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Can democracy do without campfires?

community together friends
Unsplash/ Duy Pham

We can do little more than pity a generation that is born into thinking that social media fits the definition of a community; and that genuine, long-standing forms of community are burdens upon our authentic self. I do not say this as a distant critic but as one among this group.

I have noticed the habits developed within and around me and have watched our paradoxical longing for and rejection of community. And I here join a continuum of thinkers who fear the social implications of our collective withdraw from one another.

To understand the nature of communities, let us begin with this tautology: man is a social being. Phrased differently, man is the being who gathers around a fire. This image of the campfire is near archetypal. We gather around its flames to eat and tell jokes, to offend and forgive. At the fire we learn to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and enjoyed all in the span of an evening. We hear names and backgrounds; we discover mutual friends. We are no different from our ancestors in this regard.  And while we can scoff at the barbarous rituals they practiced around a fire, we are yet to evade the impulse that brought them there.

Given this longing for fellowship, it is quite odd that we are in fact lonely and distant. Robert Nisbet sounded the alarm in the 1970s with his Quest for Community, Robert Putnam offered the empirics in Bowling Alone, and in a recent podcast with the Rev. Sam Ferguson, U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) pointed to the same phenomena. They have all articulated a development that we all can intuit: that social bonds are withering away.

For a variety of reasons we have lost what the great theorist Alexis de Tocqueville called the “art of association.” And the loss of this art is no abstraction; it shows itself quite well in the people we have become. Simply put, we have lost the means of sociability. We don’t know how to interact with each other. Complaints of small talk are commonplace, but I suspect it points to a breakdown in the very manners that maketh man. As sacraments are physical practices that connect us to God, manners connect us to others. But as manners wane, and habits of sociability have been lost, we have withdrawn in fear, choosing the lesser warmth of Netflix, to the robust yet uncomfortable fellowship of the fire.

This points to a vicious feedback loop, where, having lost the various forms of association once applauded by Tocqueville, we have lost the manners that show us how to engage with another. And without these manners, teenagers see no reason to engage in social gatherings that they are not habituated to handle. Take as but one example of the loss of these manners: the strange death of the handshake. The beauty of this norm is that it tells you what to do (and for all our talk of authenticity and emancipation, this is precisely what we desire in our first meeting of another). You meet someone new; you shake their hand. Neither party’s act is in question.

But when manners are lost and these questions reemerge, we begin to hear the language of situations being “awkward.” Awkwardness only becomes common when manners are lost. An aristocratic party has many vices: excess, pride, and greed, but I suspect that their interactions had no sense of awkwardness. The men knew how to address the other; and arguable more importantly, strict manners governed how they addressed members of the opposite sex.

We often shun manners as hiding our authentic self. We call the formation of the soul by real, personable norms and institutions a sort of tyranny upon our original state of immaturity. But our current distance from one another shows that without manners and the practices of social commerce we might have more “genuine” interactions, but we have less interactions overall, and we feel more anxious when asked to do so.

I return to the image of the fire, for we still seek its warmth. But despite this desire, despite being unavoidably social, we often do a great deal to avoid social interaction. Having lost the means of sociability we have lessened the yearning to see others. Our sense of fear and anxiety, built up and developed in the hours spent alone — not in proper rest, but in the consumption of entertainment — has subdued the art of association.

But human nature is a funny thing. I have no doubt that the long march of democracy, the breakdown of urban communities, and the lockdowns during COVID have each taken their turn in beating the communal nature out of man, but none have succeeded. Our nature is quite fickle and whimsical in this manner: it remains the same but changes its form. Hence, the rise of pseudo-communities.

To understand these pseudo-communities we must return to where we began. A new generation of citizens has nearly given up on the admittedly difficult task of building thick communities around the fire. These are relationships formed in face-to-face interactions where each has obligations to the other. It is here, in the messy particulars of human existence, that character is formed, duty is developed, and those means of sociability are taught. The work is hard, and no doubt uncomfortable, but we have paid the price for looking to overcome our social necessity with thin, synthetic online communities. Its failure is the result of a false anthropology. We must relearn that man is both embodied and dependent, which means any communities worthy of the name are necessarily bound by location. But in the absence of these tangible communities, we have turned to thin counterparts, the worst of which, as Sasse reminds us, is online, political communities.

In the aforementioned podcast, Senator Sasse had a humane and gracious discussion of the people who, having lost thick communities, inebriate themselves in online political groups to avoid the dreaded Pascallian boredom. It is a phenomenon that Nisbet predicted. Both men see that when we lose our local sense of attachment, the mind floats upwards, and sees the state as the only level at which we are connected. Without a church or bowling leagues, politics poses as the sole local connection for us all; it seems the only fire upon which we can all gather. 

Lacking other locales of existence, this ultra-minority that Sasse addresses is prone to directing undue energy into politics. There is a place for political activism, but the good life is not to be found in this alone. Human life is given worth in the diverse activities of human life — the pre-political play spoken of by English Philosopher Michael Oakeshott. But when politics is the only nexus where each citizen is related, we speak more in terms of broad, aloof politics groups that have no tangible connection to each other. Hence, the language of the “black” and “LGBT+” community. These are groups that no doubt exist, have common characterizes and experiences within themselves, but we must not make the mistake of calling them a community apart from any tangible attachment.

Communities are forged in the common practice of living life with another, and they involve dealing with the wondrous idiosyncrasies of a fallen race; abstract, online communities do nothing of the sort. They have merely replaced, as opposed to being a supplement for, true community. They have posed as the fire but cannot perform the function that only true communities can — they cannot make virtuous citizens of the isolated individuals whom we must meet and bring into the blessed bonds of fellowship.


Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism. 

Caleb Knox is a spring 2022 intern at the Institute on Religion & Democracy who studies Political Theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. Originally from Virginia Beach, he has served as speechwriter, columnist, and then Fellow with the Hertog Foundation. He is interested in understanding politics through the wisdom of philosophy and the guidance of history.

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