Depression and anxiety: the individual is coming apart. Public polarization: the community is coming apart – or so they seem to be.

In many of my writings and blog posts, I have put forward two types of arguments concerning the solution to the cross-pressures faced by the twenty-first-century individual and the community. First, I have diagnosed something called “rugged individualism”, which is the heroic individual of monumental choices. The point of that argument is to show that while we may aspire to be heroic, self-generating individuals, the idea of the rugged individual who pulls oneself up by their own bootstraps does not generate the appearance of actual individuals. One can aspire to be heroic, but the rugged individual cannot be generated in isolation. Ironically, in order to be able to act so independently, we need others. Second, I have criticized the existence of Mass Society, by which I mean the technocratic structures that systemically employ instrumental rationality. In other words, the exchange relationship is no longer simply a feature of the market in capitalist liberal societies but is now colonizing all facets of the human person. Put together, the heroic individual will be crushed in her interaction with Mass Society, overwhelmed by its inescapable pressures to be anything but ourselves. In such a situation, instead of being a radical individualism, a person would be subject to the greatest conformity.

And so it seems that both our individual selves and our social environments are coming apart. A life that is significantly (but not entirely) private can help. We all need broader social spheres than just our private realm to thrive. We need social spheres, but we do not need Mass Society. 

This article will show a little vision of the self that is informed by a robust private sphere, and three types of communities that we are involved in that can serve to buttress our health and well-being against the totalitarian force of Mass Society. The three types of communities we are all involved in, and will, at times conflict. However, by articulating them, I hope the reader will be able to find a home in stable structures that provide resources of resilience. 

Part 1The Private and Public Self

Let me make a confession. I have habitually talked about myself for as long as I can remember. I have been accused by my wife and my kids of over-sharing. I think my oversharing was a reaction to never really experiencing “fitting in.” My use of social media had often been for the purpose of showing off rather than connecting with others. I think I am getting better at it now.

One of the great temptations of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries was to pursue fame. But until recently, only a small fraction of the human population lived their lives publicly. We’ve entered a new era. Everyone has access to a global audience. We all live in public. Some more willingly than others. There’s pressure to share more of ourselves than we want. We often feel we have no other choice. To be relevant. To fit in. To get ahead. To be trusted and liked. Accepted and understood.

This new compulsion toward self-exposure is possibly the biggest social experiment in history. We’re making life-altering decisions about our personal boundaries with no guidance and no precedent. Fortunately, there are precedents for negotiating the boundaries. Anyone who’s lived in the public eye as an athlete, a politician, a clergy member, or an entertainer has navigated a version of this.

My dad was a public figure since he was a teenager, first as the smartest boy in the country school, then as a university student who excelled, and then as a pastor and teacher. And I’ve followed in his footsteps in terms of academics and then again in pastoral and teaching roles. In fact, my family has been in the pastoring and teaching business for three generations, contending with how to handle putting ourselves out there for more than a century. My mom never wanted to be in the public eye. She just happened to love a man who was.

My parents believed that hard work, particularly in the service of others, breeds individual spiritual health, a disposition we need more and more of when exposing ourselves to any kind of public attention. But perhaps the most important lesson I picked up was: that a private life makes a public life worth living. My dad saw that while fame came with many blessings, my mom constantly reminded him (and us kids) that there was an impact and a potential cost to living your life in public. For me now, I want to emphasize the value of privacy. Cultivating a private life is precious. It’s sacred. Its value is inherent in what you don’t share. What you withhold. And for whom.

The world is now one big small town. But within that virtual town square, there are tiers of relationships in our awareness, and degrees of intimacy, and everyone deserves a different amount of you, a different side. In my case, I have roughly four ranges of relationships: the peripheral, the acquaintance, the friend, and the “significant other” – and this rough structure more or less holds together my social relationships whether they are in person, online or both. The lines between each circle are porous for the most part; in other words, one can move, say, from the furthest reaches of my peripheral horizon to acquaintance fairly quickly and this will happen when a mutual interest or care in something beyond each of us is established. The line between an acquaintance and a friend is also porous: it can be crossed by developing enough trust to share more of oneself. Intimacy and trust are most tightly secured in the realm of significant others. When we look at the kinds of communities we are involved in below, we might see the contexts in which another person can move along the spectrum.

