One of the major challenges we face as an increasingly interconnected, globe-straddling species, is in how we organize ourselves even as our traditional distinctions dissipate.
It’s easy to look around at the surging waves nationalism and assume that this isn’t an issue; we’ve clearly got our distinctions firmly in place. But a lot of what’s happening today is a reflexive, unaimed mule-kick at a perceived attacker that’s whittled away at our borders, our cultural identities, and our sense of geographic communities for decades. We were already knocking down walls leading up to the age of the microchip and fiberoptic cables, but the internet revolution, followed by the mobile internet revolution, blasted what was left of those walls into dust.
So now we see the inevitable, knee-jerk pushback against these perceived incursions; but this is most likely just a moment, not a new reality. The bigger picture, the larger wave, is one of new awareness and fewer divisions. We have just as many labels as we’ve always had, but we’re also more knowledgable about people who wear different labels than we do. And with that knowledge comes a slow, certain expansion of our communication channels and interactions.
There’s still a chance that what’s happening in China, and increasingly in places like Russia, will spread farther and wider. Government lock-downs don’t prevent the spread of information, but they do control the mainstream storyline. This has certain benefits for those in power, and can result in new, invisible, cyber-walls—but in the long-term, those, too, are likely to fall to the erosion of cultural tides, and the explosive attentions of digital sappers.
The aforementioned challenge of organization, then, is the somewhat unnoticed but very real next-step issue we’ll have to face.
When conventions shift and traditions seem less and less relevant to each new generation, how do new communities coalesce?
Or in more practical terms: when neighborhoods cease to be unified, when neighbors seldom even know each other by name because our connections, our most important relationships are expansive and far-flung, no longer limited by geography; who are our neighbors? Who do we turn to when something goes wrong? What brings us together and gives us something to rally around?
For some people the obvious answer will be the communities that share their faith. For others it will be groups of people with whom they share some other ideology or hobby. Maybe your local board gaming club will be as close to a family as you’ve ever had beyond your circle of blood relatives.
But it seems to me that very often we leave a lot of potential community-building opportunities on the table. We look for obvious labels, shared in-group affiliations, rather than expanding our scope and considering what we actually hope to accomplish.
Consider that your local Secular Humanist group might share a lot of common ground with your local Christian Youth group.
Perhaps their ideas about how the universe was created differs. Perhaps they have conflicting ideas about prayer and science and politics.
But both of these groups may see the value in helping homeless people in their community. Perhaps both groups have a tradition of working at the local soup kitchen on holidays, and contributing to charities that provide food to the homeless on a more regular basis.
There are many differences between these two groups, but in this instance, at least, there’s sufficient commonality that they could probably amplify their efforts if they worked together in some way. They might even benefit from each other’s insights on the matter, though simply adding more hands, more wallets, to their efforts would be enough.
One of the major issues contributing to the current wave of cultural sequestration, of unhealthy tribalism, is that we see ourselves walking along a particular path, toward concrete milestones and goals, and we identify ourselves based on the path; the exact placement of each foot. And we do this to the exclusion of anyone else who might be headed in the same direction, aiming at the same or similar goals and milestones, because they didn’t arrive there via the exact same path as us. They maybe took a more meandering route, or came at it from a different direction.
They want to feed the hungry because their faith prescribes it, and you want to feed the hungry because you believe doing is a latently moral pursuit.
In some things, how you get there matters. If you earn a million dollars by stealing other people’s savings, that’s very different from earning a million dollars by inventing a cure for malaria.
In other things, though—most things, perhaps—the way you get there is less relevant than what you’re trying to achieve. What you hope to accomplish, and how you decide to do so.
By looking around, looking at the other people who’re walking in similar directions, or toward similar goals, we may be able to not just better accomplish these same objectives, these collective pursuits, but we may also find ourselves opening up to new ideas about who is part of our in-group, and who isn’t. We may find that just about anyone can, on the context of some shared goal, in some facet of life, seem very similar to us. Can be respectable by our standards, and we by theirs.
It’ll still be a little while, I think, before we start to feel most of the temporal, negative consequences of our new technologies, our smartphones and social networks. These are innovations that are incredibly valuable, but we haven’t updated our thinking, our norms, in such a way that we can use them optimally. Today, many of us cling to filler identities: slogans and platforms shouted by brands, be they political or corporate, that help us feel like we’re a part of something but which often fail to align with our actual ideals and values with adequate accuracy.
How you get there matters, but where you’re going and actually getting there is also important.
Keep that in mind when you look out into the world seeking allies, camaraderie, and community.
This essay was originally published in my newsletter.