Monday, January 18, 2010

Can Communities Be Dissolved?

On MLK Day, it seems fitting to think about what divides us and how we come back together. We use phrases like "the gay and lesbian community" or "the hearing impaired community" for subcultures and it often makes sense because many of these groups of people bound together by certain features suffer marginalization. As such, they come together and have to create the sort of social structures that exist in the wider mainstream culture, but which they have been marginalized and kept from or which do not fit their particular needs.

I just finished a wonderful book called Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor which discusses portions of the racist history of Princeton, New Jersey and illustrates this perfectly. The African-American populations were segregated in terms of location and kept from many of the businesses, churches, and schools in the area and so had to open their own. They had to create institutions of their own and like organism who randomly mutate and then adapt to their surroundings, the culture acquires new and different aspects, features, and means of expression.

The sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies argues in his famous book Community and Society that groups of humans will always create communities -- groupings that bind us based on unity -- and societies -- groupings based on diversities and difference. He contends that all all societies give rise to communities, that is, they find ways creating us versus them situations that unite them, and all societies give rise to societies, that is, any group with more than one person will divide itself up into factions of some sort for some reason.

But it doesn't happen all the time. There is, for example, no left-handed community. Yes, we are a minority, about 10% of the population, and we face certain subtle forms of oppression -- for example, in certain classrooms in which I teach, there are no left-handed desks or when there are fewer than the number of left-handed students that need them, thereby pitting us against each other. But these difficulties are small enough that we have not been forced to create a left-handed community.

But in the cases where one has been created, does it have an intrinsic value that warrants protection of it? When we come to realize that the ways we have divided ourselves are artificial and harmful can we and should we uncreate communities? Is it possible for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of oppressed members of a community to become completely assimilated? And if so, should this assimilation be avoided?