The Dangers of Cultivating Community -To Potter or Rewild; That is the Question (January 2024)


In my previous article, I argued that the response-ability of the many is falling on the shoulders of the few, and indeed, a subset of the few are hidden persuaders and bad actors intent on profiteering from this trend towards a mass retreat from the public square. The solution to this grand exodus from citizen space is the subject of this article. As you might expect, I must start with a paradox I will ask you to keep at the forefront of your mind as you read.

The Paradox

The paradox is that for outside actors to be useful, they must first accept the solution to this civic dilemma: to stop attempting to add value to and for communities and instead make space for communities to co-create what they value. Put another way, participation in the public square and the regrowth of associational life – so key to enabling the response of the many – cannot be shaped like a potter shapes clay. Instead, it requires a process similar in ethos and practice to rewilding.

The Daoist Approach to Rewilding Community

To better understand the dangers of acting like a potter, treating people and their associations as clay to be modelled, and to commend rewilding as a more natural alternative, I wish to draw from the wisdom contained in the Dao De Jing (The Book of The Way, by Laozi); the foundational text of Daoism. The Daoists were not fans of Confucianism, which focused on cultivation. Confucius, like Aristotle, believed that virtue required a lot of intentional effort and cultivation. Daoism briefs against “cultivation,” counselling that morality is undermined, not reinforced, by the sophistication, premeditation, and structure that cultivation aims to manifest.

Daoism, in contrast to doctrinaire approaches to life, advocates for the Dao (the way) of effortless spontaneity aligned with nature, not wrestling against it. The desire is not to create spontaneity but to rediscover it, not to harvest and mould the clay but with care to rewild the earth. In effect, while Confucianists occupy themselves with adding layers of culture (with associated codes of behaviour/etiquette), Daoists are intent on stripping away culture to restore things to their natural order.

Daoists focus on empty (negative) space instead of positive things that occupy space. In this regard, their attention is in the direction of what is traditionally backgrounded in society; in emphasising the background, they see past what is typically foregrounded. So, when highly regulated and scripted forms of social interaction are foregrounded and prized, they look behind the pretensions (the curtain) towards the more natural and spontaneous forms of interaction.

The Daoism of Howie Becker

I think the piano-playing sociologist Howard Becker, affectionately known as Howie, was a Daoist. Becker’s (1953) study of “using marijuana for pleasure” was one of the first to examine drug use from a social learning perspective. Before his groundbreaking work, theories of “deviance” tended to foreground labels laden with prudish moralisations that tended to ‘other’ and pathologise those judged to be deviant. Howie’s work has shown that when you see past such labels and pay attention to what is happening in the background, you discover that those considered deviant, which is to say deviating from what is generally accepted as “normal” behaviour, are, in fact, following the same kinds of pattern that everyone else follows. The stranger is not so strange.

Howie’s genius was expressed in elegant simplicity. He was entering the sphere of sociology at a time when abuse was foregrounded while drug use was pushed to the background. While playing jazz in strip joints in Chicago to work his way through college, Howie saw that what was conventionally considered deviant followed a set of predictable patterns that could only be observed if you rejected that dominant map and spent time being curious in the territory.


The Outsider Among Us

The working assumption, albeit a primarily unstated rule, in civilised societies is that the leaders among the so-called normal people (the insiders) make the rules as to how the rest of “normal people” should behave if they want to belong to “the many” who mostly comply. Of course, there are always “the few” in every society that march to the beat of a different drum (the outsiders), which must be managed on a spectrum between tolerance and punishment. The pre-Becker story was that these out-groups of deviants nestled together at the edge of mainstream society, misbehaving.

Becker showed that such out-groups of ‘deviants’ were not people who could not keep the rules; like the in-groups, they kept different rules; they, too, adopted learned activities and engaged in social games. At a time when the general assumption was that drug use was private and compulsive, Becker argued that addiction was highly social and learned. Moreover, it is not unique to particular social strata, middle-class stay-at-home spouses of the early twentieth century who became addicted to opium following much the same patterns as black youths in economically marginalised neighbourhoods.

Howie’s rule of thumb was that whatever you find on the margins of society is equally present but better concealed among the privileged. It turns out the few labelled deviant are no different from the rest of society.


Returning to the Dao De Jing

In chapter 38 of the Dao De Jing Laozi teaches,

“When the way (dao) is lost, virtue appears; when virtue is lost, kindness appears, when kindness is lost, justice appears.”

There is a lot in this short quote worth pausing over. Let’s break it down. The way is manifest in effortless action in accordance with nature. When we get caught up in conventional approaches, we are likely to get stuck in the foreground of shallow judgements and, in turn, lose our spontaneity. When we lose our curiosity for the background of life, we fall back on virtue; we seek out gurus and guides with their promise of a doctrine of virtue to follow, much like that which Confucius offered his followers. When virtue is lost, and incivility takes hold, then a more paternalistic approach is adopted from the centre, and we must be told to be kind.

But when we stop being kind to each other, then we need justice.

Laozi continues,

When justice is lost, ritual appears. Ritual marks the waning of belief and the onset of confusion.

There are hundreds of translations of the Dao De Jing, so please make of this as you and allow me the latitude to observe that this is not so much a criticism of customs or cultural traditions led by local communities. It is a challenge to ossified rules and staid traditions aimed at shoring up the status quo.



My conclusion is also my lead into next month’s article. If I have sold you on the idea that taking a potter’s hand to attempts at cultivating communities is misguided and that an alternative approach more in keeping with rewilding is required, then I can rest easy for now. But I know that this article raises as many questions as it offers in terms of answers. Chief among them is, what does rewilding look like in a human community? And, even then, once clear on the ‘way’ of rewilding, what is the ideal scale and scope? These are questions I will address next time. In the meantime, taking a leaf from Howie’s book, I wonder what each of us can do over the next month to see beyond the judgements, labels and conventions that enjoy the foreground, to play more in the background of everyday life, where we are not so different after all.

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