You Must First Give
On communities and duty
Continuing on my “community” themed musings. Audio is here, for paying subscribers.
I do want to clear up one misconception from my previous post: I do not mean that racial, ethnic, hobby groups cannot be communities, but simply that they are not automatically communities. I argue, instead, that almost nothing commonly referred to as a “community” deserves the label.
In this post and the next few, I’ll delve deeper into some of the necessary components of healthy communities, particularly the ones overlooked most often.
Communities are best understood as a public extension of family. And what does your family do for you? Wonderful things, if they are a good one. They support you, nourish you, come to your aid in times of need. A good community does much of the same.
And what do you do, as a member of your family? If you are a good member, you support the others - paying special care to nourish the young, old, and vulnerable - and you come to their aid in times of need. Healthy family members provide for each other.
A standard I have for whether or not something is truly a community is whether there is an expectation and opportunity for giving back. If a community asks nothing of its members - it is either a very weak and dysfunctional community or not a community at all.
Obviously, we all want (or at least, think we want) communities that cannot or do not ask much of us. But I’m increasingly convinced that what we need are communities that impose duties on us.
There are two main reasons why this is the case:
First, because in a world of scarcity, a group of freeloaders could never come together to provide the benefits of a true and healthy community, and second, because we gain meaning and a sense of purpose from duty towards others.
When I began the work of building ex-Muslim communities, my instinct was to take on as much work as possible. I was in a privileged position having “come out the other side”, so to speak, and I wanted to help others too.
So I built a small team which helped me take on all the back-end work: we recruited and screened new members, created and organized events, moderated the online spaces, raised funds, dealt with emergencies, enforced rules and resolved conflicts. This team took on the brunt of the work of building and maintaining the community - everyone else, meanwhile, was asked to merely follow a few rules.
Although borne out of my desire to help others, the dynamic I inadvertently helped create was not of a community, but of a charity. We called what we created “communities” and those who joined “community members”, but in reality, it was closer to a soup kitchen: with givers and takers.
This dynamic is precarious as it relies on the hard work and goodwill of a small few, and when those few decide they have had enough, the community collapses.
A true, strong community is antifragile -- as everyone is expected to give as well as take, it is less likely to fall apart without the input of one or two key individuals.
If I could build a community from scratch again - I would instill (even, mandate) the expectation that each member give back to the community, in one form or another (time, if they don’t have money, money if they don’t have time, for example). There would be no exception for people with no means, I would instead craft alternative ways for them to give their share. That might sound a bit harsh, but it will become clear soon why it is not.
Even if a community had a perfect and eternal benefactor - someone who could provide unlimited resources forever…. I would still create duties for members. I would, to the best of my ability, re-orient the resources of the perfect benefactor to instead focus on developing opportunities for mutual exchange among the community.
This is because highly uneven dependencies thwart the creation of real relationships and healthy dynamics - both between the benefactor and beneficiary, but also among the beneficiaries themselves.
Let me explain.
The benefactor-beneficiary relationship is a weird one, at the best of times. People tolerate being in the debt of Gods, but not of other people - especially if the debt can never be repaid. While many egos are healthy enough to withstand receiving charity - for a small few, it is a crushing blow to their sense of self. Although rarely discussed in public, “biting the hand that feeds” is a real phenomenon, and for benefactors, can be a real problem.
It is for this reason that I advise that people who go into charity should be anonymous, to whatever extent possible, to save themselves from the occasional burst of hostility from a bruised ego. But anonymizing charity would only serve the benefactor - the harm to the receiving individual’s dignity would remain. All one eliminates by anonymizing giving is a clear target for hostile feelings, but does nothing to ease the feelings themselves.
Here I expect some of you might think, “Why should we work to ease those feelings at all! How ungrateful to answer charity with resentment!” Ungrateful, perhaps, but human and understandable. And while it is also understandable to desire gratitude for one’s charity - it is also not in line with the spirit of giving.
If one really wants to help those in need - to give in a way that is “truly free” - they should strive to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy the dignity of the beneficiary in the process.
I have my own examples I might give to illustrate this - but for the sake of their privacy, I will share the experience of others instead. In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton described his experience with the running of a Christmas gift drive for needy children - one visit in particular.
“When the knock finally came on their front door, [the children’s] mom greeted the visitors…and invited them to step inside. A nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts. In the commotion, no one noticed that the children’s father had quietly slipped out of the room -- no one but their mom.” “After organizing these kinds of Christmas charity events for years,” he continued, “I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before: how a father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family, how a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment, how children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and it is free.”
When coordinating food drives he noticed “how seldom recipients gave [...] direct eye contact.” “I watched body language as I handed out boxes of groceries from our food pantry,” he said, “head and shoulders bent slightly forward, self-effacing smiles, meek ‘thank-yous.’ I observed, too, how quickly recipients’ response to charity devolved from gratitude to expectation to entitlement.”
My own experience mirrors Lupton’s.
I too heard many thanks, sometimes enthusiastic, but I also experienced a kind of dehumanization as my labor became expected, at times, demanded. It was hard not to feel as if somehow you were being taken advantage of, despite the power imbalance. And although I believed in the value for the support communities for others, they were not very supportive spaces for me. They were, instead, a source of anxiety and stress.
Lupton’s response to these experiences was to instead focus on creating charitable efforts that established parity as much as possible - rather than giving away free clothes, for example, to instead establish heavily discounted thrift stores (which also worked to provide much-needed jobs for community members). The latter wouldn’t provide goods to the needy for free, but it was a small price to pay for salvaging their dignity - and experiencing the joy and pride of providing for their families with the fruits of their own labor.
It is interesting, in this context, to think about what ultimately may be the effect of charities in any community, particularly those that are marginalized. More interesting still, when one considers how many charities are directly involved in community-building efforts.
Beyond the directly toxic relationship between benefactor and the beneficiary, there are indirect effects on the relationships throughout the community. By creating no need for reciprocal exchange between community members, the perfect benefactor would thwart an important building-block of establishing trust and investment. We build bonds through exchange - by giving help and receiving it. Our friends are those who we trust that we can rely on, not merely people who we share commonalities with. No opportunity for exchange can mean that relationships remain weak and superficial.
Meanwhile, the individual members can feel unimportant and undervalued - further fostering a general atmosphere of apathy towards the well-being of the group.
A community is a web of mutually dependent relationships, not a one-way affair. The job of the community organizer should be to coordinate the ways in which members can share duties and therefore become part of this web. As they have personally sacrificed to assist someone else, they will feel more invested in the thriving of their community members.
Further, duty is not only for the benefit of the community or its relationships. It is a benefit for the person being asked to give.
As I have written before, people don’t resent sacrifice. In fact, they will find meaning in responsibility to others, and cherish a role in which they feel they are necessary, in which their contributions are valued. They will therefore be more invested in whatever venture grants them these feelings.
For some reason, many charitable-types have a hard time accepting this - even though many of them give for precisely these reasons!
Next up, a short but spicy post on the value of BOUNDARIES and EXCLUSION in the context of communities. I might paywall, we’ll see.
As usual, if you like my work and find it useful, please support it through a paid subscription. If you can’t do that, I would greatly appreciate a share. :)