WE THE PEOPLE, YOU THE ENEMY
Would you like to join me in an experiment? It’s simple, just look at the photograph below.
Quick! What’s your first reaction? Is it …
a) Oh how I wish I could be there! b) Aren’t those flowers lovely c) I’ve been looking for a Where’s Wally T-shirt like that for ages … d) This disturbs me
If you chose d), then read on.
I’m currently on a journey to discover communal living projects. I’m spending the next year visiting eco-villages, communes, religious retreats, protest squats, free-love societies, moneyless festivals – anywhere that’s offering an alternative to mainstream society and its social rules. So far I’ve visited a village of straw-bale houses and caravans that home 140 people in central Germany, a Victorian mansion in Dorset where the inhabitants share domestic duties and farm the land, and a squatted strip of land next to Heathrow airport where occupiers grow vegetables in a protest against the construction of a proposed third runway.
Knowing this, you might imagine that the above photo would fill me with joy and hope and butterflies. Look at those lovely people holding hands amongst the wildflowers, triumphantly connected in a living circle of support and trust and commitment!
So why does this photo make me feel so uncomfortable?
I think it’s about inclusion. This photo can be found on the homepage of the website for the Fellowship of Intentional Community, a group which is ‘dedicated to promoting co-operative culture.’ The aim of the Fellowship is to bring together far-flung intentional communities and help them connect with one another. It also encourages newcomers to explore the values and lifestyles of these alternative communities, to visit them and test their worth. But this photo does none of that, this photo has me running for the nearest McDonalds.
Although each intentional community has its own ideology (or conscious avoidance of one), almost all profess that anyone is welcome. The idea seems to be that if you’re committed to joining their group, and are willing to work hard, then you’re in – regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation etc.
This photo is a monument. It is a celebration of the idea that trusting, loving and sharing more will lead to happiness and fulfilment. All photos are frozen moments and can become symbols. This is a symbol that reads, ‘We’ve found the answer. Don’t you want in?’
But of course we’re not invited. The circle is closed and the battle is won. The enemy has been shut out and the victors settle down to feed on the spoils of war – nicely laid out on a gingham tablecloth. They look inwards and celebrate themselves.
Ok, so they’re hypocritical. They claim to be open but the photo says otherwise. Let them play their hippy games, let them frolic in self-righteousness and rest assured in straw-bale shacks. Think of it this way: imagine the photo above but all the people are wearing Star Trek uniforms. Somehow they’re now pitiful and wholly inoffensive. They have identified their commitment to Star Trek and have found others who feel the same. The photo of these Trekkies is unprovocative because it doesn’t presume to know something we all care about. It doesn’t say: Look at us! We’ve found the key to human happiness on Earth.
I think the disturbance comes from our desire – we all want to be loved, supported and looked after, and that’s what seems to be happening in the circle. They have something we all crave. The photo flaunts it, and we get envious. But this thing we want isn’t quite packaged right. This is weak PR. Instead of showing you that getting the hot girl is easy (just buy these shoes and she’ll love you), it says: if you do lots of uncomfortable things like hold-hands-with-adults-you-don’t-know-and-allow-yourself-to-be-photographed, you’ll get the love and support you need. There’s a paradox looming. At once we feel like we’re being invited to join, standing on the outside and being ignored, and taunted with a ‘Go on! Step outside your comfort zone and look silly for once’.
The other huge stick in the mud is how damn hypocritical these people look. You know they’re trying to save humanity, you know they want peace on earth, you know they want to help the weak and temper the strong, yet all they seem to be doing is closing themselves off and enjoying the sunshine. The image compounds the eternal critique against idealists: all you are doing is saving yourselves.
My quest to visit communes was fuelled by the hope that somewhere out there are people with clues about how our society can change for the better. Photos like this remind me of the dangers of self-congratulation, they remind me that people often struggle to transmit the ideas they hold so dearly, and they remind me that changing the way you live isn’t all butterflies and wildflowers – you might have to get a bit uncomfortable.