What does it mean to be a member of a community? Many of us take this somewhat for granted. Home may be where we rest our heads at night, but I know that speaking of myself personally I spend little time there other than doing that. Even someone as interested as I am in questions of politics does not happen to know what elected officials represent me in unincorporated Washington County, Oregon between the cities of Hillsboro and Beaverton. If there are neighborhood meetings of any kind, I do not know of them, nor would most of my neighbors have any idea who I am, if they have even seen my car in the hours of darkness where it parks on the driveway. And so it has been for most of my adulthood, and likely so it is for many of the people reading this particular blog as well, especially those in Western countries. To be sure, we all belong to communities in an abstract sense, and these are worth talking about, but how do we know our communities in a tangible sense, when things go wrong?
In an intangible sense, we belong to many communities, whether or not those communities wish to claim us or not. We are related to some of these communities by proximity, connected to some through common interests and languages and religious beliefs and political identities, and connected to others through our life experiences or lack thereof . Not all of these are communities we want to be a part of. For example, in most of the places I have lived over the course of my life, the accent of the rural South was something I was glad not to have, as that was a community I did not want to be seen as a part of. Likewise, the community of singles in any given church congregation is mostly made up of people who have never married, those who are divorced from their spouses, or those who are widows, and most of those people would rather desperately be anything but a part of that community, and sometimes go about demonstrating that in drastic ways. Clearly, these sorts of weak reeds are not the sorts of identities that we can rely upon in times of trouble. Sometimes the communities we are a part of offer far more of worth to us, but still may not be helpful in all situations. For example, I belong to an Esperanto club in the Portland area that meets on dimanĉo posttagmezo (that is, on Sunday afternoons), but while they are people I enjoy chatting with, they are not the sort of people I would ask to bail me out of prison if need be. In fact, given their political activism, I would be more likely to receive calls from them for that reason.
How we are treated often has a lot more to do with our identity than with our conduct. We might wish it were not so, but it is so. I, for one, do not mind any of the sort of privileges I have for looking the way I do and sounding the way I do. As a plain-looking and articulate freckled gentleman with balding sandy hair, in most circumstances my general mien tends to smooth over difficulty and allow for polite interactions with strangers. I neither look rich enough to be a tempting target for thieves nor do I look like the sort of person who has violence on his mind. But if we are the sort of people who contribute to the communities we are a part of, it is often fairly easy for us to be considered as upstanding members of the communities we claim to be a part of. And the way our identities tend to work, attacks against one member of our community is an attack against all of us. That can quickly make conflicts rise from the level of individual problems to larger issues, and certainly causes a lot of the escalation that we see in contemporary identity politics, much of which I happen to abhor.
Yet it is easy to see why this happens. On our own, most of us are not particularly strong, or particularly wealthy or powerful or significant, yet when we are a part of our larger group we benefit from the strength of numbers and feel more powerful than we are on our own. Indeed, the worth of communities of all kinds from neighborhoods to nation-states and even supranational organizations is in the fact that it allows people to aggregate their strength into larger and more powerful amounts. If the weak cannot become strong on their own, they will join with enough people to become stronger or support someone who will be strong on their behalf. The implications of this play out in our lives over and over again. We look beyond ourselves because we need something that we cannot provide for ourselves or because we face obstacles in life that we cannot overcome without support and help and encouragement. Given that obstacles and problems are everywhere to be found in our lives, it is little wonder that our community identities matter so much, and how important it is to have the right answer when others ask, “Are you one of us?”
 See, for example: