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Communal Exclusion: The Drawbacks to Communities of Sameness

aphorisnt's picture

                          Sometimes, when I think about all the people I know and consider friends and all the groups and activities with which I am involved, the places I have lived and the “homes” I have made, I realize I do not have anything I could definitively call my community. Community connotes a number of things-similarity, cohesion, belonging-and while I can easily identify the commonalities between myself and the others with whom I interact, I cannot help but be aware of the differences that exist and suggest difference. Here at Bryn Mawr, for example, I could consider myself a part of many communities: I live in Rockefeller Dorm, I run track and cross country, I am a sophomore student, I am part of this eco-literacy 360. The problem I encounter when I contemplate this, though, is the differences that not only persist between myself and the other individuals in the above communities, but also the fact that difference, separation, and exclusion, arguably the exact opposites of community, delineate and divide these groups to lend them existence in the first place. Scholars and the philosophically inclined have debated and continue to debate what makes an ideal community, but I feel that, before one can describe the ideal community, or community at all, they must first address the differences and divisions that separate one community from the other and how the inclusiveness of community exists alongside isolation and exclusion.

                   The ideal community, according to common thought, is predicated upon an idea of unity, some sort of overarching, allying quality that brings all community members together. Members of a residential community, for example, all have in common that they live in the same area (often in frighteningly similar suburban homes) and frequently send their children to the same schools or spend time at the same local park. In this instance, geography brings the community members together, but other factors such as a mutual interest, a shared experience, or common heritage can also serve as apt community builders. To members, community can confer a number of benefits, for example, companionship, mutual aid, shared resources, or even something like a discount shopping card a la Costco or Sam’s Club (two “superstores” open only to member shoppers who pay a monthly few in exchange for said membership). Yet at the same time, those benefits come with a price not explicitly to the members but rather those on the outside of the community. As Iris Marie Young states in her essay “The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference,” “any move to define an identity, a closed totality, always depends on excluding some elements, separating the pure from the impure” (430).  A club or group or residential neighborhood exists not just as an entity in and of itself, but rather as something that exists separate from the Other, the other club or group or community. Children are identified as separate from adults, Olympians are differentiated from the company basketball team, and Bryn Mawr students are set (far) apart from students at Haverford or Swarthmore, all three of whom remain separated from other institutions such as Villanova. I use the passive voice to describe all of these distinctions because community members do not necessarily actively exclude others but rather the act of creating and forming any sort of community in the first place results in de facto exclusion. Like high school cliques, communities the world over exclude those who do not belong or “fit in” in some way. Some self-selection does take place in that someone who cares little for comic books would most likely not join the comic book club, yet the fact remains that having this interest functions like a toll that is paid for entry into the club.

                   Communities can also pose a danger in their exclusionary nature as some are a direct function of exclusion. Take, for example, the group of extreme surveyors in Ursula Le Guin’s short story, Vaster Than Empires and More Slow. Ten crew members board a ship in search of a distance planet with the League’s, the overarching governing body, expectation that these people will work together to seek out this new world. Unfortunately, “they were all of unsound mind,” a factor that complicated community building. Nonetheless, nine of Le Guin’s ten characters eventually formed a community based upon one communal trait: mutual hatred of a single crew member, Osden. The majority of the crew members maintained a basic civility towards each other even from the outset of the journey, despite a preference for different fields and areas of science and exploration as well as the aforementioned “unsoundness of mind,” yet Osden always felt isolated and therefore isolated himself. Osden possesses the rare empathetic ability of a sensor, able to perceive all that others think and feel and therefore making him especially receptive to any hatred, antipathy, or discomfort towards him on the part of the other crew members. What is more, his empathetic perception stems from a form of fictional autism known as “Render’s Syndrome” which prompts him to respond to negative feelings with “an aggressive defense mechanism, a response in kind to the aggression which [the crew members] have unwittingly projected onto him” (Le Guin 150). In what becomes a vicious cycle of hatred and rejection, the other crew members draw closer together in a make-shift community on an alien planet while Osden is further excluded and kept separate from the crew of the good ship Gum. In this instance the community’s existence does not passively engender exclusion but rather is formed entirely around keeping a person out of the group. Osden is the impure.

