Over the next few weeks, I want to explore some of the key concepts of community organising and how they apply to a British context. Most of the practice and theory of community organising has been developed in the States but the key concepts transfer across continents and cultures with ease. This week, I want to explore the nature of relationships in the real world and how community organising sheds light on some clear contradictions in our ways of handling them.
Many, perhaps all of us find it difficult to make one fundamental distinction in our relationships. We start out in life with those relationships that are intimate and familial such as brother, cousin, mother and friend. But our mistake comes when we extend such private relationships to those who play a critically different role in our lives: to public officials, to celebrities and to business managers. These are public roles which are utterly different and we confuse the two at our peril.
Private and public
When it comes to private relationships, we know them to be enduring, to be mostly inherited and to offer us a real sense of safety. Families are made up of a variety of fallible individuals but they play roles that have certain expectations attached to them that derive from their private nature. These are relationships with people who are mostly like us and so these strong social bonds become the fundamental building blocks of an effective social network. These are the relationships in which we invest time, love and care and with people to whom we turn in moments of crisis or turmoil.
Public relationships are fundamentally different. Teachers and police officers, bosses and shop-keepers, co-workers and politicians are all playing a professional role and hence are relating to us in the public realm. These people are more likely to be very different to us, to have an instrumental intent and relationships with them are more fluid than private relations. They can be replaced by a different personality whilst still fulfilling the same role. Our relationships with such public figures are more likely to be weak acquaintances than strong and lasting. We are more likely to have guarded relations with such people, managing conflict by distance or exit (where possible) than by working the difference through as we might in private more permanent relations.
Living with a Mask
Now clearly public people also have private relationships and visa versa, sometimes with the same people. So you can have a public relationship with your boss and also be their friend. The important thing is that these are two distinct ways of relating and confusing the two can lead to manipulation and misunderstanding. When your friend is acting as your boss, they put on a ‘mask’, a style of being themselves that means they are not able to express themselves freely and crucially will act in the best interests of the enterprise rather than their kith and kin, friends and family. Their public role requires them to act for the ‘common good’, for the well-being of the community at large rather than for their narrow personal interest.
Getting roles confused
The problems arise when we confuse public and private relationships and view public professionals as our friends. On the one hand, public figures go out of their way to cause us to slip into this error. They present themselves as our friends, as having our widest interests at heart and seek to persuade us that we know them intimately. Celebrities are particularly prone to seeking to give us an intimate insight into their lives as a means of stimulating our private sense of relationship. Their role as public figures seems to fade into the background whilst we are seduced into seeing them as like us, offering closeness and permanence whilst in fact seeking to boost their sales and increase their fan-base.
On the other hand, many people are just unaware that they are being manipulated by the media into relating to people wearing masks as though they are family members. We are inclined to be more open and accepting of failure with family and friends and to hold a lower standard of behaviour than our expectations of responsible professionals. Hence we are drawn into misjudgements and subtle compromises when such public individuals act informally and seek to reduce the distance between us and them. When public officials, managers and celebrities take up their respective roles, they also take on responsibilities to act for the common good, to be held accountable for their actions and to take action in a planned manner.
Relationships in the Public Realm
In private, we want to be loved or at least liked for being honestly ourselves; we act spontaneously out of loyalty and expect to give altruistically. In public, we all in truth act out of self-interest and are looking to be respected for our actions; we give and take so as to develop our influence – quid pro quo – and with our mask firmly in place, are accountable for our actions. When public figures want to avoid responsibility, they can often be heard inviting people to view them as private individuals first rather than representatives of their role or enterprise. For many, the supposed intimacy of ‘friending’ public figures on Facebook gives an aura of the private to clearly public relations.
Organisers are taught to make this distinction because it is so fundamental to our role. Every human being learns to relate to the family (or to strong familial type bonds if not) in childhood but many of us fail to learn to relate to the public realm as adults. As a consequence, people often find conflict in public relations distressing and want to avoid saying rude things or embarrassing others in public. When the powerful seek to make you their friend in public, they are knowingly manipulating your relationship with them to cause you to respond inappropriately. The car salesperson who invites you to ‘help them out’ is shifting a public and commercial relationship toward a private and friendly one whilst having no loyalty to you beyond selling the car and improving their bonus.
The Boundary Transgressed
For organisers, dealing in the public realm requires us to be consistent in regarding those in public office as accountable for their actions. When challenging the actions of a urban slum landlord, organisers have often taken their campaign to the leafy suburb where he or she lives. They have pressed leaflets into the hands and letter boxes of neighbours exposing the landlord’s actions to the ridicule of his or her peers. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Alinsky used the blackest of Woodlawn’s campaigners to shock the all-white neighbourhood in which the landlords lived by picketing their homes and leafleting in the area. What the powerful regard as private is often fair game for calling them to their public duty, to return to the common good.
Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy (2011) Collective Action for Social Change: An Introduction to Community Organizing Palgrave MacMillan