On community, communities and identity politics

Today I drove half an hour to a hospital, with my toddler, to visit a dying woman I barely knew personally, just because she is a member of the church I attend. I don’t want a medal or anything; I mention the incident because it left me mulling over the different ways our culture uses the word ‘community’, and what they mean in practice in different contexts.

In the context of a church, ‘community’ means shared values. In that context, people go the extra mile to care for one another in ways that are shaped by the church’s shared value system. Specifically, visiting a dying woman, that might mean reading her a prayer or sharing with her thoughts and prayers sent by other members of the community. It might mean being willing to hold the hand of a near stranger, knowing she is part of my community and that enough of what remained unspoken between us could be taken for granted for her to find my presence comforting, and to allow me to be present.

In the context of identity politics, where nowadays we more often hear the word ‘community’, what does it in fact mean? It means you share your ‘identity’ with other members of your ‘community’, and membership of that community confers some kind of victim points, which can be leveraged for political amplification, or simply to win an argument with someone who possesses fewer protected characteristics than you. It is no guarantor of shared values, obligations, narratives or really anything much. And the more ‘inclusive’ each ‘community’ gets, the less able any community is to argue a coherent political case for anything. The LGB community is a case in point: when it focused on advocacy for people who sometimes or always engage in same-sex relationships it was pretty straightforward, but now it’s supposed to be an umbrella for everyone except the most vanilla heterosexual sex-role-stereotype-embodying people it’s hard to see what it can actually advocate for. (I wrote about how inclusivity kills politics here.)

This postmodern sense of ‘community’ can’t be relied on to come sit by your deathbed, turn up with food when someone else in the community has a baby, visit you when you’re ill or give you a lift to the station if you’re stuck at home. For that, you need shared values. It’s here I think we start to get a clue as to why the revolutionary vanguard of identity politics sounds increasingly religious with every passing day, complete with catechisms (‘trans women are women’), a theodicy (‘privilege’) and an Inquisition (outsourced to Twitter). It’s because, having left a smoking crater where Christianity once sat, the left-liberal vanguard has (unconsciously perhaps) begun to realise how many babies (and dying old people) have been thrown out with the bathwater.