Imagining community in the era of COVID-19

In modern life, our connections have become far-flung, and our concept of  “community” often is as well.

With technology as medium, we connect across continents to form a common bond over cats, trains, hatred of neoliberalism or basketball. We often barely know human beings who spend a third of their lives just meters away on the other side of concrete walls, while have lifelong friendships with people all over the planet just because they like the same things we do.

But it wasn’t always this way, and the seemingly robust infrastructure our contemporary way of life has been built upon has shown its weak underbelly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping the planet.

Huge swaths of the economy are now laying dormant until it is safe to reactivate them in saner countries, while we find ourselves increasingly alienated in much of the world loathe to adopt or enforce the best knowledge we have to stop the greatest threat to human life since the end of the Cold War — if not far longer ago than that.

In a society stripped of its cultural knowledge of life with pandemics, we have no common model to draw on, the last candles of that knowledge flickering in the fading minds of the world’s few remaining centenarians. 

Without that shared awareness, we scramble for information from our own, self-created communities in which we have found belonging. With distinct media and often even epistemology, our associations shape not just our pastimes, but even our primary toolkit for making sense of the unprecedented chaos around us.

As an anthropologist who makes a living as a journalist covering an exceptionally non-vital activity — NBA basketball — I am witnessing how the media bubbles in which we all live impact how we see and react to the pandemic inflecting almost every aspect of our lives.

The lens of the most liberal-leaning of North America’s four major pro sports leagues has been heartening, with media, players, executives and even many team owners — definitive members of the billionaire class most insulated from this crisis — have mostly spoken with a unified voice on following science and ensuring safety.

Other communities of which I have called home at times in the past, less so.

Famed social scientist Benedict Anderson created the concept of “imagined communities” in his 1983 opus of the same name, and it refers to how we organize ourselves into literally imagined communities where accident of birth, geography, and imminent biological needs serve less to determine our personal allegiances than how we see ourselves, who or what we want to be, and what it is we like to spend our time and attention on.

While I am now geographically distant from the cities of southern New England I called home, the electronic music and punk scenes I poured many nights of my life into stay connected through any number of social media outlets, and the mistrust of authority — even in life-saving science in the midst of a pandemic — is far less uniform than my basketball-loving media sphere.

And the requisite stay-at-home orders around the U.S. and world are transforming our means of media use and sense of belonging in such communities as well.

The privilege of those of us able to work from home affords those of us so able a very different horizon than those of us forced back into work in places ignoring or misunderstanding the data behind minimizing harm trough social distancing.

Our membership in that disparate, decentralized web of belonging colors it too.

So many of us “belong” in imagined communities of our careers, of our hobbies, and our passions, and many of them simply cannot function as they had — some, perhaps may never again return to how they were pending the reality we end up facing with this virus.

I say all this to help remind myself as much as others that the map has indeed become the territory of many of our lives today, at least until the harsh realities of COVID-19 has made it clear the path we were all on earlier this year has been blocked, with new routes currently under construction.

Try to be gentle to those who aren’t “getting it” — whatever “it” happens to be these days — in a world that was already too full of politically-motivated misinformation, the collision course it’s taken in the post-pandemic era may well determine the tenor of our politics for a generation.

Instead, let’s try to understand the horizons of the imagined communities of others, and how they might be interacting with the world around us right now. 

Ask questions! Listen closely to the answers. What are people fearing? What are they hoping for? Is there common ground between the view afforded by your membership in the imaginary communities that matter to you most?

Most importantly, whenever there isn’t a firm bedrock of friendship and trust (and often when there is), consider doing so without an audience — the power of performativity can often make adjusting perspectives harder for all involved.

It is only through communication that communi-ties are created — and whether the contemporary, far-flung identity-based constellations in which we interweave our lives or the old-fashioned ones of family and mutual survival…

We’re only getting through this together.

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