What strikes fear into any self respecting higher education tutor, business start up mentor or Miss World Judge? The phrase “I want to put something back into the community”.
Whilst it wants to suggest acts of beneficence and good deeds, all too often the phrase points to a rather nasty slime trail of good intentions over which other people have to delicately step over in order to avoid the results of someone else’s emotional incontinence.
Putting something back in the community begs the question of what did you take out of it in the first place that now requires to be replaced? Are we talking about the Elgin Marbles here? Or gas fracked from underneath our neighbours lawn whilst they were out shopping in Blackpool? Or the settling of old scores which now need resolving by some swift spade work?
Good intentions in the community which go sour was predicted by the German sociologist Frederick Tonnies in the late 19th century. He wrote about community as resulting from one of two types of relationship: one based on Gemeinschaft or one based on Gesellschaft. The former suggests relationships built on blood, family and kith and kin: the latter points to relationships built on contingency, contract and rationality.
He argued that whilst community was constantly a story of one in which our relationships shifted from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft because of the allure of money, fame and fortune, in actual fact we continually hankered after a return to Gemeinschaft and the emotional security that entailed.
In this world view, taking something from your community – whether this be underground gas, pensions, or works of art – meant that whilst it might enable you to large it for a few years in Sodom and Gomorrah, it would only be a matter of time before you repented and wanted to return the remainder of the earth, money or artworks from whence they came.
Whether there is anything worth returning to the community that had been previously desecrated is another matter altogether. So when people profess to want to put something back into the community, it’s always worth asking yourself, whose community, for what reason and on whose terms and at what future cost.