Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Community Spirit Myth

Capoeira is a lovely activity, not just as a CCA, for me. It involves a great deal of individualism and doesn't demand commitment. Structure is merely basic; the exco behaves like a minimalist government - it exists to serve administrative functions, not to lord over the group members and demand tributes. The hierarchy is largely egalitarian as nobody, formally or informally, discriminates against anyone else, be it due to seniority or gender (there is a huge amount of respect for girls in Capoeira). The only overriding factor for demanding respect is one's skill, one's contribution to the game, and one's commitment to the sport itself, not the capoeira group.

Of course, this doesn't mean we can do without commitment; a steadily returning group of people are necessary for Capoeira SMU to even exist. But the individualistic nature of Capoeira SMU makes it such that we will come back even if it is not demanded of us. In an 'invisible hand' way, non-committedness transforms into committedness because of our common understanding and love for the game beyond our obligations to club members. And IMHO this is far better than being obligated to commit to something.

Our structure can also be contrasted to that of the symphonic band or the aikido group. In those groups, hierarchy is clearly present with distinct levels of seniority. Those delineating divisions are almost non-existent in Capoeira SMU. One does not fall under the authority of the structure the moment he/she steps in.

Structure always breeds a latent sense of obligation and commitment to it. It is wonderful that this isn't the case for Capoeira SMU, which is why I keep coming back more than I used to for Samba Masala (and eventually left). Why make, or even allow, some degree of your participation be due to fearing that someone else will get upset that you're not there? If you don't feel like turning up, I'd rather you not come. Granted, initial structure is good to ensure some stability before a club, group or society can run freely this way, but once that stage in a group's life is cleared, the best way the show should be run is one that isn't in the shadow of a rigid, iron-fisted structure.

Then, there will always be some people who can't let go of being part of the structure. Think of the people who frequently run for elections and return to the same excos year after year, to fight the same battles they have become so accustomed to fighting. These old guard, system-suckers love to try and keep their generation's way of doing things alive for the longest time. When it's time to let the new guns fight it out, it really is just about time to grow up and let it go.

For better or worse, the role of structure, systems and community is becoming overrated as we become more affluent, better educated, more rational and more individualistic. It is difficult to say if this is good or bad, but to dismiss it as wrong by those who believe strongly that we should be committed and community-loving are just disillusioned (these people, not coincidentally, often also have a naively strong regard for the responsibility of the government to care for us). Such thinking belongs to a past era when it still wasn't easy for us to gain the enlightenment through education to understand what is the best way for us to lead our lives, and rely on the structure, system or community to tell us what to do. Fat governments and sluggish bureaucracies often weigh heavy on the burdened backs of people.

The reality is that these structures don't exist without us holding them up. There is a strong case to assert that we should be looking at things from the actor, agent or individual's point of view, if we do not want our existential liberties to be compromised. In that vein of thought, everything else should be considered from oneself as the starting point.

A simple anecdote from the army goes as follows. Trainees are often punished for not being able to keep one's sleeping quarters in clean and healthy condition, not being able to maintain the functionality of one's rifle, or not being able to keep one's uniform polished. If you can't take care of your own welfare, you can forget about taking care of your fellow soldier's.

Community people have a strong dependence on structure - it dictates to them their roles, from which they know what they are supposed to do, who they can lead and who they must follow, and what they are or are not entitled to, without having to think much at all. Community people are rooted in things like family, friends, their jobs and their community groups, and attain life's meaning and validation from them.

Because of this fundamental congruence between structure and their personalities, community people are diametrically opposed to change. Change is not a readily embraceable thing to the community person, so when change happens, there is instability and often unhappiness in the community person's life.

Live life as an individual, knowing that who you are value-adds to the community you have chosen to be a part of, to the friends you have chosen to associate yourself with. Give more credit to individualism so that you'll always have yourself to fall back on. It is tragic when you lose meaning in life because these structures have altered or disappeared.

In the past, it took bloodshed for the instincts of men to tell them that something was wrong and made them revolt against their oppressors. Now, all it takes is the perception of many that their voice and thoughts are stifled for them to demand change and more freedom.

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