ruthless compassion (aroraborealis) wrote,
ruthless compassion
aroraborealis

What is it to belong?

One of the challenging things about the two week permaculture design course I took with kcatalyst was, interestingly, the cultural piece. I'm used to being among "my people" in most settings, whether I'm with my family (who are my people in one sense) or my friends (who are my people in another sense), but with all of whom I'm very comfortable and have established patterns and ways of being.

Even when meeting someone new, I often am meeting them through someone I already know, and that usually gives me information about them. And if I don't care for them, I don't end up spending time with them.

The funny thing about a course, then, is that I'm meeting people without context beyond (presumably, though this turned out not to be true across the board, either) a shared interest in the topic of the class, in this case, obviously permaculture. Beyond that, any shared values are purely chance.

Now, unsurprisingly, an interest in permaculture (which itself covers issues of sustainability, organic and local food, alternative systems and gardening) seems to correlate with other "lefty" values: feminism, stated openness to cultural diversity (but a white crowd), open-mindedness, dissing republicans...

The first night, we had an opening circle in which one of our classmates said how much he was looking forward to spending two weeks with likeminded people, and one of the students for a longer, already-running course commented that one of the things that's so great about permaculture is just how powerful and Right it is, so much so that if ever a Republican came to a permaculture course, they would have no choice but to agree! This, as I said, was the first night, so we had not yet established, explicitly, that none of us was a Republican, and, obviously, if any of us was, s/he would now be unlikely to pipe up about it, having been given that fair warning of just what we thought of Republicans. Later, there was some talk about how openminded we are (that being a lefty value, after all.)

So, we've established that we're all likeminded, openminded and voting for the right party. That's all we need to know, right? This led to a lot of snarking on my and kcatalyst's parts, since, uh, no. But at the same time, that was hard, and the more talk there was of how we all belonged, the more the ways in which we didn't belong stood out. We started meals with a circle and a "blessing", which was sometimes nice (I do like to appreciate my food and where it comes from, for example, but I don't bless it so much as bounce in my seat with joy at the wonder and savor of it all) and sometimes not (like when we all stood in awkward (to me) silence while the cook enjoyed the "togetherness" of the circle. Many of the activities we did were based on assumptions of shared values, and this made for some entertaining playing with social approval.

For example, one day, we started with a circle to give thanks for something we're grateful for. I gave it some thought and shuffled through the obvious ones: friends, family, good food, sunshine, water, etc. All of these would be acceptable, but none of them would get me social cred. Ahh, but something that's both true and would get me points was even better: I'm grateful for things I don't know yet. Now, this is, in fact, true. But, of course, it's fun to play the system, too, and as I anticipated, it got a murmur of approval from the circle (as opposed to most things people said, which were received with a friendly-but-silent silence). I did not, sadly, have the nerve to play the game the opposite way the next week, when we were doing another appreciation exercise, and I wanted to give thanks for the internet. Now, of course, I wish I had, because I'm very curious how it would have been received.

At any rate, though, the assumption of shared values and ongoing refrain of likemindedness was wearing, especially when paired with the ongoing self/group-evaluation as openminded. And the more aware of it I became, the more I wanted to withdraw from the normative practices and do things more like a sociologist (i.e., test my hypothesis with regards to certain attitudes) than like a member of the community (i.e., say what comes to mind without a whole lot of filtering).

All of this led me to be thinking a fair amount in the last couple of weeks, then, about what it is to belong, to be a member of the community, and to share unspoken values. Many of us do value diversity, theoretically, but a community, by definition, has limited diversity, as you have to have enough in common for the community to cohere. And it's interesting how talking about how open-minded we are can have just the opposite impact for the people who are on the edges.

I'm not sure that this is a problem, per se, so much as something that I'm enjoying mulling over, and, especially, comparing my experiences across different groups and situations. But it did mean that, while I was sad that the course was over when it was, I was extremely pleased to be back among "my people", whatever that means.
Tags: permaculture
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