As a grown-up, even my siblings and relatives exist on this rough scale. It isn’t that a person is more or less intrinsically important. Actually, the movement on the spectrum of relationships is governed by how big a role they play in my interests and concerns and in my identity as an individual. I do not intend to lay this scheme out as definitive, but as a rough guide to how it works in my case. You might be different.

Where those boundaries lie is up to you, and they may be more or less porous as well. For example, my partner’s boundaries are very porous between acquaintances and on the periphery, but at less porous in the realm of friends and significant others. However, in order to make those decisions, we must all know what is at stake. For it’s tempting to think that the more you share, the more ways you have to connect with others. But there’s a specialness in knowing that whatever one shares with a spouse or kids or a best friend is just for them and no one else. Without that inner circle of significant others, we’re left with shallowness and a void: we’re “known of,” but never truly known, even to ourselves.

Living in public asks us to be brave and bold, but preserving a private life empowers us to venture into public. The dangers and opportunities of living a life in public existed, honestly, for much longer than the temptations of social media. But it’s important to remember what we have always known. Our true value is measured by the richness of our private lives. Our unfiltered authentic identities are only accessible to a select few, or perhaps only you, because our experience of ourselves as authentically free persons can only be assured there. 

Part 2 – Three Types of Communities

Let’s outline, then, the kinds of communities we are all involved in that inform and refine our authentic identities. By doing so, we at least have a rough structure of social life that builds resilience in us as individuals so we aren’t overrun by Mass Society.

Communities of Place – We exist in a particular geographical locality; it could be a small village or a big city. This community will most often have an affective component, as in the affection of a place we call home or feel “at home.” For lots of people who have traveled widely, and lived in numerous geographical locations – it will be a place we will feel local to. In my case, I feel local to Brandon and Winnipeg, Manitoba; Windsor, Ontario; Edmonton, Alberta; Busan, South Korea; and four cities in Thailand.

Communities of place imply that governing authorities ought to consider the existential realities of particular communities when considering plans for development. Even big cities should foster a unique ethos, and this is well exemplified in the cities of Montreal and Vancouver, which each have their own unique characters. 

By contrast, Mass Society does not generally respect the uniqueness of locality. Walmart and Amazon are the same everywhere. We will recognize the operation of the logic of Mass Society when the uniqueness of a place is not recognized.

Communities of Memory – These are groups of strangers who share a morally-significant history. This term—first employed by the co-authors of Habits of the Heart—refers to imagined communities that have a shared history going back several generations. Besides tying us to the past, such communities turn us towards the future—members strive to realize the ideals and aspirations embedded in past experiences of those communities, seeing their efforts as being, in part, contributions to a common good. They provide a source of meaning and hope in people’s lives. Typical examples include the nation and language-based ethnocultural groups.

In Western liberal democracies, this has typically translated into various nation-building exercises meant to nourish the bonds of commonality that tie people to their nations, such as national service and national history lessons in school textbooks. Self-described, small “r”, republicans such as Michael Sandel place special emphasis upon the national political community and argue for measures that increase civic engagement and public-spiritedness. However, there is increased recognition of the multi-national nature of contemporary states, and modern Western states must also try to make room for the political rights of minority groups.

By contrast, Mass Society treats its constituents as users of, and not so much as contributors to, its identity. The terms “user-friendly” and “personalized” or “customized” are examples of the language of Mass Society.

Psychological Communities – These are communities of face-to-face (whether in-person or virtually) personal interaction governed by sentiments of trust, cooperation, and a kind of altruism. This refers to a group of persons who participate in common activity and experience a psychological sense of togetherness as shared goals are sought. Such communities, which are based on interpersonal interaction, are governed by sentiments of trust, cooperation, and altruism in the sense that constituent members have the good of the community in mind and act on behalf of the community’s interest. They differ from communities of place by not being necessarily defined by locality and proximity. They differ from communities of memory in the sense that they are more “real”, they are typically based on face-to-face social interaction at one point in time and consequently tend to be restricted in size. The family is the prototypical example. Other examples include small-scale work or school settings founded on trust and social cooperation.

