For far too long I have been pondering the question and conundrum of the individual and the community, and have fought against putting any ideas down until I did more study on the issue. Hence the thoughts laid down here are strictly limited and preliminary, and meant to be nothing more than a foundation for further inquiry and a way of getting my perspective on the subject out of my head and into some sort of coherent statement.
At the core of the standard version of American history and its understanding of the “political” stands the individual and his or her liberty to do as he or she sees fit without being obstructed by external forces. Yet diametrically opposed to the individual stands the awesome power of the law and the righteous hand of justice if and when the law is contravened. The Bill of Rights and other laws implemented since the birth of the republic extend various rights and freedoms to all individuals, all citizens, under the law. If the government is interpreted as transgressing these rights and freedoms, the judicial system comes down on the side of the citizen(s) whose rights have been infringed and blocks the government’s executive or legislative overreach.
The law is meant to act as an instrument not of outright surveillance or coercion but of almost invisible circumscription. When the government puts laws into effect that blatantly step out of their natural place in the shadows and into the center of public life and become a constant subject of discourse, incontrovertibly violating the boundaries that the law must fundamentally adhere to by being constrained by the rights and freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights, for instance, then the individual must protest and seek justice against this virulent excess of government power. Individuals can protest by themselves or they can demonstrate alongside other individuals who come together and form their own community of dissenters against the flagrant disregard for the law and our rights and freedoms as American citizens that the government seems to be relentlessly engaging in since 9/11.
As individuals, as citizens, we have rights and freedoms, yes, but these rights and freedoms do not equal the license to do as we wish without coming up against the repercussions for crossing lines that are indicated by the laws that are in place to ensure our security and the social order that makes civilization work. This, in a sense, is where the institution of the community comes in to restrict the natural proclivities of the individual and demarcate their own needs, wide-ranging and abstract though they may be. A community is not just a given number of individuals with their own needs, desires, and identities, but is something in itself, with its own needs, desires, and identity. When an individual leaves the privacy and sanctity of their own home and goes out into their neighborhood or walks through the doors of the site where they are meeting with the other members of a particular community of like-minded individuals, several of their personal needs and desires as well as their identity become subsumed by the larger needs, desires, and identity of the community in which they live and participate.
I do not mean to say that when an individual goes into a store and needs help in finding an item, for example, that their needs specific to the moment should be ignored or that this is acceptable but rather that the individual’s natural reaction to such a situation should not exceed the boundaries of what is considered permissible in society. By all rights, if you are refused service or if the worker is treating you poorly or in a derogatory manner then management should be notified so the situation can be rectified. But it does not mean you have the right to upbraid or physically assault the worker. We all have the right to be protected equally under the law not just from the excesses of government legislation but also from the natural inclinations of individuals who may resort to verbal abuse or physical violence when they feel they have been slighted or injured in some manner. The norms and mores of community and culture (should) act as social strictures on the individual’s instinct to void reason and logic when the mind (and ultimately our sense of self) feels harmed in some way and leaps toward open forms of aggression in response to this grievance, whether actual or imagined. Our rights and freedoms as citizens coexisting with others in communities and society as a whole do not grant us the license to enact our own justice, as this violates the rights and personhood of the other individual.
Community is as much a place as it is a thing and a concept. To be an individual is a right but it is naturally circumscribed when performed in relation to one’s neighbors and one’s shared community of thought and interest. Philosophically speaking, we suffer absolute freedom, but politically and legally we do not. If we want to be citizens of a free, equal, and just society, we must respect and support these same rights and freedoms as established by the law and accorded to our fellow countrymen. If we flout the law and violate the personhood granted by it to others we create communal and social chaos and compromise our own personhood and the integrity of the laws that construct and preserve our identity as individuals and as citizens. When we harm or abuse another individual we inherently damage ourselves as well as society, breaking down and destroying the political and legal framework that makes us citizens and even more, human beings.
At the heart of any and every nation’s politics and push toward a more just and progressive society are the following questions, and surely many more:
Where do we draw the line between the individual and the community?
When should and does the individual’s rights and freedoms take precedence over those of the community?
Where does the “mind,” “body,” and power of the many communities that exist across the country come to a clear-cut end and where does the individual find themselves in relation to such communities?
Where does any one individual’s power or that of any one community find its end and the larger, seemingly stronger and more powerful entity that is the nation (ideally led and guided by a firm but flexible federal government) take their place and embody the general will and spirit of all its citizens and not just the various elites?
These are questions I cannot answer, that no single individual can ever answer because they impact the lives and personhoods of a variety of peoples and communities, and the voices of these human beings, these individuals, these citizens, must be heard and taken into account when deciding how to address this continuously pressing, conflict-ridden subject matter and put any solutions into practice.