The Dark Side of Communities
When we hear the word ‘community’ our minds wander to communities we are a part of ourselves. We are students at the University of Amsterdam, we are Political Scientists, we are part of a study association and so on. Often, communities can give us a sense of identity and belonging. People connect with one another and find similarities that bring them closer together. International students may find a sense of home in a community of students that also come from afar, and the same might be true for communities of Dutch students. While communities have numerous positive aspects, they do not necessarily lead to good outcomes. In this article, I am exploring the negative side of communities and I question if we should be forming communities or groups at all.
First of all, communities often lead to separation of groups. This may sound contradictory, but let me explain. It is visible on a small scale in our own beloved university: international students and Dutch students rarely mingle. As a Dutch student who grew up in Germany, I believe I fall in between the groups of international students and Dutch ones, which allows me to look at the two groups more objectively. Since international students have another layer that comes with studying: namely moving away from the country they grew up in, their experiences differ from Dutch students. It is normal that they form clusters, international students can recognize certain experiences that nationals might not have had (yet). Furthermore, the language barrier is present. It is always easier to speak in your native tongue. It seems logical that there is a clear distinction between internationals and Dutch students, however, this creates a rift within the university. Dutch students are not a part of international groups and vice versa. Consequently, dialogue between the two groups starts to diminish and the two groups are living alongside each other, rather than with one another.
This separation of groups leads to polarisation, which is my second point. While polarization of international and national students in a university provide a good example to illustrate my point, the urgency of the problem is not visible. Who cares that internationals and Dutch people do not mingle, right? Well, this polarization that communities bring about, is also visible in the rest of the world. It is easier to stick to the people that understand us, and that have similar experiences and similar opinions on certain matters. It feels comfortable and takes less effort. If we both believe that we should close our borders and put fences up, or if we both believe that climate change should be taken seriously, conversations will flow more easily. Instead of a heavy debate, we can just agree with each other. The community then becomes an echo chamber in which we find comfort, but lose any critique on our views or beliefs. Forming groups can thus seclude us to our own opinions and in this we might become strangers to each other. This sense of alienation seep through the larger community that we are part of, namely being citizens and this will then cease to exist; solidarity is lost. This claim needs some nuance of course. Communities are not the sole reason that polarization exists in modern democracies. Economic inequality and a sense of social injustice are more likely to be the root of polarization. However, the feeling that we are being treated unjustly is fuelled if we surround ourselves with people who are of the same opinion. If we constantly agree with each other, we will also constantly think that we are right.
Lastly, by forming groups we are likely to fall into ‘identity politics’. This means that we prioritize issues that relate to our identity, which can lead to several problems. As a woman we would want a president to be a woman as well, but this is then the only aspect we focus on. Instead of the actual skills needed to be president, we thus only focus on gender. Communities are often based on aspects of our identity, such as our sexual orientation, race or gender which provides thus a good base to practice these identity politics that can be harmful.
For a democracy to maintain healthy it is of importance that the world becomes less polarized and issues are looked at separately from our identities. Forming communities is not helping these two issues, rather it worsens them. The question remains if the benefits of communities, which I am not denying exist, outweigh the negative consequences of polarization. I argue that this is true: we lose our individuality and critical thinking in groups, however this does not mean that communities should cease to exist. Mainly, because this is an impossible task to enforce in a society filled with humans that naturally form groups and are social animals. A more feasible solution and also crucial solution is that conversations do not disappear. We need to live with each other, not next to each other and dialogue is a necessity in order to do this. So, next time you are standing at a borrel and you hear some Dutch next to you, engage in a conversation, rather than looking for your international friends. And who knows, you might find a whole new community!