Such communities tend to favor policies designed to protect and promote ties to the family and family-like groups because of the knowledge that family-type groups have astounding social and psychological benefits. Being involved in psychological communities will often push one toward the restructuring of education in such a way that people’s deepest needs for membership and participation in psychological communities are tapped into at a young age. 

By contrast, Mass Society tends to reduce face-to-face interactions as much as possible in such areas as consumer interactions (online shopping, self-checkouts), and entertainment (which is primarily media-based and controlled).

In sum, the existing character of these three types of communities should give us some indicators when the type of community we are involved in is distinguished from Mass Society. By being able to recognize this, like the individual who recognizes oversharing their private life, one is able to see if the interaction with society buttresses our authentic identities, or erodes them. 

But this doesn’t mean there won’t be problems.

Consequential Problems of the Three Communities

My suggestion of types of communities that nurture authentic individuality is distinctive in that it involves the promotion of all three forms of valued communal life. This leads, however, to the worry that seeking the goods of various communities may conflict in practice. One could argue for a whole host of pro-family measures: mothers and fathers should devote more time and energy to parenting (in view of the fact that most childcare centers do a poor job of caring for children), labor unions and employers ought to make it easier for parents to work at home, and the government should force corporations to provide parental leave. The combined effect of these changes of the heart and public policies in all likelihood would be to make citizens into largely private, family-centered persons.

My suggestion here allows for one to argue that our political system is corrupt to the core, concluding that only extensive involvement in public affairs by virtuous citizens can remedy the situation; yet few can afford sufficient time and energy to devote themselves fully to both family life and public affairs, and favoring one ideal is most likely to erode the other. Surely it is no coincidence that republican America in Jefferson’s day relied on active, public-spirited male citizens largely freed from family responsibilities. Conversely, societies composed of persons leading rich and fulfilling family lives (such as contemporary Singapore) tend to be ruled by paternalistic despots who can rely on a compliant, politically apathetic populace.

In addition, advocating both increased commitment to public affairs and strengthened ties to the workplace (to the point that it becomes a psychological community) also face the problem of conflicting commitments. Identification with the workplace and industrial democracy are said to improve workers’ civic capacities, but that may not be the case. In the same way that extensive involvement in family life can conflict with commitments to public life, few persons will have sufficient time and energy for extensive participation in both workplace and public affairs. It would be good to be reminded that the republican society of ancient Athens relied on active, public-spirited males freed from the need to work (slaves did most of the drudge labor).

It is also worth noting that devotion to the workplace can undermine family life. A well-known example of Japanese or Korean-style communitarianism—strong communal identity based on the workplace—sometimes leads to death from overwork and frequently deprives workers of the ability to even sit down at the dinner table with their families. Just as liberals, such as Ronald Dworkin, sometimes have to choose between ideals (e.g., freedom and equality) that come into conflict with one another if a serious effort is made to realize any one of them fully, so you and I may have to make some hard choices between valued forms of communal life. If I am right about this framework, these hard choices should contribute to a heroic authenticity rather than erode it.

Still, there may be some actual or potential scenarios in which promoting a particular form of communal life can nurture, rather than undermine, other forms—and we should look for a change of this sort. For example, critics have objected to residential community associations, or “walled communities”, on the grounds that they undermine attachment to the polity at large and erode the social cohesion and trust needed to promote social justice and sustain the democratic process. Might it then be possible to reform urban planning so that people can nurture strong local communities without undermining attachment to the national community, perhaps even strengthening broader forms of public-spiritedness? This points to the need for public policy recommendations explicitly designed to favor complementing forms of communal attachments.

The conflicts are there, but they are the kind of conflicts functioning societies ought to be able to hold, without breaking the society apart. And that is why it is indeed imperative to recognize and resist Mass Society wherever its sticky fingers reach – whether it is in our private lives in the spiritual sources of our social existence.

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