The idea of “belonging” has long been a key point of aspiration and advocacy for the arts. Art builds empathy. Art builds community. Art infuses a sense of belonging into a world so desperate for it. In these conversations, the problem is framed as a “lack of belonging,” and arts experiences are the solution. But history and human behavior suggest a more complex truth.
A compelling conversation between Krista Tippett and Irish poet/author/community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama explores the idea that “belonging” can both create and destroy communities. While we tend to consider “belonging” a universally positive force, even a cursory glance at human history shows violence and injustice fueled by intense feelings of belonging — an entrenched “us and them” dynamic that makes the “them” demonic, inhuman, or one-dimensional. This is what Ó Tuama calls “belonging gone bad.”
The focus of their conversation is the conflict around Northern Ireland over most of the 20th century, and its slow reconciliation. But the themes have universal significance, and particular importance to present-day efforts in the arts.
The book Ó Tuama mentions as a source for “belonging gone bad” is Moving Beyond Sectarianism by Joseph Liechty and Cecelia Clegg, a thorough and even-handed exploration of North Ireland’s dark history. The authors describe sectarianism as a system fueled by entrenched feelings of group belonging, a deadly mix of religion and politics, where the “other” is demonized and discounted as inhuman.
Despite the destructive force of sectarianism, the authors argue that at its heart “are distorted expressions of positive human needs for identity and belonging.” They go one step further to describe how those who reject sectarianism can actually reinforce it, by following a similarly destructive pattern of thought: “encounter – judge – condemn – reject – demonize – separation/antagonism.”
How do you know the difference between “right belonging” and “wrong belonging”? The authors suggest untangling the connections between intentions and consequences, since all sides can usually claim good intentions. “If the outcome entails the development of, or the augmenting of, one or more destructive patterns of relating, then the speech or action can be judged to be sectarian,” they write.
As naturalist Aldo Leopold phrased the same idea in a different context: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (from “The Land Ethic,” A Sand County Almanac, 1949).
Belonging is certainly at the core of so many conflicts among us. Much of it springs from the “dis-belonging” that hides beneath our community-building initiatives (described eloquently by Roberto Bedoya). Much of it festers in forms of belonging that starve and separate our humanity rather than feeding and connecting it. Artistic expression and experience have a powerful role to play. But that role must be informed by a deep and clear-eyed view of the world — one without platitudes or generalizations about “belonging.” The greatest artists and arts experiences can see and share this way. Arts organizations, administrators, and supporters should strive toward the same eyes-and-arms-wide-open objective.