPLE SENSE, a community is a group of people who trust each other and believe that others will act in a way that is good for all of them. Right now there are two kinds of community. The one that is most familiar is a very tight, stable, warm, affective community that encompasses a person’s whole identity, like families, the village, the tribe, the synagogue and so on. But that’s been in decline at least for the past century. It’s not going away, but it’s less central to social life and less exclusive. What’s growing is a second sort, which is focused on the idea of friendship. It’s a community that’s still very important but is less permanent, less locked in, less total, more flexible. In the process of constructing that in the 21st century, and it’s a long process, a lot of people have slipped through the cracks and lost their core communities in villages, workplaces and so on and have not yet picked up a friendship network. The transition is still underway. So there are many lonely people.
These changes, primarily instigated by inventions such as the telegraph, telephone, rapid transportation and the internet, won’t lead to a post-community era. People will still have communal relations. But this shift changes the nature of community and makes it more complex. People, in a way that has not been true in the past, are part of multiple communities. For example, in a traditional small village, someone who was gay was not part of a gay community. They were part of a community that rejected their gayness, but was still their community. Now they can be part of that community, but they can also be part of an LGBTQ community, and those two groups fit together in a very different way.
Most people do not comprehend the importance of structure in the decision-making process within a community. People think you can just sit down, talk and things will sort themselves out, but that kind of conversation is rarely constructive. You need formal rules of communication for people with different viewpoints to respond to and interact with one another. Otherwise nothing is going to happen. For larger processes you need even more structure. One sort of community communication that I’ve been working on is called Common Ground Town Hall, where people of widely differing views get together and talk about a controversial issue and figure out where there is common ground. It turns out, there is quite a lot of agreement.
Charles Heckscher is a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University and director of the Center for the Study of Collaboration in Work and Society. His books include Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community.
I’M VERY INFLUENCED BY THE WORK OF VICTOR TURNER, a mid-century cultural anthropologist with whom I was fortunate to study at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and early 1980s. He had a theory of “liminality” and “communitas.” “Liminality” describes a period when the old rules break down and things are between the old and the new, and people don’t really know quite where they are. “Communitas” is a period when people are ready to form a different kind of bond, to be close to each other in new kinds of ways.
I experienced a time of “liminality” when I went to France in the 1960s during student and worker uprisings. The old structured French pieties about how you live and what social structure was no longer seemed to work. People took to the streets. They just didn’t want to live in that old way anymore, but nothing new had taken its place. In fact, things did settle down and return a little bit to the way they had been before. But in the meantime, there was a period of maybe six or eight months when things were quite fluid and a whole generation of people didn’t play by the rules. During this time of “communitas,” new forms of socialization emerged and people were more porous to each other’s feelings and ideas. I think something similar happened during the 1968 civil rights protests in the United States. At times like these, rules about class and caste—who talks to whom, whether a churchman can talk to a politician and whether a young person can talk to an old person—break down and don’t seem as important anymore. When that happens, when Blacks can talk to whites and immigrants can talk to non-immigrants, people have a sense of things opening up, exploding the possibilities for empathy.
What’s happening now is very much of this spirit. We’ve all been through something, and while we’ve experienced it differently, we’re facing an America we don’t recognize. Some of us are looking at America and saying, “I’m for the first time recognizing how racist it is.” Or “I don’t recognize how violent it is, how conservative it is, how cynical it is, how willing people are to use their guns. I don’t recognize my country, my people.” I think we are in a time of regrouping our forces and that we are ready to emerge, to go out and experience this “communitas” and form new allegiances and new forms of connection. That’s what I’m hoping for, because I think we’ve seen the absolutely darkest side of going the other way.
Sherry Turkle is a professor in the Science, Technology and Society program at MIT and founding director of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self. Her latest book is The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.
I’M CONCERNED ABOUT THE WAY PEOPLE ASSUME COMMUNITY IS TRIBAL. This is an assumption we get today on the Left as well as the Right. Of course, it’s true that immediate community is easier to find with people with whom you share extensive history, people whose codes you don’t need to work hard to crack, people whose jokes you get immediately. All that makes it easier to find community within your own tribe, however you define it. To become a universalist requires an act of abstraction. Universalism has become a dirty word because it’s become associated with the imposition of one culture on another culture in one’s own interests. But that’s the abuse of universalism, fake universalism; it’s not what universalism really means.
Universalism used to be a watchword of the Left. It meant caring about people who weren’t part of your immediate community, whether they were Welsh coal miners or South African freedom fighters—not like the assumption of those on the Right that your only deep connections and obligations are to those in your immediate vicinity, those with whom you have more in common.
It’s paradoxical, because it’s not false to say we live in an age of globalization, with more connections with people who are different than ever before, and yet the experience of community seems like something we only have in a more and more narrow way. So, in a sense, I’m arguing for going back to an experience of community that was founded on some greater ideal. One of my heroes is Paul Robeson, who was at home in many cultures and languages and at the same time a freedom fighter for those he called his own people, African Americans. He was the son of an enslaved man, but he was also someone who was willing to put himself at risk for a wider community that he had created with different people at different times of his life. That would be for me the kind of model to return to. Of course, in some ways, finding community in an ever-narrower circle of people is a reaction to a sense of powerlessness that the experience of globalization brings out in us. But it does not have to be that way.
Susan Neiman is director of the Einstein Forum, a think tank in Berlin. Her books include Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil. She is currently coauthoring a book called Against Tribalism.
WHEN I WAS HIRED AT NOTRE DAME, I gave a lecture in which I told incoming students that because they were attending one of the elite schools in the United States, the whole world lay before them, and they had every opportunity imaginable—except for one. As students here, they were currently enjoying something they would have difficulty finding after graduation, the experience of a close-knit, caring, rich, communal life. In some ways this was going to be a high point in their lives.
