Human-scale community and “mass society” – Parker J. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer (b.1939) is an author, educator, and activist. He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends.

There are times, gentle reader, when I don’t trust my friends and don’t feel like working with them. I’m afraid they’ll see my limitations and won’t like me, and I’m afraid I’ll see their limitations and won’t be able to handle them.

When I’m feeling this way, I isolate myself and simply become dependent on the larger society to protect me and give me a world to live in.

Unfortunately, that larger society is diseased and dying, with global recessions, oil spills, consolidation of power, unemployment, genetically modified foods, TV insanity, and on and on.  In the following passage, Parker Palmer suggests there is a relation between global problems and local (or intimate, human-scale) community:

Political scientists have long known that community in all its forms can play a key role in the distribution of power.  Families, neighborhoods, work teams, church and other voluntary associations mediate between the lone individual and the power of the state.  They provide the person with a human buffer zone so that he or she does not stand alone against the state’s demands…

New Matrix real world

In “The Matrix” (1999), Neo wakes up in “the real world” and realizes that the globalized system he’s been living in is not what he thought it was – neither benefiting human beings nor accountable to them. Fortunately he also learns the value of freeing his mind & cooperating with like-minded friends.

If these communities decline in number or in quality, the condition known as mass society sets in.  Mass society is characterized not simply by size but by the fact that individuals in it do not have relations to one another which are free of state interference or control. In mass society the person stands alone without a network of associations to protect personal meaning, to enlarge personal power, or to learn the habits of democracy.

The loneliness of men and women in such a society is a measure of their political impotence; and it is a short step from mass society to a totalitarian one.

As we seek relief from our loneliness, we must learn that personal health depends on our capacity to be concerned about more than ourselves. The ultimate therapy is to identify our own pain with the pain of others, and then band together to resist the conditions which create our common malady.  Health ultimately requires the outgoing act of building communities which will empower us to guard and nourish our humanity.

[Excerpted from A Place Called Community, by Parker J. Palmer.  (Wallingford, Pennsylvania:  Pendle Hill Publications, 1977.)  As included in The Basket of Tolerance, the Epitome of Traditional Wisdom list, section on “renunciation”, by Adi Da Samraj.]

Questions for consideration:

  • What does Parker Palmer mean when he says “In mass society the individual stands alone without a network of associations to protect personal meaning, to enlarge personal power”? Do you agree?
  • Do you think the absence of human-scale community creates a vacuum, and other, less benign things rush in to fill the vacuum?
  • If we don’t overcome our personal limitations and create a sane, human world for ourselves to live in, is someone else going to do it for us?

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  1. “The typical response to the observation of the controlling forces of life is to react by joining a revolution, getting drunk, kicking a couple of bad politicians out of office, having a war, getting ‘high’ on popular illusions, becoming ‘against’ a political ‘something’, or becoming ‘for’ a political ‘something’–but *reaction* is obviously not the way to rightly transform real politics. What is needed is to establish a completely different principle of human culture and politics. What is needed is a principle of human culture and politics that is not based on reaction to all the bad ‘news’.”

    – from Not-Two Is Peace, by Adi Da Samraj

    What do you think?

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