                   The physical planet of Empires also exhibits the inclusion/exclusion dynamic of community building through the only native life on its surface, the plants. Having never encountered other beings before, the plants perceive the humans as a threat, something awful like “…forest fires. Hurricanes. Dangers. What moves quickly is dangerous, to a plant. The rootless would be alien, terrible” (Le Guin 170). The forest “transmits” nothing but fear, projecting its discomfort, terror, and possibly even hatred into the surrounding world. Osden, no stranger to neither isolation nor the fear and hatred that accompany it, understands the root of the forest’s terror. “’That’s the fear…It’s just that we [the crew] are. We are other. There has never been any other’” (Le Guin 173). Existing as an autonomous and isolated community, the forest and all the plants of the planet have never encountered anything or anyone other than themselves, their own insulated and largely homogenous community. The fear, then, acts as an exclusionary mechanism, pushing the otherness, the source of difference and impurity, as far away as possible and erecting a near-palpable shield of negative feelings. Just as the crew rejected Osden, the forest now rejects human kind as a whole, a process only augmented by Osden’s own empathetic receiving and mirroring abilities. A sort of impasse is reached between human and plant only when sensor Osden, gives himself over to the forest, embracing the fear. “He had taken the fear into himself, and, accepting, had transcended it. He had given himself up to the alien, an unreserved surrender…He had learned the loves of the other and thereby had given his whole self” (Le Guin 177). In the end, Osden does find a sort of community, embracing and being embraced by the plants of the alien planet, but this new-found community must also be taken with a grain of salt. Osden still remains heavily separated from the other humans of the journey and, in fact, joins the community that existed more or less in complete and direct opposition to the crew with which he came. No permanent relationships, no bridges to acceptance and unity ever truly formed unless one can call tolerance or the appreciation that follows another’s sacrifice community. Exclusion and separation from the other still persist and remain just as powerful at the story’s end as they did from its outset.

                   In my own experience, I can identify with some of what Osden feels. Communities from which I have been the outsider never appear particularly welcoming to new aspiring members and occasionally do seek to exclude. I thought I had found a sort of community during my first year at Bryn Mawr with my customs group, the fifteen or so other first-year students with whom I lived and around whom spent the greater part of the week leading up to the start of classes. Our Radnor Frosh community lasted a good while, but by the end of first semester, I began to feel the isolation setting in. Disconnection abounded between myself and the others in the dorm who went off in turn to seek their own new communities in such areas as sports or theater or shared country of origin. Even my roommates, my first tiny affinity group on campus, drifted apart, some closer to each other but all further from me. I had no interest in the theater outside maybe costuming, I hailed from Texas yet had all but diminished the role of that part of my life in my personal history and claimed no love of or loyalty to the state, and until the middle of second semester had no athletic pursuits save horseback riding and even there I formed few relationships with the other club equestrian members. I never return isolation with anger or antipathy (it is not in my nature), but I do mirror the exclusion, avoiding interaction with the group if I can out of I suppose some misplaced attempt to avoid the rejection I believe to be inevitable. Either way, when I cannot establish some long-lasting solid commonality with a group, I struggle to form any sort of community.

                   Maybe that is the inherent problem with conceptions of community, the pressing need for sameness and homogeneity. Young argues in favor of communities that recognize and appreciate difference and I am inclined to agree. Difference is not necessarily a negative or undesirable and need not operate as a barrier to community. Rather, difference can function as an ideal jumping off point for conversations and experiences that might not otherwise happen and driving force behind the circulation of new ideas and perspectives. That is not to say that a model train club should actively seek out basketball enthusiasts who arguably would have little desire to discuss similarities and differences between locomotives and March Madness, but some groups could benefit from an outside perspective. An environmental affinity group could gain much from opening conversation and building relationships with groups focused on labor issues and both could benefit from including groups focused on minority rights. They may find overlapping interests that view an issue from different sides or may light upon points of contention  that could engender meaningful discussions and avoid the danger of only telling one story Groups focused on one issue or interest could build bridges between themselves and other groups of varying degrees of difference to form an all-inclusive affinity group, a porous community that welcomes anyone with open arms regardless of affiliation.

                   Community comes on many forms and can grow from a number of sources, but one unfortunate frequent trait is an overwhelming emphasis on sameness and unity as a necessity for a community to exist. Finding a person or people with similar beliefs or interests or histories can certainly offer a sense of comfort, but community does not have to be predicated upon homogeneity and the de facto exclusion that comes as a result. Difference can provide points of discussion and idea generation and work to the benefit rather than the detriment of groups as a whole.  When the crew of extreme surveyors listened to and tried to understand Osden, they finally understood the source of the forest’s fear in addition to the struggles Osden faced every day. Issue-based groups can expand their horizons and open themselves to the intersectionality of how a variety of persistent societal problems affect one issue. And maybe, had I recognized the positive role difference can play, I would have been less fearful and resistant to joining communities with whom I did not explicitly have something in common. The ideal community, then, can offer the safety and comfort of sameness but should at the same time welcome and accept difference and heterogeneity for the benefit of all.