It was sort of a depressing message, but I was saying that they should recognize what they love so much about a college environment: It’s a relatively small community, in a relatively confined space. For all of that diversity of pursuits of different majors and hobbies and so forth, there’s a kind of shared experience that’s hard to replicate in contemporary society. Your work as a student, your attendance in classes, where you live your lives, where you eat and where you gather for social events—it is all integrated. Your lives overlap.
Modern America is good at a lot of things, but there’s a fragmentation of life that really undermines this treasured experience of community. As a society, we don’t recognize this enough as a cost of modern life. That cost is reflected in the breakdown of our capacity for civic friendship and for high levels of trust and empathy. I see this manifest in a lot of pathologies in our politics, our social lives and our social spheres.
We have to begin to rethink the way we separate the so-called elite from the people. You can’t require that kind of a change, but if it occurred we would reintegrate the overlapping circles of life that we have largely succeeded in separating. The hallmark of modern American society is to disintegrate, literally dis-integrate, these overlapping kinds of activities.
But we could rearrange our physical spaces to reintegrate them into a single space. In every great classical city, usually within the space of a few blocks, every major activity of life is available. You don’t have to go far to find a place to shop, a place to worship, a school, a public space where people can congregate—people of various ages, so we’re also not segregated by age group. As an architecture professor I know says, on any slice of a good pizza pie you’ll find all of the toppings together. You don’t separate the pepperoni over there and the peppers over there, you integrate the various toppings onto each slice. And that’s a well-formed community in just the very basic physical sense.
It’s not just the physical spaces that need variety but rather the human types needed for communities to thrive. Some countries experience talent drain as a national crisis, but I would say the United States is experiencing talent drain as an internal, domestic crisis. This has an impact on community, because when I tell a talented student attending one of my classes, “You should consider moving back home, or think about not living in Washington, DC or New York City and contributing your talents in places in America that need them; or settle here in South Bend, Indiana, we need talented people like you here”—they look at me as if I’m crazy. Because why would they want to live in a place that is so drained of people they would find interesting to talk to and live with? So this becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.
If you believe in a God, you’d think that God, in his mercy and his kindness, spread talent widely throughout the world, in every hamlet and town and city, in order that every community could enjoy the benefits of the diversity of those talents. We’ve destroyed God’s plan by siphoning off all of the people who might become the leaders in those communities and leaving devastation in their wake. To revitalize communities, we need to rethink the ethos that we’ve developed since the end of World War II of concentrating the leadership class in a few places.
I hate to be hackneyed, but think about George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life. What does he want to do ever since he’s a little boy? He wants to leave Bedford Falls, right? What we learn over the course of that movie is that had he left, it would have been a much worse place. He only stayed because fate conspired to keep him there. I used to give the example of Mayor Pete, here in South Bend. He’s left us now, but he had an outsized influence here. He actually made the city a better place because of his decision to be here. Our streets, our physical spaces are better now, and it’s easier to enjoy the experience of our community, because we have these better public spaces. And so I’ll be the first to give Mayor Pete props for that.
I would count myself in the more pessimistic camp of the prospects for community in contemporary American life. Based on my experience and my students’ experiences of being on Zoom for inordinate amounts of time over the past year, the severe limitations of online contact are evident. I don’t think that technology replicates the cues and body language we use or genuine face-to-face ongoing human engagement.
Patrick Deneen is a political theorist and professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. His books include Why Liberalism Failed and Conserving America?: Essays on Present Discontents.
A SMALL TOWN CAN BE AS HORRIBLY LONELY AS ANY PLACE IN THE WORLD. I’ve never been as lonely as I’ve sometimes been in university towns where I knew no one. Throughout my life, just walking the streets of the city has given me a sense of connection with strangers. They come into view and out of view, but by the time they go out of view they’ve been something for each other which is quite remarkable. For me, and for many, the relief of the city has been immense.
What’s happened since the pandemic, though it’s been hard, has made city life more interesting than it has been in a long time. Last summer, when things started heating up, a couple of people living near me in Greenwich Village were panicked, as we all were, and there’s a little park across from me on Seventh Avenue, the AIDS Memorial Park, and people said “Why don’t we meet tomorrow for an hour or so, just to comfort each other?” So we met in the park, wearing masks, and we found it compelling to continue that. We’re all of an age, and we’ve now been vaccinated, but about six of us meet regularly to this day. We are a group of people who are able to find comfort in each other and gather together around a condition, a crisis. You could say that’s a community.
Community is immensely circumstantial. There are people who are lifelong friends because they went through a snowstorm together. In every conceivable situation, people find a way to make community, because it’s a way of survival. And mostly community does form around survival, not around ideals or ideas.
My mother had happy memories of the Depression—she said it was because people were kind to one another. As hard as things were, the thing she remembered the most was the camaraderie, the way people took the condition as a shared condition. I remember her telling me about a time when she was living in a merged apartment of two families—somehow, among four adults and a number of children, they made enough money to stay alive. And at a certain point the people who lived across the hall from them were sitting in the dark because they couldn’t pay the electric bill. And her family went through the building and collected the money for them. That sort of thing was a common occurrence. Of course, when it was over, people went back to their normal lives. That will happen with this crisis too. We hear constantly, “It’s a changed world, we’ll never go back”—I don’t believe it for a minute.
I’m a child of the Left, and of course, people found community in the Left, just as they did in moral philosophy and in religion. The thing that was interesting about feminism was that in the 1980s I believed we had formed a permanent community, that we’d have it forever. There were so many people who met regularly through those years for parties and dinners and marches, and the urgency of those revolutionary days gave us all comrades whom we thought we’d have for life. But it didn’t turn out that way. You can’t keep revolutionary urgency alive forever, and as the urgency faded and we got older, we separated into lives that did not require those friendships to remain so urgent, and that was a great sadness for many of my generation. Many of us did stay good friends because there were other things that held us together, but it turned out that the urgency of those years, for the New Left in general, the genuine community of those years fell by the wayside. The critical period had passed. After a revolutionary period, then you have the hard, slogging work of making social change bit by bit, person by person, and that’s not done in community.
