In my last post, I discussed the paradox of community. Recently, I was reminded of one standard way that paradox is ignored and debates within communities are badly framed. Its worth considering this as a way not to proceed if one wants to improve civil discourse.
Typically, one of the parties in a dispute about the way the community should move—and this could be newcomers or long time members, though it’s more likely to be the latter simply because they likely have some cohesiveness as a group—is to claim they represent the overall community while the other side is simply selfishly representing themselves. The dialogue might be explicitly put in terms of those who are selfish and those who are selfless or in terms of those interested only in themselves and those interested in the community as a whole.
Here is an example: One group might say they are seeking to add a pool to the community (at the expense of all community members) because it would be good for the community as a whole, giving community members a location and activity in which to foster discussion which is good for encouraging community (by strengthening the relationships of community members) while also (of course) providing a form of exercise to keep community members healthy. Advocates of the pool might then say they’ve talked to many of the others in the community who also want the pool and so those who advocate for the pool are really the “we” while those arguing against the pool are selfishly concerned only with their own finances and not with the health of their community members or the community itself.
The pool issue is thus framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—anyone arguing against the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” getting the pool would be good for them! This, of course, is nonsense. (See Isaiah Berlin’s statement about “positive liberty” on pages 22-24 here.)
Consider a different way the issue might have been framed if those opposing the pool started the discussion. They would insist they have the community’s interests at heart, worried that the added expense will be hard on community members, that some may genuinely fear a pool (perhaps a sibling drowned in in a pool), and that all community members will have additional liability, not merely financial, moving forward. In short, on their view, the addition of a pool puts a strain on community members, and thereby strains the community. They then insist that those advocating for a pool are selfish, interested in something only a few swimmers will benefit from, while all share the costs.
Again, the pool issue is framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—this time, anyone arguing for the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” not getting a pool would be good for them! This, of course, is again nonsense.
In both scenarios—one where pool advocates control the terms of debate and one where anti-pool folks control the terms of the debate—the other side Is said to be selfish, each on that side only concerned with the “I.” The possibility that they are genuinely concerned with the entire community is disregarded in the normal Orwellian move to use language to one’s advantage regardless of truth. (If it’s old-timers arguing for one side, they might even try to “explain”—Orwell style—that those arguing against it are newcomers who don’t understand the importance of the “we” in this community because they are still embedded in the “me” culture. They may even believe this.)*
This way of engaging in discourse with others—whether in a small community or a large polity—is misguided at best. Once again, what we need is open and honest discourse where all realize that disagreement is possible (even likely) and useful and that those we disagree with can be honest and well meaning. Insistence on labeling those we disagree with “selfish” is a more likely indication that one is a miscreant than being so labeled.
*For my part, I wish people would get over thinking there was something wrong with being concerned with one’s own interests. If people would really concern themselves with their own interests (and that of their own family and friends), they would spend less time bothering others (see this). They might even be more receptive to open and honest dialogue.