~Joyce Herman, March 2021
A year into the pandemic, now vaccinated, I contemplate stepping back into the world beyond my home, into the wider community. This transitional moment gives me an opening to consider: What does community mean to me? What kind of community do I want?
Paradoxically, the yearning for community is deeply personal. We are hard wired to live, work and play with other human beings, and to give and receive love in the process. We tend to congregate with people of similar backgrounds and opinions, but that default position is increasingly open to question in these polarized times. Is it possible that exploring the dynamics of our own communities might be helpful in understanding other communities apparently very different from our own?
During the pandemic, deprived of physical contact with friends and family, I turned to Zoom (with all its frustrations!) and found a surprising source of community. Satisfying connections made meetings multiply. In the unexpected intimacy and safety of breakout rooms, at Pachamama Seeds of Hope and other events, we shared not only our ideas, but also our uncertainties, fears, and hopes, sometimes with people we might never have met in person. Community took on new aspects.
Given pandemic-related personal and professional challenges, revelations of atrocious acts of racial injustice, and attacks on our institutions and our psyches from the political arena, supportive communities for like-minded folks felt like a lifeline for survival.
As Henry Louis Gates teaches in his stunning documentary about the Black Church, the presence of a loving community — in that case one anchored in faith — sustained and uplifted the enslaved people with a sense of belonging and worthiness. In such a place, they could preserve their sanity in the face of brutal and inhumane treatment, and further, they could plan escapes, rebellions, and other political acts.
At any time, but especially at times of threat, an environment where we can speak freely with those who understand our pain brings healing. Healing experiences, combined with an encompassing and uplifting vision of the world, help to create a spiritually fulfilling community, as many find in the Pachamama Alliance.
The rise of a charismatic leader is one condition that can contribute to raising community to the level of movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., supported by close Black colleagues, brought an encompassing vision that birthed and sustained, for a time, the Civil Rights movement.
But we know that some charismatic leaders have been able to manipulate, for their own aggrandizement, the same human needs for empathy, support, validation, and empowerment. The word demagoguery refers to “political activity or practices that seek support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”
How does it play out differently?
In the wake of Rush Limbaugh’s death last month, pundits and ordinary people speculated on how influential this openly rude, racist, and anti-feminist icon was in creating — or magnifying — our country’s polarization —a condition so lamented across the political spectrum.
Limbaugh tapped into people’s pain and humiliation, not to bring about healing and unity (except in support for him), but to rub the wounds raw and stoke hatred and suspicion of “the other.” Taking a cue from Hitler —whose radio speeches terrified me in my youth — Limbaugh’s talk shows pandered to a perverse pleasure in dehumanizing others. As I have tried to understand this, I think it may come from an unconscious, misguided attempt to heal one’s personal humiliations and life-long lack of self-esteem.
Despite opposite goals, demagogues, like positive visionaries, have the ability to bring people together in passionate common cause, gifting them with a sense of purpose, of meaning, and of community.
I try to remember that Rush’s listeners, and many Trump followers, may also experience grief for a world dramatically different from what they believe was promised to them.
While the desire for connection and openness may be inherently true for all people, the work of demagogues is to obscure a more encompassing vision that includes justice and care for all. Convincing a group of people that they have been victimized by others, the demagogue sets him/herself up as a savior to be followed and obeyed.
On January 6 we saw how dangerous it can be when that understandable desire for community, infused with passion and a shared sense of purpose, is used to ignite smoldering resentment and a desire for revenge and dominance. The disruption of U.S. democracy came perilously close.
If we, as a community, believe in justice, in interconnection, in the potential for healing and for a truly inclusive community, based in love, how do we now respond? I offer the following distillation of my thoughts.
1. We start by working to end oppression for “those who are in harm’s way and who do not look like us,” as civil rights leader and author Valarie Kaur says. In building solidarity with some, however, we need to challenge the inclination to polarize by making an enemy of certain “others.”
2. Look for possibilities for healing everywhere – even, as Kaur points out, with those we see as our opponents. Even with the people who stormed the Capitol. Recognize that they, like us, have been shaped by painful experiences and oppressive systems. Widespread opportunities to deeply listen to people’s stories, with deep respect, has the potential to shift the culture. Steps in that direction are already visible everywhere. We can lift them up into view.
3. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has written that we must become more than bystanders in people’s lives, and become witnesses. “Witnesses are activated people who now are telling other people’s stories. And what is a community, if not a group of people who tell one another’s stories.” He continues, “Loving our opponents is both a moral and a pragmatic choice.”
4. And finally a caution: that community not lead to conformity. May we proceed with courage, and let our best thinking, even when it deviates from the group’s norms, be contributed to conversations for the common good.