Cultic Studies Journal, 1999, Volume 16, Number 2, pages 193-196
How Should the Communities Movement Handle Questions of Abuse?
Responding to Benjamin Zablocki’s Proposed “Bill of Rights”
In the “My Turn” Column, Ben Zablocki brings up an important issue: What do we know about a healthy balance of rights and responsibilities between individuals and communities?
The Fellowship shares the author’s perspective that abuses are an infrequent occurrence—and yet a real possibility, well worth talking about, not because one community is responsible for the actions of another, but because the actions of one community affect how other communities are perceived, and because the experiences of one community inform the choices of others.
Ben Zablock’s proposed bill of rights is geared to protect individuals from possible group abuse, and we prefer to widen the discussion to also include the responsibilities of members and the rights of groups. While the overwhelming majority of stories about community living are positive (if not inspiring), some describe unsatisfactory experiences, and a few of those might be considered abusive. Within this last group are reports from people who feel that members were abused by the community, from others who feel the community was abused by individuals, and from those who feel that each abused the other.
It seems to us that the most fruitful approach is to seek information and ideas from as many sources as possible, narrowing the scope only after we’ve gathered all the important pieces available. With that in mind, we ask everyone with an interest in this discussion to send us their input on the question: What are appropriate rights and responsibilities for communities and members?
We expressly invite all communities to engage in this dialogue, as it is our view that abuse, while rare, is an equal-opportunity dysfunction, and we need to address it even-handedly.
Where Ben Zablocki has taken several specific concerns and attempted to address them with specific remedies, we propose first gathering a fuller sense of the problems before proceeding to debate possible solutions. We advocate setting aside the particulars of his proposed bill of rights—as well as the question of whether or not there should be a bill of rights at all—until after we hear what people think the issues are. What are the abuses we need to try to prevent and redress?
Ben Zablocki has provided a useful point of departure in this discussion. Clearly he’s concerned with rights and responsibilities in the following areas:
How members and communities sever their connection;
Appropriate limits on a community’s right to restrict members’ connections with people and information outside the community;
The proper balance of what a community requires of its members, and what support its members can expect in return;
Openness and honesty in disclosing information; and
Appropriate limits for peer pressure and discipline—at what point does persuasion become coercion?
What other areas need to be discussed here? The Fellowship Board is willing to wrestle with this question, and invites your perspective.
The Alternate Approach
While Ben Zablocki’s proposed bill of rights could be used to pressure a community into changing its practices, the Fellowship for Intentional Community prefers another approach. We suggest the following:
Molding the responses generated by this discussion into a set of questions about rights and responsibilities which encompass all areas of concern.
Asking all communities to consider preparing written answers to these questions, and encouraging them to make those answers available to all prospective members.
Advertising that this set of questions exists, and encouraging community members and others interested in community to be concerned about rights and responsibilities. (If, for example, as a regular part of evaluating a community as a possible home, it becomes common practice to ask that community where it stands on these questions, then we are hopeful that many possible abuses and misunderstandings can be avoided.)
Under this scheme, communities will not be under pressure to rearrange their policies to align with a set of generalized rights. Rather, they can describe their unique context, in their own words. It will then be up to each potential member, as an individual, to decide if this is agreeable or not—and not up to the communities movement to decide whether a particular group’s policies are satisfactory.
We can assure you that neither the Fellowship nor Communities magazine wants the job of being the arbiter of truth in questions of abuse—though we are happy to provide the forum for exploring the issues, and to be a liaison for groups and individuals having trouble communicating.
We’ll end our column the same way Ben Zablocki ended his “My Turn” piece—with a solicitation for response. This is your movement, and now it’s your move.
Laird Sandhill is a member of Sandhill Farm in Rutledge, Missouri, Secretary of the Fellowship for Intentional Community, former Managing Editor of Communities magazine, and an active member of the Federation of Egalitarian communities.
This article first appeared in Communities issue #88 (fall 1995), p. 9, and is reprinted here with permission from the publisher, the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Sample copies of Communities can be purchased for $6 and a four-issue subscription is $18 from Communities, 138-AFF Twin Oaks Rd, Louisa, VA 23093, 540-894-5798, www.ic.org