Tuesday, March 14, 2006

churches and shopping malls

** WARNING: the following is an attempt to be considered**

The below outlines a theme I'll try to revisit occasionally.

Note: “Western society/culture/whatever” below refers to the society/culture/whatever of my home in suburban/urban Australia. I can probably assume it has strongish parallels with other Western countries. It also certainly has parallels with some aspects of Asian society, to varying degrees depending on which Asian country and where within the country one happens to look. I can’t speak for Africa, the Middle East, or South America, as I’ve never visited them. (And, for that matter, I’ve only been to half a dozen Asian countries and only lived in two of them.) I should also point out that I don’t hate Western culture – I’m a product of it and I very much like parts of it. I’m simply better qualified to criticize it than any other. Lastly, this will be poorly formulated, poorly edited, very subjective, and self-indulgent. If it stimualtes debate, all the better (if nothing else, that means someone read it).

OK, that’s the qualifications out of the way. I could add a hundred more, but that would be boring and annoying. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to Western society/culture/whatever as WC. That may or may not be an appropriate initialization.

One of the things I very much dislike about WC is extreme – often bordering on grotesque – materialism/consumerism. Somehow or other (I haven’t formulated this in any way; that’s what the attempt to write it down is for), this ties in with the sense I have that WC no longer has a strong sense of community (assuming it did before the Coming of the Secret Wombat, a little over 3 decades ago). How to define community? Simplistically, I’m talking about links and integration between members and groups in a society – and in this case I mean a physical society, not an online one. One reason for this seems to be the lack of physical focal points, where people can meet and talk, whether by accident or design. Once upon a time it was probably the village square. An example of physical focal point (for those of you who’ve been there) is the Adelaide Central Market. The main reason people go there is to buy food, but it’s a very social place and has a happy buzz to it. This is one of the few places I know that really embodies that sense of community that’s too often lacking.

It occurred to me the other day that the connections that make up community don’t necessarily have to be deep. Say there’s a cheese seller at the market who I chat with on Saturday mornings when I buy my cheese. We crap on a bit about our past week or which cheese to buy – whatever. This is an integral part of community. I seem to feel that if I get on well with someone, at some point I should try to take it to the next level – move the relationship outside of its original boundaries into a more personal friendship. That may happen naturally, of course, but it doesn’t need to happen. A healthy community needs connections at all levels, from profound and intimate through to discussing the cricket.

That turned into a bit of an aside.

My question is: how do we regain the focal points that foster a strong sense of community? (Assuming I’m right that that’s what’s needed – of course, you need more than just the right physical infrastructure, so to speak.) WC makes it very easy to be insular and barricade oneself up with 24-hour passive entertainment. One very obvious – but in many ways diminishing – focal point is the church. As in the local church, not the generic term for a general or particular religion. It provides a meeting point, activities, and facilities. But, in WC, fewer and fewer people are going to church and it’s losing its role as a community focal point. (The rise of the big Hillsong-style evangelicals may counter this to some degree; that’s for another discussion.)

I’m not religious and have never attended church apart from wedding or funeral ceremonies. I’m not dismayed at the decline of the church in the sense that I am more comfortable with a secular than a religious society. The problem is we need something to stand in the place of churches to provide the focal point. Or maybe we don’t need the right sort of physical space as much as we need attitudinal and behavioural change. Certainly, we need both. And, presumably, each influences the other.

Looking at the physical side of the equation. The market is an example. I can think of a few streets that get close. Shopping malls are nowhere near; they exist only to perpetuate the crass materialism that I think we need to eschew.

That’s it for now. Hopefully (for me if not anyone who happens to read this), I’ll get back onto this sometime soon.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We don't go to church anymore, but we find other ways/places to build community... we go to the pub a lot. I feel as if I belong to a number of communities based around my interests and the places I frequent. I can maintain friendships with people just by running into them at certain pubs or bars or shows or yes, at the market. And I don't think you can so simply discount online communities - why don't they count?


6:35 am  
Blogger secret wombat said...

I suspect you're more of an exception than a rule, though. And onlime communities count in some ways, but 1. I don't want to include them (for now at least) and 2. my (again poorly formulated) feeling is that there's a need for more face-to-face connection, which online communities don't provide. As mentioned, this is all very personal and different people will feel differently.

11:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's probably some interesting ideas about this coming from architects...

A market, especially an outdoor one, seems to lend itself to meeting up with people (maybe b/c you can usually find some place out of the way to have a conversation). Malls seem to be designed to make you feel awkward and out of place unless you're actually inside of a shop. Casinos are the worst-- you can't tell what time it is and you can barely even see someone right next to you. Even the most dedicated puritan would start looking toward a slot machine for some comfort.

I'm not sure I agree about online communities not hacking it. Couldn't you argue that while WC has destroyed the "village," we're coming full circle with communication being so easy, especially with video conferencing? It's not face to face, but I think in some ways people express themselves more freely when they're not face to face. (There's also something called MeetUp.org --or something-- where you can find people in your area with similar interests and organize meetings.)

For example I can read your blog and understand you better than perhaps people who see you every day, but don't read your blog.

Peace Out, G.

3:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's being lost is geographically local community.

Yes, you can go online and make community with people with common interests. This is however to the detriment of making community simply with people who live physically near you.

Look at public transport, and you will see people engaged with other people - on their mobile phones. Those in our immediate vicinity no longer matter to us.

Is this a bad thing? Yes it is. Community with people who are physically close to you is community with less discrimination than what's replacing it.

Think back to school (especially those of you who went to a public school) when you were thrown in with people from a whole range of ethnic backgrounds, IQ levels, affluence.

This is what being a human is about, learning to share with and understand people who are around you, with whom you have no choice but to interact.

Of course, it's not an absolute - people tend to live in wealth-demographic enclaves - but this is a trend which has accelerated in the last 50 years.

Yeah we still go to the pub. And ignore people who don't look cool/good looking etc.

That people still go out at night is no evidence that community is not being lost. What IS evidence is for example the number of people being found dead in one bedroom flats having gone unnoticed for 6 months or longer (See the recent news of a number of these in Sydney)

Bravo to Wombat for bringing this issue up and articulating it so well.

Digby Mc(JK)Funt

8:50 pm  

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