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic living in New York City. Her books include The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir and the recent Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader.
COMMUNITY IS WHERE WE GO TO SEE AND BE SEEN BY ONE ANOTHER. This sounds small but it’s very big. One of the fundamental conditions of modern people is that they feel anonymous. And they feel anonymous because of three processes that have happened to humanity in the past few hundred years.
Human beings used to believe that nature is alive and aware of their existence: Through animism and astrology, somehow the planets are aware of us and communicating messages. But, as it has been said, modern science killed nature. Nature was alive. Now it is dead. Nature is not aware of us. Nature is not observing us. We are anonymous. But at least we have God. God is there; God is watching us. But even that is lost for many people. If modern science murdered nature, as Nietzsche put it, modern theology murdered God. A lot of people, even religious people who still believe in God, have a hard time with sha’at ha-din [“the time of judgment”], the idea that God is watching us individually. So, what is left when we feel so unseen? All we have left is each other.
This takes me to a third process that happened through modernity—urbanization. When people used to live in small clans and small villages, they knew each other’s names, lived next to each other, and were aware of each other. The experience of living in a big city is living with a lot of people next to each other, but not with each other. Everyone is minding their own business. This trifecta of modernity makes people feel very much alone.
Digital technology is an attempt by people to be seen again, sharing their lives on Facebook: “I went to the market today. I bought a banana. I ate it. I have a picture of that.” People have an obsessive need to scream, “Look at me, look at me. I’m not seen.” They believe that technology can give us back what modern science took from us, but it doesn’t work. The more time people spend on social media, the more lonely they feel. The only thing we have left in this world of loneliness, where people feel so anonymous, is community.
What is community? It’s a group of people who see each other’s lives. Yuval Noah Harari said a community is a group of people who gossip about each other—who are so curious about each other that they want to share information about each other. They give the gift of seeing and receive the gift of being seen. The answer to the sense of anonymity and loneliness is not technology; it’s community. And one of the most sophisticated and effective ways to create community is religious ritual. Why? First, people get together and do it together. And second, it’s imperative. It doesn’t matter what the ritual is. If people get together every week to repeat a ritual for 40 weeks, they’ll be gossiping about each other.
One of the problems of the secular world is that it’s not rich with rituals. However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks made a very important observation. Rituals always work—for people who believe in them and for those who don’t believe in them. We have no idea whether religious rituals connect us to God. But we have a very good sense that they do connect us to other people. We can all see how performing religious rituals together weekly connects us and redeems us from a sense of anonymity.
Micah Goodman is an Israeli philosopher of Jewish thought. His books include Maimonides and The Book that Changed Judaism: Secrets of “The Guide for the Perplexed” and The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity.
IN THE MODERN WORLD WE USE “COMMUNITY” AS A SYNONYM FOR A GROUP OF PEOPLE—as if an assemblage of people makes a community. What makes a community is a regular sense of interdependence. I need you and you need me. That is something built into the Orthodox community. We have just gone through the Purim holiday where one of the key features is sending mishloach manot, basically care packages, to other people and going into other people’s houses to share a meal. And of course you can’t be a Jew without giving charity, which is the financial and economic part of community. All of these are a way of articulating the basic principle “Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La-zeh,” all of Israel is responsible one for the other.
To be part of a community, Orthodox Jews need physical proximity: to live together, to pray together three times a day. Can you be an Orthodox Jew on a desert island? Can you be an Orthodox Jew in quarantine? Since the beginning of the pandemic we have seen how it has had a more exponential impact on the sense of community among the Orthodox because so much is dependent on regular daily, weekly gatherings in synagogues, schools and neighborhoods. These things that provided a communal anchor for people have been severely tested by the pandemic, which requires distancing, and nothing can be more difficult for Orthodox Jews of all persuasions than when they can’t be with one another. One of the more difficult aspects of this is death—so many people have died alone without a community because of COVID-19. Death is an example of how important community is—no one wants to die alone.
Samuel Heilman is an emeritus professor of sociology and chair of Jewish studies at City University of New York and author of 14 books, most recently Who Will Lead Us: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America
THE RECENT CORONAVIRUS IS GIVING US A NEW AND SURPRISING WARNING. The problems that we are facing are increasingly global. Closing oneself in a small group based on group identity is dangerous. The problems we are facing, and our most important tasks—not only the virus but the climate—are getting bigger and bigger, and we need to strengthen our ability to act globally.
You see what is happening in Israel. We are suffering because the Haredim and the Arabs live in their own communities and are not integrated into Israeli society. My health now depends on the rabbis of B’nei Brak, who follow their own norms and habits, allowing weddings with thousands of people, spreading the virus. I want everyone to obey the law. The Haredim have been totally spoiled. They get their own schools, their own concessions and privileges, they don’t go into the army, they get money from the state. They have many children, but they don’t give them a general education, in mathematics, science, English, etc., that is needed to give them a good life. For that we pay a big price. We need a national coalition that does not privilege one group over another solely for political reasons.
Arab Israelis, on the other hand, are rather neglected. We need to give them more rights but also demand of them more participation in the functioning of the state. We need to work to get them to serve in the army and police force. There is a lot of crime in Arab communities. We need to grant them more funding for education so that their standard of living is raised, and enable them to contribute much more to Israeli society. We need to help them become more Israeli.
In short, for the challenges of the 21st century, the country must move from multiple disparate communities to one nation, to push from a “Jewish” identity to an “Israeli” identity. We came to Eretz Yisrael to beEretz Yisrael. In the diaspora we were Jews. We know what happened there. We want to be Israelis, legally connected to territory, to a national government, to the Hebrew language. To have a nation that includes not only Jews, but Arabs, Muslims, Christians and others.