Anne Dalke's picture

“to what extent is environmental justice also social justice? “

Here are my notes from our talking today: our reflections on the writing you’ve done for this class so far, and our shared sense of what you might do for your final project.

You said that you wrote your first paper “from a place that you knew.” And that—though you’d done personal writing before—it was a “different experience” to post on-line material that you normally wouldn’t make even “quasi-public.” We agreed that that paper didn’t offer an explicit argument: it was a story about “figuring out belonging,” and what you figured out was that it “doesn’t have to be attached to a physical place,” that it “could be a relationship.”

You felt best about your second paper (the one to which I append these notes) while writing it; you had “texts to fall back on here, and “knew how to do this”; the first essay also operated as a bridge to this new material. You “didn’t really like your most recent paper,” another very personal essay which you did not post on Serendip; you found it hard to get through, stopped and started and changed multiple times, and cut heavily. Like your first paper, this one was “not really an argument.” It examined the role of empathy—as both a positive and a destructive force, and @ the end, it gave advice to empathizers that, when trying to support another, comparing their experience w/ your own can have a detrimental effect, minimizing what is going on….

You reported that it was “interesting to write essays for this class,” because they were “grounded in the personal” (addressing concepts like “home” and “empathy”), while “dealing with texts.” It was a new experience for you to be “writing in public about personal things,” and to have your writing “scrutinized by your classmates.”

In your last paper, you would like to move beyond the personal (and I would like you to do this, too), to consider the relationship between environmental justice and social justice. You will look back @ Dorceta Taylor’s essay  on The Evolution of Environmental Justice Activism, Research, and Scholarship.,  @ the texts you read for Jody’s class to see if there are others that address this question of the “social ecological,” and @ an essay about the “evolution of environmentalism,” which you read your first semester here. These will help to give you a context and history for your question about what it means to “create a space for justice”—for example, in The Hungry Tide, when people are exiled by the creation of a nature preserve. We agreed that the novel raises this question but “doesn’t make a strong claim” in answering it. I suggested that you might look @ some of Gupta’s more activist essays, to help you think about how and why he might not make strong assertions in the novel. See both A Crocodile in the Swamplands (which makes it clear that the Sunderbans are a focus for Ghosh’s environmental activism), and Wild Fictions  (a much longer essay by him, about the power of storytelling).

Anne Dalke's picture

Diversity and Deviance, Purity and Danger

What I’m liking here, aphorisnt, is the distance you travel from your last essay, which focused so much on the difficulty of “fitting in,” through this one, which follows the political theorist Iris Marian Young in querying the very construction of community as premised on the search for sameness and the exclusion of difference. I’m appreciating very much your close reading of LeGuin’s short story, as an example of that dynamic (with even the plants reacting fearfully to the moving “other” that is humans, and the humans themselves forming a group based on mutual hatred).


And I would like to nudge you to go further with your closing suggestions about how “all-inclusive infinity groups” might form, if we began to value difference, search it out as central to our community making. There’s a wonderful old essay on Serendip, Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective, which might speak to you along these lines…and help you take next steps in that direction.

A couple of other points you make, which might merit further thought:

* “benefits come with a price” (reminds me of the line in All Over Creation, that “love costs”—and makes me ask what an economic analysis of the costs of exclusion and sameness might reveal)

* “taken with a grain of salt” (I chided you, last month, on your use of clichés, but this one intrigued me, and--digging a bit--I found that the phrase, advice not to take something too seriously, derives from the use of salt as an antidote to poison; this reminds me of the distinction you developed in class this week between poison, which is ingested, and toxins, which are injected—in that context, what is salt? And how might it operate metaphorically, socially, politically?)

* another keyword I note here is “purity” (as in “Osden is the impure”). This idea is central to anthropological studies of group exclusion; see the classic text on Purity and Danger, by Mary Douglas, for more along this line…

* and think about whether, next month, you want to pursue these questions of purity  (vs. “porosity”? hybridity? intersectionality, which you also flag here?) in Ozeki’s novel…?