How useful is the concept of community?

de_UnamunoMiguel de Unamuno says that anyone who invents a concept takes leave of reality. I like that statement both for its literal meaning that reality can nver be fully captured by a single concept, and in the suggestion that concepts imply a kind of madness.

Unamuno’s dictum applies to the question “How useful is the concept of community?”, because community designations betray the individual in two senses. One is that every community designation necessarily strips away the uniqueness of the individuals within. A term such as “immigrants” is clearly impoverished with respect to the many reasons, origins, and experiences of immigrants.

But a community designation can not only strip away individual meaning; it can attach wrong, or even contradictory meanings. For example, if we say that someone is a member of the “elderly community,” we impute a large set of attributes that may be totally off. She might be 90 years old, but rather than suffering “elderly decline,” she might be longing for that iPod we had provided to the “youth community” to share the latest music. There’s even some evidence that the very old are healthier than the somewhat old, because they were the ones who survived past critical health hurdles.

What makes this all even more interesting is that we can’t think without concepts, and we do better when we make use of even faulty information. A member of the “library patron community” may come to the library to get warm, to order some coffee (as at Urbana Free Library), to get a date, to sleep, or a host of other reasons.

Nevertheless, it’s helpful to know that many visitors seek information. Similarly, many immigrants may need help dealing with often absurd regulations that don’t apply to citizens in a country. Many elderly people have special physical or mental challenges well beyond those faced by most younger people.

These thoughts keep bringing me back to the need for dialogue. In so many cases, well-intentioned people make judgments and decisions without really listening to those they’re trying to help. Most examples of community designations betraying the individual, could at least be better addressed by starting with the idea of listening to each others’ experiences first.


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