A.B. Yehoshua is an Israeli author of a dozen novels, three books of short stories, four plays and four collections of essays. His most recent novel in translation is The Tunnel.
SINCE THE 1960S, WE’VE LOST OUR CIVIC INFRASTRUCTURE, AND WE HAVE TO REBUILD IT. Unfortunately, the Right has focused on business, and the Left has focused on government. Traditional Left thinking has been to have a government that gets things done. But the new thinking is different: We need a new safety net, and that safety net can be actively financed by government, but it has to be delivered by groups such as unions, cooperatives (for example, credit unions), faith groups and mutual-aid groups.
I refer to all these groups as mutualist communities. They have three components: First, they have to have a social purpose—work, food security, art—not a business purpose. Second, they have to have an economic mechanism—dues, subscriptions—and all of the money generated is recycled back into that community. And third, they have to have the ability to transmit knowledge to future generations.
The concept of mutual aid is not new, but mutualism is more inclusive. You look at social policy in the past, and how we completely excluded Black and brown workers, domestic workers, independent contractors. Since mutualism embeds government very locally and lets individual communities design what they need, it attacks the bigger problems of anxiety, maldistribution of income and lack of uniformity in how government programs work across the country. People will actually feel connected again, to each other and their government. They will feel like they have control, rather than the for-profit sector and the foundations. Over time, mutualist groups build social movements, because they connect to broader communities.
When I was little, my parents had a babysitter cooperative in our Brooklyn neighborhood. The interesting result was that all the parents and all the kids knew each other, because everybody had babysat for everybody else’s kids, so it made us so connected. You’re walking down the street and you know people, you feel very well rooted. As Robert Putnam [author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community] has demonstrated, this also really improves the economic development of the region, because it helps people find jobs and stay healthy and not be depressed.
Workers have been coming together since the time of Exodus. Moses was the first union organizer, and he went to Pharaoh and said, “The working conditions are terrible.” And that was the first collective action. So people always do better when they come together with others around these shared concerns. We should be expanding the ways that workers can come together, not limiting them—because when it’s your life, you have skin in the game.
Sara Horowitz is the founder of the Freelancers Union. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship and former chair of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, she is the author of Mutualism: Building the Next Economy from the Ground Up.
HUMANS CRAVE COMMUNITY AS THEY CRAVE FOOD AND SHELTER. You can have really small communities, like your family or your work family or your synagogue. But you should also try picturing yourself as part of a bigger community, like your city, your country and, most importantly, the human family. That was the topic of one of my books, how we are all related: The furthest cousin you have on earth is probably about a 50th cousin.
When we can see community in this bigger webbing, then we will treat other people better. I’ll just give you an anecdotal example: I always found Judge Judy to be obnoxious and unpleasant. But then I discovered she’s my sixth cousin, and I was like, “She’s not so bad, she’s just cousin Judy, she’s probably a sweetheart on the inside. Let me give her the benefit of the doubt.” I try to think the same thing if someone cuts me off in traffic. “Let me give them the benefit of the doubt, we’re probably cousins.”
There’s the more scientific evidence, such as a study out of Harvard a couple of years ago where they studied two groups of Palestinians and Israelis, and told one group how genetically closely related they were. The group that had been told how they were related treated each other with more respect and kindness and was more willing to cooperate. So there’s real evidence that this way of viewing community will be better for the world.
I don’t think that we’re hardwired to see community on this grand, global scale. But if we’re going to survive global threats like the climate crisis, nuclear war and pandemics, we’ve got to see all the billions of people across the globe as part of the community, or else we’re screwed. These problems cannot be solved locally. But it does seem, for the past few years, the drive toward tribalism and focusing on your one small community has gained a lot of energy, and the drive toward seeing the world as a larger community has lost some steam. I’m hoping that reverses itself.
But in addition to being part of the global community, humans do need to be part of smaller face-to-face communities. They need to have friends; they need to be able to connect, whether it’s through Zoom or going out for coffee. But smaller communities should be somewhat porous. The walls of that community should not be so high that those are the only people you interact with. That’s when tribalism kicks in: When you are only interacting with people who believe in QAnon or that Bill Gates is trying to microchip you, then those beliefs will be reinforced and tribalism has gone bad. I think it’s better for the world if you have several communities, and you’re able to move between them gracefully.
A.J. Jacobs is a journalist and author. His books include The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree.
WHEN I THINK OF COMMUNITY, I THINK OF SETS, the kind of sets all of us studied in math class in elementary school, the kind of sets surrounded by brackets that my father, a physicist, scrawled on napkins when computing equations at the dinner table.
In mathematics, a set is a collection of distinct elements that share a common property. In math, they may consist of objects such as numbers. On the human level, they are composed of people. Imagine a Venn diagram with sets of people whose defining characteristic is that they live on a particular continent, or in a particular region, nation, city, village, street, home or room. There are sets of people with different levels of education, socioeconomic backgrounds and national origins. Sets of people of different faiths, sets of people with different genetic traits and sets of people who think about the world in certain ways. There are subsets and overlapping sets, creating an ineffable web of relationships and interactions, some visible, some not.
Given the challenges of sharing a crowded, interconnected planet, the goal must be to increase the set of people who possess a common trait: They care about the state of the human community as a whole, making them better able to experience empathy for people outside their set—even for those who don’t share that empathy. Growing pockets of people—including many I know and love—fear joining this set, mistaking membership for losing identity within their own set. They don’t realize that membership in the “shared human community” set doesn’t have to swallow up other sets but rather can coexist. Multiple set membership makes people far more empathetic—and interesting as well.
