Given all of the discussion of benevolence in the comments lately, I thought I should post exchange this sooner rather than later. Please note that it was written before that discussion erupted, so some of what I’ve written in those comments should be seen as elaborating upon these remarks.
Michael Mirmak recently e-mailed me the following inquiry about the value of community:
I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for quite some time (and occasionally dropping in a snarky comment); after seeing your posts on FROG and watching it become increasingly successful, I felt compelled to write.
Several recent books, including “Bowling Alone” and “Married to the Job,” have focused on an increasing lack of “community” in modern American life. They note declining levels of civic involvement, including voter registration, social and political clubs and sporting associations, even reduced marriage statistics. In the view of these works, American culture is turning away from social interaction and instead engaging in longer working hours or in individual entertainment.
Scholars like John Lewis have reminded us that the healthy early Greek culture viewed social interaction — the city as a community where men interact and can do so rationally — as absolutely necessary to human life. However, today’s culture offers very few constructive social outlets that aren’t somehow tinged with bad ideas. Many non-religious people I know attend church, solely because of the sociability it affords them. Similarly, many (myself included) find ourselves working longer hours to compensate for the lack of healthy social outlets. Arguing with people who enjoy the camaraderie of Habitat for Humanity gets increasingly difficult when you still end up sitting at home alone.
Groups like FROG seem to buck the trend — they form individualists’ communities. But their existence still leaves big philosophical questions: what should the value of “community” — whether it be the formal, civic kind or the informal, dinner party kind — be to the rational man? In an Objectivist-majority society, what would form a healthy level of civic involvement, if any, take? Unless we provide a compelling alternative view of the proper relationship of social interaction to individualism, the communitarian view seen on both the left and right will be the one which wins the cultural debate.
Would you be willing to address, through your blog, either “community” as a concept or, more specifically, how to successfully establish a group like FROG?
Thanks in advance!
Michael was kind enough to give me permission to post his e-mail and my reply on NoodleFood. I wanted to do so, as I hope that other folks might might have something interesting to add. So here’s my reply:
I’ve been trying to think of how to reply to your recently e-mail about community, but I haven’t thought of anything particularly interesting! Personally, I don’t think of community in any grand terms. It’s just a group of people who come together due to shared values, then discover that they enjoy spending time together (to degrees varying with each person) due to the discovery of further shared values.
For example, I enjoy my Titan Toastmasters meetings beyond my original purpose of developing and practicing my public speaking skills because many of my fellow members are far more interested in ideas than most people. That makes them more interesting for me to talk to than most people.
With the people involved with FROG, I have a much deeper affinity of values than I ever expected with an Objectivist group, in substantial part because they tend to be far more serious about understanding and practicing the principles of Objectivism than run-of-the-mill many professed Objectivists. With such people, Paul and I have also found plenty of other values in common. We swap meaningful movie, television, and book recommendations. (Many of us have surprisingly similar tastes.) Oh, and food — I’ve enjoyed many a fine meal with my friends from FROG! I’m able to get better advice from FROGs than most people. And we have plenty of intellectual issues to discuss.
I would love to see thriving Objectivist communities like FROG in other areas, but I’m not holding my breath. I know that creating and sustaining that requires much diligent effort, thoughtful leadership, and even heroic patience over the course of years. In the meantime, even one good Objectivist friend in the area goes a long way, I know. It’s really important, I think, to have even just one person with whom you can be completely at ease.
If I find that I don’t have additional shared values with the people in a given social group, then I keep my involvement to a minimum. I hate to waste my time on idle chit-chat with people I don’t much like. Speaking generally, I can usually only hope for some kind of minimal visibility with people unfamiliar with Objectivism — and I have little tolerance for that. I’m particularly tortured by the standard comments about the evils of not recycling, a child’s need for religion, the old people wasting “our” health care resources, and the like. In casual conversation with regular people, I’m too often mired in boredom, then jolted into horror. It’s so trying just to be polite in those situations. Of course, I do know a few notable exceptions to those general observations. And I can enjoy many people in small doses, particularly if I’m plied with good food!
I’ve never thought much of the usual communitarian complaints about the barren loneliness of individualism. (I always want to say in reply, “Speak for yourself, brother!”) My general impression is that far too many people (particularly those needy communitarians) want others to fill a painful void in themselves that really ought to be occupied by their own soul. And they are willing to be incredibly promiscuous in their social relationships in the attempt. I hate to sound so Roark-ish, but if you can’t stand to be alone, then you’re not yet fit for company. (And that’s just one of many demanding requirements for good social relationships!)