SEEDING WITH THE ENEMY
I began this blog with a photo of people standing in a circle, holding hands and facing each other. It was a natural lift-off point because the picture embodied the trepidation I felt at embarking on my tour of intentional communities. It scared me with its hypocrisy; it made me feel excluded and angry that a group of people who are looking for more harmonious ways of living together, and of living with the planet, only wanted to look inwards. After some analysis, I realised that it was more likely they didn’t realise that such a photo would make people (me) feel unwanted. I hoped that it was an ignorance of PR rather than a secret desire to wall themselves in against new people and new ideas.
After my last three posts – all sketches of communities that I’ve visited – I have decided to return to the question of inclusivity and examine how and why it is so fragile and yet so crucial to the longevity and resonance of intentional communities and their relationship with the mainstream world.
I mentioned in an earlier post that there is a debate within the German eco-village movement as to whether people with extreme right-wing views should be accepted into the community. The point was raised by a woman at the Sieben Linden eco-village in Germany who admitted that she was scared of allowing racists to take part in her permaculture courses. Obviously, she could not tell whether applicants were racists when they signed up for the course, but after spending a weekend with a group it often became clear if someone had racist prejudices. Although there is nothing explicit in the tenets of permaculture which forbids those with racist views to practice it, the holistic nature of the ecological theory usually attracts those with more socialist political views. The German permaculture tutor was shocked when she realised that people on her course were white supremacists. She didn’t know what to do. Luckily for her, it was only one weekend. Afterwards she could return to her eco-village where new members can only join after a slow and measured process of integration – one in which any racist views will most likely be revealed, and further participation can be vetoed.
The debate throws up a contradiction. If you believe in fundamental equality, in the principle that no one person has any more or less value than any other, then you need to enact this belief in your lifestyle. If your lifestyle involves being a member of an intentional community, where you – amongst others – get to decide whether new members can join that community, you are quickly faced with a sticky dilemma. If someone wants to join the community, but holds – for example – racist views, should you let them in? Idealists might argue that the community must welcome them, even if it makes life harder for those already living there. Realists might say that in order to preserve the atmosphere of openness and peace that (in theory) prevails, they cannot be allowed to join. By including those who hold extreme prejudices against a specific group, you not only put those in that specifically attacked group in danger, but also those in the ‘majority’ who are hurt and offended by such extreme, hateful views.
The difficulty is that those with extreme prejudices often have the most to gain from life in an intentional community. Extreme homophobes or racists are often very vulnerable people who have been drawn into hatred groups because of the community they offer. It’s a common psychological phenomenon that growing up in a poor community with little emotional support from family, school or peers can lead to social alienation. This social alienation – and lack of funds to combat it with other forms of escapism – leaves an individual ripe to the sense of place offered by extremist groups who feel unified and mutually supported through their hatred of an easily identified other. It seems no surprise that such prejudiced extremists would also be attracted to the community offered by movements such as environmentalism and ecological sustainability. Everyone is looking for a home, but some need clearer boundaries and raison d’êtres than others. The definite goals and immediate physical activities that are necessary for building eco-villages are perfect catalysts for community building. It’s the same as accountancy firms sending their employees out to construct oil-drum rafts as ‘team-building’ exercises. Growing legumes and digging toilets brings people together.
The question of course, is not whether such hate-mongers should be allowed into these communities, but how? The quickest route is old fashioned indoctrination. The Californian cults of the 60s would have just made the young racist repeat ‘Kevin is God’ (or whatever the leader’s name was) a thousand times a day until he no longer hated black people, but just hated anyone who didn’t think Kevin was God instead. The slower and more moral way is to allow them to get to know the people who they hate. If the community is diverse, but relatively harmonious, the extremist will (in theory) see that the members of the minority group he hates have many similarities to him, and that their race or sexuality does not harm or impose upon his own identity and sense of place. This way his hatred will melt away and be replaced by wisdom. Hopefully. The other possibility is that he will at some point have a conflict with how the community is organised and then project his resentment onto an easy scapegoat, a.k.a. the minority he despises. In such a closed community, this could cause even more tension and perhaps extreme violence.
What I discovered in Germany was that those who are unwilling to allow extremists into their community are not in reality most afraid of how those extremists will treat their chosen hated minority (in reality, there aren’t that many non-white people in the German eco-village network), but are in fact most scared that their own values will be compromised. What they really fear is that the new extremists will affect the overall outlook and philosophy of their community (whether it be the amorphous ‘permaculturists’ or an in-situ village), and that the community they feel so attached to will move further away from their own beliefs. During the live debate at Sieben Linden, individuals identified that they didn’t trust their fellow community members enough; they were scared that those other members wouldn’t have the strength to stand up to the new extremists, that they would cower in the face of their hatred. This confession was a helpful step in the eco-village’s journey towards more open communication and social cohesion, but it provided no clues as to whether the community would accept those with extreme prejudices or not.
Each intentional community is created for a specific aim. That aim can range from the apolitically vague (‘to live in more harmony with nature’) to the topically specific (‘to stop the construction of a third runway at Heathrow’), but if the members of that community lose sight of that aim, they already have one foot in the grave. It is totally sensible that an intentional community will protect itself from being infiltrated by individuals who have views that are counter to its aim. If you hate air travel, you won’t want to live with the owner of BAA. The issue becomes more complex when the intention of the community is something altogether more abstract and – in the long run – more important. If you want to promote human equality, can you afford to host individuals who believe that the colour of your skin denotes your value to society? On the other hand, how can you live in harmony with yourself and your ideals if you can’t find the strength to reach out to those in need – however dangerous they might be – and welcome extremists into the supportive community that they so clearly lack? Living with intention may be a noble choice to make, but great ethical ambitions come with great practical pitfalls, and perhaps the potential for great emotional suffering as well.