So how do we create the bonds needed between people in disparate sets to build up the “shared human community” set? The formula is “trust plus time.” I have three suggested methods. The first involves high school exchange programs, the kind where students live with families for a semester or a year. These ground to a halt during this pandemic, but they have proved effective at forging ties, particularly between communities whose governments don’t get along. These kinds of temporary immersion programs, for example, played an important role in building understanding between Communist China and the United States. I have been a host parent, and I suggest that we adapt these programs for domestic use. A national residential exchange program for high school students would be one way of closing some of the great gaps that have developed in the United States and would also help forge a new set of future national leaders. We need to transplant high school students from Kansas to New York, and from California to Mississippi, and vice versa.
My second suggestion is a variation on this theme. We don’t always need an official organization to instigate trust-time immersions. If we care to look, we all see people in need and can take action on our own. I have always been a proponent of adopting people, not necessarily in the legal sense—although that too can be a great way to build long-term understanding—but by taking someone from outside your set into your heart and home. It could be a child who needs to be in a different environment, an elderly neighbor who has lost a home, a down-and-out acquaintance or a refugee. It is a broader commitment than friendship, and can last from a summer to many years.
Finally, build trust with people who are already in your life but not part of your set, and listen to them. You don’t have to agree with them or they with you. Discover what you have in common, because in the great set theory of life, it is the things that you share that lead to the long-term trust that builds community.
Nadine Epstein is the editor-in-chief of Moment. Her books include the forthcoming, RBG’s Real Wonder Women: Brave and Brilliant Jewish Women Who Inspire Everyone.
IN THE PAST YEAR AND A HALF I HAVE SEEN THINGS CHANGING, and it’s not only because we’re all isolated and indoors. The protest movement sparked by George Floyd’s murder has a lot to do with the way that we’re seeing community. Before the pandemic, public protest set the stage for the ways that people have come together because of their feelings of responsibility and outrage, depending on who they are and where they’re coming from. They’ve come together around the ethic of mutual aid. The idea that this is everybody’s fight. The idea that we need to celebrate the ways we fight for each other’s well-being.
For me, one thing that defines community is people who come together to act. There’s always a local component to community, but it’s really about strangers coming together. It’s about people considering their moral responsibility for people they don’t know. I have a friend who, when he walks down the street and sees people wearing masks, says that he feels love—that wearing a mask is an act of love by a total stranger for him and everyone else around them.
This is a little bit different from how I would have defined community 10 or 20 years ago, when it had more to do with coming together to be in a place. For example, the illustrator Jason Polan created the Taco Bell Drawing Club; at a set time and day of the week, people would show up at Taco Bell and draw together. No one had to talk to anyone else—in fact I don’t think many did—and it was a really wonderful thing. There used to be a feeling of mutual presence, of going to a place with other people and not necessarily having to interact with them. We are now much more in a moment of action.
Talking to strangers has a kind of political importance. It means that we try to connect with, acknowledge, recognize, be curious about, listen to people who are particularly different from us. From this political perspective, talking to strangers every day as a life practice or habit is something that opens up your political consciousness. It opens up your idea of who counts as part of your community at some level, and whom you want to take action with or for. It makes connections.
Kio Stark is a journalist, game designer and community researcher. Her books include When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You.
WE HAVE GONE FROM BEING A SOCIETY IN WHICH A SIZEABLE majority of Israelis are both Zionist and secular, to one in which we have four main groups of relatively equal size. This is what I referred to as the “’four tribes”’ of Israel—a society comprising religious, secular, ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, each living largely separate lives. When I spoke of this in 2015, I called for an honest evaluation of the situation: “If we desire to live with the vision of a Jewish and democratic state as our life’s dream and our heart’s desire, then we need to look bravely at this reality. This should be done together, out of a deep commitment to find the answers to these questions, out of a readiness to draw together all the tribes of Israel, with a shared vision of Israeli hope.”
Since then, we have turned that “vision of Israeli hope” into Israeli Hope, or in Hebrew Tikvah Israelit, the flagship program of my term in office and our response to the challenges that we face in this new reality. Tikvah Israelit works in five key areas—schools, academia, sports, local government and employment—to bring the four tribes of Israeli society together in meaningful and constructive partnership.
Creating partnership between communities who have been largely separate from each other is a process that requires time and patience. Each group needs to know that its fundamental identity is not under threat, but that it will be protected and valued as part of the broader fabric of society. Only if our own identity is secure can we reach out to others and get to know them. I believe, too, that shared responsibility remains a key element of this new view of Israeli civic society. If we are all partners, we all bear responsibility for the success and the future of the country—our country. No one group is more or less responsible for ensuring our safety and security, no one group is more or less responsible for ensuring our economic resilience, no one group is more or less responsible for setting and maintaining the moral or ethical standards we aspire to, or the cultural and ethnic sources we draw from.
But we still face significant barriers to such partnership. Unless and until we address the question of equality, Israeli society will continue to be divided. Over the course of my own lifetime—I was born ten years before the State of Israel was established—we have created a state that is nothing less than a miracle. We can rightly be proud of our status as a world leader in technology and innovation, with outstanding achievements that truly make the world a better place. But we must not let that blind us to another reality in which structural gaps, whether in budgets, infrastructures or allocation of land, between some Israelis and others are significant and persistent. Only when the aspirations and talents of every young Israeli are allowed to determine the course of their lives, not their ethnic or social origins, can we build a shared future.
The result of this process is not just the end of sectarianism, although that would be reward enough. We must aspire to more—to forge a new Israeliness of diversity and cultural richness, of partnership and shared responsibility, where our differences inspire our humanity and sensitivity. If we truly believe that we were not doomed to live together, but rather destined to do so, I believe we can make this vision a reality.
Israel is not unique in addressing the questions of social resilience and cohesion. All over the world, countries are dealing with the polarization and radicalization of political and social discourse, and struggling to find a national identity that is inclusive and diverse and still maintains a distinctive flavor of its own.
