In these tumultuous times, I sometimes think we are flailing about on the high seas in need of a life boat or safe harbor. For those of us who cannot or do not find our security in the loving embrace of a Divine Custodian, all we are left with, to put it bluntly, are ideas and the ability to cling to one another.
Which brings me to a topic I think about often, and that is the value of community. We moderns, and especially we Americans, are fraught, I maintain, with an ambivalence, not always conscious, that runs very deep. On the one hand, we are militantly proud and possessive of our individualism. Born in rebellion to aristocracy, Americans prize our freedom; our freedom of speech, our freedom of conscience, our freedom of movement, and our freedom to make choices. And this freedom is our possession as individuals. To tread on these individual freedoms is to put Americans in a fighting mood. We also live in the Age of Rights – civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, disability rights. And rights are primarily held by individuals. Bringing this close to home, Ethical Culture’s central devotion is to the dignity of the human person, and dignity most pertinently is an indwelling attribute of individuals.
Much of my life has been devoted to protecting individuality, my own and that of others. I am by temperament in many ways a non-conformist. I have long committed myself to the defense of civil liberties. I am a professor of human rights. I have preached on the importance of dissent in safeguarding freedom and democracy.
We contemporary Americans are so bathed in individualism that it may seem that this is the only way to be. Yet as much as I am a staunch individualist, I confess I am not a radical individualist. In latter decades I have chastened my individualism with an abiding appreciation for communitarianism. This dual strain that runs through me, runs through America’s social history as well. Hence, the ambivalence I referenced above. The French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, published in 1840, famously observed that Americans have a penchant for doing things in groups and clubs. This has been long true. However, some, such as the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, have documented that this characteristic is no longer true, and that Americans now affirm their individualism at the expense of communal relations. As Putnam put it, we now “bowl alone” and not so much in leagues.
To the extent that this is true, our lives have become impoverished in many ways. Loneliness and isolation are the negative fruits of individualism. Driven by our egos, we may flatter ourselves into believing that all that we accomplish and believe is the product of our authorship alone. But I assert that this is assuredly false. It is as if our individual accomplishments, and our very identities, comprise the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The great bulk of what we are and have done is built on the endowment we have inherited from others. Our very survival is socially dependent. Without the farmer who grows our food, the trucker who brings it to market, without the sanitation worker who hauls away our plague-producing garbage, the lives of all of us would be very short, indeed. On a deeper level, none of us had to create the language we speak. It was deeded to us by those who came before and who passed it on. We are not even the authors of the values we hold and who make us who we are. Our beliefs are endowments from our parents, in part received and in part in rebellion and refinement of what they have given us. They and we, to carry this further, are the products of the culture that has molded us. If we were born in a different time and place, we would be very different people. It is not a stretch, I believe, to conclude that the self is social.
There is a very old debate in anthropology, sociology and religion: Is society merely a congeries of separate individuals? Are we radically individual and owe little to society as a whole, as libertarians affirm? Or, are we primarily social and the individual secondary or even absorbed into society, as orthodox Marxists would have it?
It was Felix Adler’s response (and mine) that we are paradoxically both social and individual at the same time. The great philosopher, John Dewey held that the individual/society dichotomy is a false one. The individuality we possess is born out of the matrix of society and our active engagement with it. Without society there can be no individual.
Which brings me to our very own Ethical Culture Society. In our time, it is frequently noted that “virtual community” is replacing faced-to-face community. While the internet is a marvelous (I am tempted to say “miraculous”) tool that enables us to communicate with a huge number of “friends” who would be lost to us, I believe that it is no substitute for being and interacting with others in actual relations. As a humanist, I believe that the direct human encounter provides an enriching experience for which there is no substitute. As social beings it is one of the fundamental ends of life, so to speak. Through being with others in community, we expand our capabilities as human beings; our ability to be more understanding and compassionate, to access opinions that are different from ours and expand our own. In community we grow in our ability to care for others and to be cared for when need arises. In community we deepen our values and immerse ourselves in the warmth of human solidarity and relations. We grow in our humanity. Our own Ethical Society may be more valuable than we realize.
In my final address of the formal season on June 5th, I will speak on “The Riches and Rewards of Community.” I hope to join with you then.