University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Navigating Cultural Shifts in Communal Life

Namse Udosen

ByNamse Udosen

Jul 4, 2024

Some weeks back, there was a report about a lady in a Hijab being harassed by two people at the Falmer Bus Station, with onlookers doing nothing to intervene. It raised questions within our group on social action in the UK.  The clash between public intervention and personal freedom surfaces, a tale of navigating the fine line between well-intentioned involvement and minding one’s business. 

In Nigeria, where I have lived, and in many other societies globally, meddlesomeness in the name of communal living is an annoying part of daily life. It is a sort of moral policing usually based on the premise that community morality is everyone’s business. Moral policing often targets those who do not conform to Puritan moral standards. A lady could get mocked for wearing mini-skirts or the wrong makeup. Men, too, get dressed down if they appear too “crazy”. People who are deemed to be “sexually deviant” also get targeted. In some instances, accused people can get lynched.

On the other hand, many people would intervene if they feel a stranger is in danger at a bus stop. The communalism and Ubuntu ways come with a communal morality that reveals itself like petals unfurling in the gentle morning light. It provides a sense of security that wraps around the community like a protective cloak and, at the same time, pokes the sensibilities like a thorn in the pocket of the cloak. 

Since living in the UK, I have observed that communal living is more laid-back. Everyone minds their business, and each person has the space to breathe as they want. Individuals determine their expressions of themselves, and each person calibrates their moral compass. Both systems come with streaks of beauty and smears of the beast. 

Both approaches offer valuable lessons to humanity, with communal morality providing a support network of empathy and compassion in societies that often isolate individuals. In communal societies worldwide, the village rallies together, offering material aid, a shoulder to lean on, and an ear to listen. In times of celebration, joy spreads like wildfire, kindled by the collective spirit of shared happiness.  However, well-meaning interventions collide with the perils of mob mentality and abuse. Communal moral policing has led to many exclusive societies in different parts of the world. It sometimes makes communities gang up against people who are deemed different, such as crossdressers, people wearing ripped jeans, fancy, colourful hair-wearing people, fancy jewellery-wearing people, tattooed people, etc. This is where the culture of minding your business and reserved social interactions becomes helpful. The culture of individual liberty is more inclusive and prevents ignorant mob action. It allows people to express themselves without judgement or fear of harassment. It, however, is cold and isolating. The false plastered smiles, emotional dryness, and absence of social connections to share joys and pains create plastic humans. It also leaves people isolated in times of physical and emotional pain.

 How, then, do we strike a balance? How do we navigate this paradox between societal involvement and personal autonomy while advocating for a harmonious coexistence of cultural values? The debate seems like a pickle. Can this balance be achieved without essentialising groups of people or cultures?  Many people globally argue that every society needs some form of societal norm for cultural sustainability. Others say that all moral and cultural laws are made by individuals powerful enough to impose their personal preferences on society and make them law. It is, therefore, crucial to build pathways for empathy, understanding, and human connections amidst cultural diversities intertwined in the conversations around morality and social order. 

Finding a balance between public intervention and personal freedom can become a significant challenge. The desire for individual discretion and societal restraint pull in opposite directions, but when cultural values are blended harmoniously, it can lead to a more compassionate and interconnected global community.

Photo by Kimson Doan

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