But as a global people, we face an additional challenge. The State of Israel is home, and always will be home, to every Jewish person. We are one people, and the global Jewish community is a full partner in the most daring enterprise in our history—the establishment of our sovereign, independent, Jewish and democratic state. The global Jewish community is with Israel in its times of joy and of crisis. We share dreams and we address tough realities together. The challenge is to put that relationship beyond any argument or disagreement, to recognize differences, to understand alternative perspectives and to be strengthened by them. As the four tribes of Israeli society face the challenges of creating social cohesion, we look to the fifth tribe—the global Jewish community— as full partners.
Reuven Rivlin is the president of Israel.
LONNIE G. BUNCH III
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. SPELLED OUT THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY in his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? His words are as relevant today as they were in 1967. He wrote, “Are we more concerned with the size, power and wealth of our society or with creating a more just society? The failure to pursue justice is not only a moral default. Without it, social tensions will grow and the turbulence in the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action.”
We saw that turbulence play out on the streets last summer, the result of the unresolved promise of the United States. We are a nation that professes to cherish democracy while restricting voting rights. We champion freedom, but our nation was built on the backs of enslaved people. We extol equal justice in the eyes of the law, and yet, as the world saw on the streets of Minneapolis, law and order are unevenly applied. We are a nation of contradictions.
Dr. King understood that we must rise above our tribalism and our differences if we are ever to live up to our potential and ideals as a nation. The question is, how do we build a broader community that transcends race, religion and ethnicity, one that takes us beyond our own neighborhoods? How do we expand community to encompass a universal set of shared values?
I think there are a few things we need to do, all of which cultural institutions like the Smithsonian can help achieve. The first is to establish a common set of evidence-based facts. Misinformation can be dangerous or even deadly. Take misconceptions about previous pandemics. The Black Death in Western Europe was blamed on Jewish people poisoning wells, an antisemitic lie for which many Jews were murdered in the 14th century. More recently, misinformation circulated during African Ebola outbreaks from 2014 to 2020 were key drivers of its persistence, leading to distrust of government, hesitancy to get treated, and even violence against health workers. Trusted cultural institutions can give the public a useful and usable past in order to contextualize the present and help design future responses to pandemics.
Too often, the internet is a place that builds silos and reinforces biases. This moment of isolation has proven that it does not need to be this way. We have been separated from one another during the pandemic, but the cultural sector is using technology to foster virtual community, creating robust interactive spaces that complement our physical spaces. By creating programming that inspires learning and encourages us to understand one another, we are bridging the physical and ideological distances between us. The lessons we learn now will help us have greater reach, relevance and impact once the pandemic is past.
Finally, we must begin to talk honestly with one another. Having real dialogue, no matter how difficult or painful, can get us out of our comfort zones and self-imposed bubbles. It is why the Smithsonian is rolling out an Institution-wide initiative on race called “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past.”Using resources curated from across the Institution to create conversations, pop-up exhibitions and an interactive website, it will be the first coordinated Smithsonian effort to explicitly address racism and racial equity.
As institutions and individuals, I am convinced we need to recommit to the idea of community and reimagine it and reinvigorate it. The daunting challenges we face are not limited by border. As the pandemic showed us, what seems to be remote can still profoundly affect us. When the world returns to some sense of normalcy, we will have to learn to work together if we are to continue to thrive as a species.
To build community requires more than looking out for ourselves, our families, or our friends. It means acknowledging our obligation to look out for one another. It means working to make manifest a more interconnected global community. And it means cultivating respect for one another based on our shared humanity and a shared understanding of the past. Willingness to learn from our history is a challenge for America, but if we use Dr. King’s vision as a guide, we have a way forward to a better tomorrow.
Lonnie G Bunch III became Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in June 2019 after having served as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture from 2005 through 2019. He is the author of A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Era of Bush, Obama and Trump.
IN THE PAST, COMMUNITIES GAVE PEOPLE A SENSE OF BELONGING AND IDENTITY. One’s life disintegrated outside of a community. Communities gave you vital services but also your place in the world, your sense of meaning.
Since the advent of modernity, human beings have been increasing in autonomy and freedom. Individuals now feel that achieving meaning is an individual quest. Their place in society is self-built, and their identity is fluid and evolving through a process of self-discovery. Society moved from being collective-centric to individual-centric. The full expression and realization of the distinct individual potential of every human being is the goal of the society—not the achievement of a collective goal. Society has also been disintermediated—the same way we book our airplane tickets without the mediation of a travel agent, we build our identity without the intermediation of a community.
Individuals, aided by technology, are today hyper-empowered. They have radical free choice, and they seek to permanently increase their autonomy, because belonging to an institution is seen as a limitation of their universe of choice. Individuals also demand an absolute right to full self-expression. In the past, belonging to a community was seen, in a way, as a bargain: One sacrificed freedom and the ability to be “fully yourself” to maintain the cohesion of a community. That trade-off is unacceptable today. Individuation is not necessarily selfishness. People still need and want to be part of something; they just don’t want to accept the limitations and coercions that are placed on them.
Community was traditionally understood as a limit between “my” group and the rest of the society. The metaphor was that of a moat around a group that “protected” it from the outside. The moat was porous, but that exchange with the outside was highly regulated and, by and large, restricted. Today, that view is antithetical to the sensitivities of the time; I don’t want a moat but a connection with the world.
We are stuck with individuals and communities that are out of sync with each other. We have community forms of the 19th century with individuals that are radically different from those of two centuries ago. That doesn’t mean community is dead. Human beings are, and will always be, gregarious. Community is a timeless concept, but the forms of communal organization and the expectations that individuals and society place on them have evolved and need to evolve further.
