A lot of folks have begun talking about “fake news” and more broadly, the widespread decline of shared truths, of commonly agreed-upon sets of facts about issues critical to most of us. This is an enormous and daunting problem for our country, especially given the political and cultural polarization that it has helped foster. Many people are debating how this has come to be, but at least one of the underlying causes has received scant attention: The loss of functioning community, of shared realities in our day-to-day lives. I’m speaking here not of community in the realm of the “community of social workers”, but in the Ghostbuster sense of the word, that is, ‘actual physical contact’. If you think we’ve evolved beyond that, I hope you’ll read on.
In his essay, “The Vanishing Commons”, Jonathan Rowe quotes a man who explains why his luxury yacht-building business is booming: “Rich people can go to a beautiful hotel and pay $3000 a night for a suite. The trouble is, when you go down the elevator you are in the lobby with people who paid twenty times less. My clients don’t like that.” Of course, the very rich have separated themselves from the hoi polloi for centuries. But that trend has accelerated and broadened in recent years, with the number of gated communities in the US increasing from about 2000 in the 1970s to over 50,000 today. It’s not just the rich that seek to insulate themselves from the wider community, but increasingly middle income people as well. Especially, though not exclusively, White people. Whether motivated by fear, racial animus or the hope for higher property values, the result, according to a recent study by Renaud LeGoix and Elena Vesselinov, is that “gated communities are significant contributors to segregation patterns at the local level”.
Enclaves for the rich or gated communities for the upwardly mobile are but two of the ways we have walled ourselves off from one another, eroding every day, face-to-face interaction. There are at least three other critical trends that steadily increase our collective estrangement. First, the decline of public spaces, like plazas, town squares, public playgrounds and parks, means fewer places for people to gather, play, eat lunch, or talk, without the requirement of membership, permission or payment. In some places this has resulted from a general decline in the community or neighborhood, but in many more it is an outgrowth of the push to privatize what were historically public or common goods, a trend that Jonathan Rowe believes has “reached an epidemic level”.
A second critical factor is the decline of broadly-based voluntary civic associations, including groups like the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), the Elks, rural associations like The Grange, and many more. While far from inclusive, especially in terms of race and gender, these groups did provide a relatively level playing field across economic class, where working folks and professionals debated issues, developed skills of governance, and worked through differences within organizations that were local, yet connected to regional, state and national bodies as well. Theda Skocpol estimates that in the 1950’s 3 – 5% of all adults in the US held leadership positions in one of the twenty largest voluntary associations, meaning that tens of millions of people from all walks of life likely were regular participants. Rotary, Kiwanis and other civic groups still operate today, but with a far smaller proportion of the public involved.
Reinforcing these trends of physical segregation and civic disengagement has been a third factor, the increasingly autonomous nature of commerce and shopping. Chain stores and big box retailers emphasize speed and efficiency in the shopping experience, dramatically reducing social interactions when compared with independent retailers and farmers markets. On-line shopping makes it easier still to get what we need – or want – with little or no interaction with people, let alone our neighbors. And that impact is in a sense, self-promoting, with the meteoric rise of Amazon helping to shutter over 100 million square feet of retail store fronts, according to an analysis by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. More autonomous shopping, fewer actual places where people might run into one another in their community.
Into this perfect storm of disengagement from one another and our communities, an array of social media platforms have arisen to help “connect” us, to provide “community” without place. Being unbound by the limits of particular places – limits of ecology, of culture, of economics or human history – social media communities often become self-absorbed and self-perpetuating, insulated from outsiders, and nurturing of extreme points of view. Facebook is not the only venue where this happens, just the most prominent one. Its design fosters group-think, aligning cultural and political sympathies as tightly as buying preferences. And it propels the inexorable decline of actual communities of place, which by comparison are, after all, a pain in the ass.
With all of the disengagement from our neighbors and communities, it should not surprise us that the language of debate in this placeless world is so often vitriolic, fiercely resistant to new information, skeptical of ‘facts’. Discounting solidly researched analysis or accepting the seemingly preposterous is much easier when our realities are deeply segregated, and our relationships increasingly disembodied. If Facebook were but a small part of how we interact with one another, how we get our news, how we experience the world, it might be different. But just as Amazon’s rise has hastened and benefitted from the fall of brick and mortar retail shops, Facebook’s emerging dominance has made face-to-face community seemingly obsolete, at once cumbersome and painfully limiting. Yet it is precisely those limits, those shared realities that can instill a bit of empathy for one another and with that, a modicum of humility about what we know and what we don’t know.
Many Saturday mornings the line at our farmers market booth includes libertarians, quiet conservatives and liberals; readers of The Nation and folks who listen to Glen Beck. You can be sure that there are some very strong disagreements on economic, environmental and social issues in that queue. But there’s no shouting, no hateful, dogmatic pronouncements. What would happen if I stopped bagging produce and asked what everyone thought about climate change? Or Black Lives Matter? Or the president-elect? I honestly don’t know. I do think, however, that the realities we share, around food, our land and our local economy, may bind us to each other just enough that we’d actually listen, perhaps even consider a discomforting fact or two. Maybe, only maybe. Even so, compared to Facebook’s placeless world, this face-to-face community at least has a common place from which to begin the search for shared truths.
Anthony Flaccavento is an organic farmer and sustainable development consultant based in Abingdon, Virginia. His book, Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up was published by the University Press of Kentucky in June, 2016. He writes and speaks widely on these issues, and also produces a weekly, five minute You Tube series, “Take Five with Tony”.