Saturday, October 13, 2007

No Village Idiots: The Importance of Community

If you were to look up synonyms for the word idiot on Merriam-Webster online, some of the results you would find are: blockhead, cretin, dolt, dope, dork [slang], dummy, dunce, fathead, ignoramus, imbecile, jackass, moron, nincompoop, pinhead and simpleton.

With all these synonyms it would seem that the lack of respect for idiots knows no bounds. Just as virtue is said to be its own reward, stupidity, it seems, is its own folly. However, when one looks up the etymology of the word idiot from ancient Greece, a curiosity arises. Therein we find the term ‘private person.’

It is said that among the Greeks who reputedly attached great significance to citizen participation in public affairs (although despite such credit given to them about their love for and practice of democracy it is known all women were excluded from participation; Greek society also had slaves who were likewise excluded from participation), a private person was one who did not participate in the public affairs of the state. In the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which looks at the erosion of the American society and laments at the withering of American community life, Putnam makes note of the idiot etymology as a starting off point for his thesis.

He essentially makes the point that people were becoming [in my words] ‘too private,’ each seeking after their own interests and thus reducing the social interaction among them and as a result reducing the social capital available to the community. Social capital as Putnam defines it, “refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.” Putnam in his book mentions that one of the reasons that the historian Tocqueville was so impressed with America, was its proclivity for creating associations. Tocqueville himself marveled at the level of equality that he found in America, which he saw as a derivative of the social interaction among the people.

Of course, it can be said, be it historically or in present day, that the United States is by no means a perfect example of equality and social life but undoubtedly, it can hardly be gainsaid that the principle of building social capital through social interaction is beneficial for stronger communities and thus a more equitable and content society. We should do well to ask ourselves why Trinidad and Tobago has reached to the level of crime, fear and anxiety that pervades our society. The point here though is not to imply that civic engagement is a panacea to solving our crime situation and other social ills. Nonetheless, with our citizens and particularly from a young age, being encouraged and becoming more aware of the contributions they can make via community involvement, such activity can at least do no less but be of benefit to our social conditions.

While every five years we look to see who can provide us with all the answers we seek to move our country forward, we should do well to remember that much power and answers also reside within us, the people: to organize ourselves and help to take charge of our communities, to make Trinbago the place we all want and know it can be for us all.

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