Communal leaders need to be open to experiment with new forms of community. This is not just about adopting 21st-century technologies but about changing the basic premises of community organizations.
Detailing the nature of those explorations is impossible in these few lines, but here are some headlines.
Interface instead of boundary: What if we understood the community not as an excluder of others but a facilitator of the exchange with the outside? Individual -centric communities: In a world of hyper-empowered individuals, communities need to also center themselves in the individual experience. In a way, the collective project of the community needs to be framed as facilitating and increasing the empowerment and well-being of the individual. Individual self-expression: If in the past, individual’s self-effacement was deemed necessary for theexistence of the collective, today individuals want to be able to express themselves fully. Can we square that circle, maintaining both cohesion and radical self-expression?
Unique contribution: Today’s humans will only join a community that allows them to make a unique contribution; something that leverages their own uniqueness.
Occasional + re-entry points: A “full-life commitment” to a community is seen today as limiting, even oppressive. The type of engagement favored today is episodic because it allows people to keep their options open and build their own journey with “bits and pieces” of communal engagement. That journey will be unique and personal.
Building the community of the 21st century won’t be easy, because we are navigating the uncharted waters of individual empowerment and unexpected social and technological changes. It’s a daunting but fascinating adventure.
Andrés Spokoiny is the president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.
COMMUNITY, TO ME, IS A VERY BROAD TERM. First, we have the community of Black Jews in America and other parts of the world. Then, there is the wider Jewish community—Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi—all a part of the Jewish people. There’s my community here in Chicago; then there’s the community that I serve as the chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, then the community that I serve in several countries in Africa. So when I say community, I’m thinking about all of those. We must always seek to see ourselves as one community, as one people. I firmly ascribe to the belief in am Yisrael chai, the nation of Israel lives. The people of Israel, wherever they are located in the world, are part of my community.
I don’t read the Torah as a divisive device but as a uniting device. At Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, the congregation where I serve, we are a very diverse congregation already. In our community, we have Africans; we have Ashkenazi Jews who have adopted African-American children. We have a growing number of Latino members, as well as African Americans and people from the Caribbean. We have biracial Jews; we have a few converts who are Filipino. It’s a microcosm of what the Jewish people and the Jewish world will look like as we move further into this century of inclusion without regard to ethnicity. I think that’s highly important for us as a Jewish people to survive.
I think that the larger Jewish communities in the world, particularly those that are more organized, should understand that Judaism is a creed and a way of life for us. That way of life is extended not only to those who are born of a Jewish mother but also to those who have selected Judaism as their spiritual path. For too long, we have had some levels of divisiveness between the various movements in Judaism. That will change as we move forward in this century, and prayerfully Judaism, as it’s understood in each and every group, will be respected.
And at Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken, we also work with the local Catholic church, Protestant pastors and Muslim leaders. Ours was one of the first Jewish congregations to invite Muslim brothers and sisters into our space during Ramadan many years ago. If I’m comfortable in my skin and with who I am as a Jew, then I have no problem with welcoming individuals who are Catholic or Protestant or Muslim. First and foremost, I see all humanity as being created in the image of God.
Capers Funnye is the rabbi of Beth Shalom Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago and the first African-American member of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
COMMUNITY CERTAINLY DOESN’T MEAN WHAT IS USED TO MEAN. As our world becomes more globalized, communities that define themselves based on geographical, tribal or racial kinship will run the risk of falling prey to dangerous ideologies. As democracies lose momentum, these same communities may resort to authoritarian forces in the interest of “survival,” which means that racism, xenophobia and fear will ensue. To safeguard our democracies, we must build communities of shared values and principles across borders. This means that our kindred spirits may not be our neighbors but rather someone halfway across the world who shares our passion and our value system and with whom we can work on these common goals. We need to develop a sense of comradery based on what we believe in rather than what we have inherited by virtue of genetics, race, geography and whatever else.
I was born and raised in Iran and lived under the rule of theocracy. We thought—or rather were hoodwinked into thinking—that interim compromises, like forcing women under the hijab, would help keep the geographic community, the nation, unified at a time of crisis. We did not realize that “crisis” was what the regime invented to impose its will on the country. Soon, authoritarianism prevailed, and I, luckier than most, managed to flee. Countless others lost their lives in prisons and with executions. We failed because, in part, we had not been resolute about adhering to certain fundamental values.
Fortunately, values-based communities do exist and are growing . People who come together over environmental activism are a prime example. But to combat rising authoritarian forces and hang onto the democratic values and the rule of law of the last century, we all need to come together, no matter where we are. The reasonable forces will lose to the unreasonable forces because, as we saw on January 6, the unreasonable are weaponized and ready to raise hell and wage war on behalf of their cause. Therefore, we need to band together across traditional lines of race, blood, geography, etc. to fight back.
In this precarious hour for America and the world, the Jewish community has a significant advantage. We have been a wandering community throughout the centuries. We have migrated from country to country with suitcases and our values along with them. This is how we have done more than survive. We have thrived. We defined ourselves based on our fundamental enduring principles. We have been mobile and so have our values of learning, loving our neighbor as ourselves and striving to heal the world no matter what the color or the creed of the neighbor and regardless of where in the world we happened to be. We could be critical to the survival of democracy because we are the very people who have persisted despite all assaults.
Roya Hakakian is the author of two books of poetry in Persian and the memoir Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran. Her latest book is called A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious.
SHAYLYN ROMNEY GARRETT
WE ARE LIVING IN A HYPER-INDIVIDUALISTIC MOMENT WITH A VERY “I”-FOCUSED MENTALITY about community: “How do I go out into the world and meet my need for connection.” But that has not always been the case. While working on The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, my coauthor, Robert Putnam, and I discovered that over the course of the 20th century, we started off in a very culturally narcissistic moment, and then slowly over time, we began to replace that with cultural solidarity. Then in the 1960s, we switched back toward becoming more individualistic, more focused on “I” alone. Accompanying that move toward individualism, over the last half century or more, has been a real consumer mentality. We think of ourselves as consumers and we are treated as consumers. So it makes sense to view ourselves as consumers of community and view community as a way to fulfill my own needs. I don’t think that’s a healthy definition of community or one that can get us to a place where we want our society to be. But that’s our starting point today.
