Home Society & Culture The Uplifting Power of Communities

The Uplifting Power of Communities

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At its best, “community” represents a haven where individuals find common ground, support, and understanding. In mental health, for example, community settings can provide vital social connections that mitigate the loneliness and isolation often associated with mental illness. Support groups, in-person or online, enable individuals to share their experiences and coping strategies, fostering a sense of belonging and collective resilience.

Similarly, in writing, communities offer a platform for voices that might otherwise remain unheard. Writing collectives and literary groups provide emerging and established writers with the resources, encouragement, and critical feedback necessary to refine their craft and succeed professionally. An example is the Brooklyn Writers Collective, where members meet weekly to critique each other’s work, fostering individual improvement and a collective literary identity.

The darker side of communities

But not all communities offer sanctuary and growth. Some can perpetuate exclusion, intolerance, or even abuse. The term ‘community’ can sometimes be co-opted by groups with rigid, exclusionary beliefs, using the guise of shared identity to foster divisiveness rather than inclusivity. The term “community” can also refer to groups formed around harmful or illegal activities, such as those involving individuals who engage in or promote sexual assault or the exploitation of minors.

These groups, often discussed in the context of their existence on hidden or encrypted online platforms, represent a dark misuse of the concept of community. They are a stark reminder that not all communities are founded on mutual support and positive principles. Instead, they can be formed around shared deviant interests that pose severe risks to public safety and morality.

The misuse of “community”

The existence of such harmful groups challenges the typically positive connotation of ‘community.’ It illustrates the need for vigilance and proactive measures in digital spaces, where anonymity and privacy can shield illicit activities. For instance, online forums that serve as gathering places for individuals with criminal intentions misuse the sense of anonymity and community to exchange illegal materials and information, reinforcing dangerous behaviours.

Forums that serve as gathering places for individuals with criminal intentions exploit the communal sense of anonymity to exchange illegal materials and propagate dangerous behaviours. This demonstrates that while online communities can be supportive, they can also become echo chambers that amplify misinformation and extremism, leading to polarisation instead of constructive dialogue. This dark aspect of ‘community’ underscores the need for vigilance and proactive measures, particularly in digital spaces where anonymity can shield illicit activities.

Ethical and legal considerations

From a social work and therapeutic perspective, addressing the existence and impacts of these opposing groups involves several vital approaches:

  • Prevention and education. Efforts to educate the public about the dangers of such communities are crucial. This includes teaching people how to recognise and report suspicious activities online. Education can also involve helping individuals understand the psychological and social factors that might draw people into such harmful groups.
  • Law enforcement and monitoring. Strengthening the capabilities of law enforcement to monitor, infiltrate, and dismantle these groups is essential. This often involves cross-jurisdictional cooperation and advanced technology to track illegal activities without infringing general privacy rights.
  • Support for victims. Providing robust support systems for the victims of crimes perpetrated by members of these communities is critical. This includes access to counselling, legal assistance, and support groups that help them recover and rebuild their lives.
  • Rehabilitation and reintegration. For individuals seeking to exit such harmful communities, specialised rehabilitation programmes are necessary. These programmes should address their involvement’s behavioural and psychological aspects and facilitate their reintegration into society as law-abiding citizens.

Moreover, the label “community” might gloss over individual differences and conflicts, presenting an illusion of homogeneity and consensus that only sometimes exists. This can marginalise dissenting voices within the community, stifling debate and discouraging critical thought.

Everyday conversations and varied meanings

In everyday conversation, the term “community” can take on different shades of meaning depending on the context. For example, a conversation between parents at a school meeting might reference their “school community”, focusing on the collective effort to enhance educational experiences. Contrast this with a tech professional who speaks about the “global tech community” as a virtual network collaborating across borders, where “community” implies a broader, less personal connection.

The term’s versatility can sometimes dilute its meaning or, conversely, grant undue authority to a group merely because it identifies as a “community”. For instance, Jane, a social worker, might discuss her professional “community” in terms of shared practices and goals for social change, while her neighbour, talking about a local homeowners’ association, might use ‘community’ to refer to collective neighbourhood decision-making, vastly different in scope and impact.

A call for critical engagement

Given these complexities, it becomes crucial for professionals in social work, therapy, and related fields to approach the concept of “community” with a critical eye. Recognising that communities can heal and harm is the first step in responsibly leveraging their potential.

  • Encourage inclusivity. Communities should be spaces where diversity is acknowledged and embraced. This involves actively combating biases and barriers that prevent certain groups from participating fully.
  • Promote critical thinking. Within community settings, encouraging open dialogue and critical engagement with different viewpoints can help prevent the formation of echo chambers.
  • Focus on individual needs. While fostering a sense of belonging, attending to the individual needs within the community is essential, ensuring that the community’s goals do not overshadow personal well-being.
  • Evaluate community impact. Regularly assessing the impact of community involvement on individual members can help identify negative dynamics early and adjust strategies accordingly.
  • Educate on the ethical use of “community”. As professionals and leaders, we must educate about communities’ ethical creation and maintenance, highlighting their potential benefits and pitfalls.

Takeaway

The term ‘community’ undoubtedly carries a powerful allure, often seen as a panacea for various social and personal issues. But its dual potential to unite and divide calls for a balanced approach that recognises its complexities. As we continue to harness the power of communities in writing, social services, and beyond, a mindful and critical approach will ensure that these structures serve as genuine forces for good, supporting societal progress and individual growth.

The existence of communities centred around harmful behaviours such as sexual assault and child exploitation highlights the dual nature of the concept of “community”. While communities can be sources of support and positive connection, they can also facilitate and perpetuate harm. It is crucial for society, especially law enforcement, social work, and mental health professionals, to understand and address the complexities of such groups. By doing so, they can help prevent harm, support victims, and work towards a safer and more just society.




Maxwell E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.

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