To change this we need to begin to see ourselves as creators, not consumers, of community. It may seem counterintuitive but our need for connection is met more efficiently when we’re in a serving mode, rather than in a consuming mode. People who have really dived into living communally say that they found the connection they were seeking when they started giving of themselves. The very first step toward motivating people to do more of this or to seek it out is for our cultural leaders to put forward visions, maybe utopian visions, of what it can look and feel like to work together. People who move into cohousing or who participate in intentional community or all these interesting movements that are experimenting on the radical edges of what community can be are inspired by a vision of what’s possible when people come together rather than a sense of “I should do this because it’s good for me.”
One of the things that we’ve learned in the pandemic is that digital ties are not going to save us. Ever since the founding of Facebook, there’s been an idea that , even though our face-to-face social fabric was unraveling, somehow these digital ties were going to rise up and fill the gap. I think what we’ve learned through the pandemic is that it’s not sufficient for meeting our needs as connected beings.What it means is we can now channel our creativity into the hybrid digital and face-to-face models that are really going to meet our needs, that are going to be truly innovative, and not repudiate the technology behind digital connections, but integrate it into face-to-face communities and help them become mutually reinforcing. Technology is part of our lives now. We have to deal with it. But what we now know is we’re going to have to invest in both sides of that coin and not just hope that the digital is going to save us.
It’s not surprising that we see tribalism accompanying this epidemic of loneliness and disconnection, but it’s not a solution and it actually deepens the crisis. Tribalism is partly about competition and scarcity, the idea that there’s only a certain amount to go around—whether that’s money or resources or land or whatever. What we need to move toward is a more expansive view of the abundance that is created when we work together. The sort of accepted wisdom about capitalism is that you can have economic growth or equality, but you can’t have both. However, we know that during the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the American economy was growing and we were getting progressively more equal. When we work together, we can do both at the same time. And when we’re locked in competitive narratives, it actually undercuts what we’re able to grow and create together. The progressives who started to reweave America’s social fabric and community 120 years ago made a deliberate choice to believe that we were all in this together in the face of a cultural moment when most people didn’t believe that. If we want to see community revived in America today, we’ve got to get more people enrolled in this project and in this mindset that it’s more powerful to believe that we’re all in this together than it is to believe that it’s every one for oneself.
Shaylyn Romney Garrett is the coauthor with Robert D. Putnam of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. She is a founding contributor to the Aspen Institute initiative Weave: The Social Fabric Project.
I THINK THAT COMMUNITY MEANS THE SAME THING NOW AS IT HAS ALWAYS MEANT—a group of people with whom someone identifies and with whom to some extent they interact. Of course, the means of interaction change. There’s a famous argument that print culture enabled an imagined community, because it enabled people to imagine themselves as part of a nation. What’s different about the 21st century is the presence of the internet and the capacity to create relationships literally out of nothing, communities made up of people who have never met.
TV exploded those relationships in the 20th century, as novels had done earlier to some extent. You had what some call parasocial relationships, relationships with people who don’t actually know you but with whom you feel as involved as you would in a real relationship, such as celebrities. For instance, Princess Diana. Most of the people who adored her had never met her in person, but it was so easy to get photos and documents of the way she moved and talked, and that was so compelling. You see it as this season of The Crown unfolds. Many of my friends have gone down YouTube rabbit holes to remember how she really looked.
The internet takes it to a new level. The more evidence of responsiveness, the easier it is to experience a relationship, and the internet creates the opportunity for a lot of responsiveness. At what point do people fail to distinguish the imagined from the real? And how much does it matter?
My favorite example of the true internet-enabled community is tulpamancers, people who create “tulpas.” Tulpa creation is a mental practice adapted from one supposedly used by Tibetan Buddhists who, with great focus and concentration, create invisible beings called tulpas in their minds and bring them into actual existence. The phenomenon emerged from an internet discussion group about supernatural experience. There are now 30,000 or more people participating in these conversations that teach people the techniques for creating a tulpa: intense visualization, imagining that this created person is present and narrating your day to it. People report that at a certain point the tulpa starts to feel autonomous. They experience it as acting independently and say that this makes them feel less lonely. Humans are remarkably capable of creating imagined others—it’s a very basic part of what it means to be human.
Fan fiction communities (like the communities that carry on the story of Harry Potter) are another example of people coming together around something that isn’t an empty hole but also isn’t exactly made up of real people. Then there are communities online that are just versions of ordinary communities, like my neighborhood community listserv. And there’s the darker side, the conspiracy theorists who come together to share misinformed views, bottlenecking their news sources to avoid seeing any counterevidence. We know that using the internet to limit your exposure to news can make views more extreme. But the jury is out on what it does to human sociality, or what the effect is when you don’t ever meet your social other in the flesh.
Even in physical communities, a lot of the interaction is going on in your head. Everyone’s familiar with the idea that you carry on your relationships with your mother and father largely in your mind. Clearly there’s a difference between your mother being alive and on the phone versus your mother being dead, and yet many people will experience the latter relationship as continuing to some extent. And that has to do with that very resilient human capacity to hold people in one’s imagination. At what point does it really matter whether you can get an actual versus a virtual hug or look into a face in person and get a response you hadn’t predicted? We don’t know yet. Who knows what it was like for people from those groups of online conspiracy theorists to meet in person at the Capitol riot? How many of them look back in horror, and say, “What was that all about?”
T. M. Luhrmann is a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. Her books include When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others.