Yesterday in the comments on my blog someone mentioned giving back to the community.  This is one of those sentences that makes my eyes turn red and smoke come pouring out of my ears in loony-tunes style.

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that I don’t believe in “community.”  Or rather, I hate the word community.  I prefer almost any other word including “group.”

But I believe in groups of people and I believe in the synergy of groups – not so much, mind, that the group is better than the sum of its parts, but that the group is the sum of its parts.  Or healthy individuals make healthy groups.  Or whatever you’d like to call it.

I’ve been a member of several groups that for a while made it easier for me to reach my goals, and I still am a member of groups that do.  I used to be a member of a largish (I think we were ten people at our greatest size) writers group that, while it lasted, made it easier for me to focus and work every week, despite having small kids and a schedule so full that any writing time came off sleep time.  I used to get up at five in the morning so I had two quiet hours of writing before the kids woke up.

I’m now a member of a much smaller writers group that is not quite so focused, but which talks me through snares and supports me when I’m in the dumps.  The same applies to the somewhat larger group of friends (some of whom are writers.)

Of course, looking further back, I was a member of an extended family.  In my case when I title something “me and my cousins” I’m not just talking about the Arab proverb.  By culture or design (I never knew which) though my family ran to small nuclear families, the cousin-group was raised more or less in and out of each other’s pockets.  I used to think of my cousins the way Americans (born and bred) think of their siblings.  In many ways, I still do.  If I managed to be a solitary kid at all, it was because I was so much younger than the rest of them, being almost ten years younger than my brother, who in turn was five years younger than the (female) cousin who was raised (even more so than our other cousins) as our sister, and who is four years older than him.  All other cousins were even older.  The other day I almost died watching this video, because that baby elephant was me, from trying to get involved in stuff that was well beyond him, to giving up, throwing himself to the floor and trying to become the center of attention.  Yes, I had a very happy childhood.  Idyllic in many ways.  Not “ideal” which is not the same thing, but good enough.

And of course I’m still a member of that family, even far away, and I’m a member of my nuclear family, and our family sometimes worries me that it might be too close.  We didn’t raise the boys to be our friends.  That was not our job.  Our job was to raise them to be adults and to trust them to find their own friends.  Of course they have done that.  But we seem to accidentally have become friends, somewhere along the way.  Not equals, but you don’t have to be equals to be friends.  I realized we were going the friend route when vacations with the boys were way more fun than vacations alone with Dan.  We might now be at the point – with them living in the house through college, and us wanting to reclaim our lives again – when we need to resume running away from them for some periods of time.  BUT it can’t be denied that the family is a group, and a functional group at that, which allows each of the members to excel.

Heck, I’m a member of this blog community, too, and reap the benefits of it.  And in this case it is a “community” at least if you include the commenters.

So, why is community appropriate in this case and not in the others?

Because “community” is – at least in my mind – a more undefined and softer edged critter than “group.”  A group is me and Bob and Joe and Mary.  A community is “the group of people who comment on this blog” which, yes, has some core groups, but meanders and changes and defines itself differently moment to moment.  In that sense, community is a term out of sociology.  Take a mountain village.  It’s a community.  Is it the same group it was a year ago?  Maybe.  Depends on how many people moved in and out.  Is it the same it was 100 years ago?  Oh, h*ll no.  With bells on.  People have died and been born, and, if it’s in the States, moved in and out.  You’ll be lucky if there’s one person who is a direct descendant of someone who lived there 100 years ago.  Unlike a group, also, you’re not aware of everyone in the group and usually don’t have any say in who joins and who leaves.

This might not be true in communities where you have to be voted in, like country clubs, and in many groups – families – you might not have much of a say on who joins or leaves, either.  And of course some groups are too large for you to be aware of every member.  And of course, some groups are too vast for you to be aware of every member.

Now that I’ve made a big muddle out of those definitions, let me try to make some clarity: I view a group as more of an association of individuals.  You’re part of a group because you want to be, and your individuality matters to the group.  A community, on the other hand is a group of undefined faces.  “People” belong to communities, but it won’t be the same over time.  There can be groups within communities.  There is a definite group of core miscreants in the community of regular commnters on this blog, and I worry when one of them disappears too long and start wondering if I did something to offend him/her.  But there is a larger community around that group: people who come in now and then, in a way that’s statistically but not individually significant.  In the same way, when the Baen bar was healthy, I knew “mine” in Sarah’s Diner, which was definitely a group (at least at its core) but we existed within the community of the Baen Bar, from which a few stragglers would join us or stray out on a more or less random pattern.  To make it clearer: My writers group, but the writing community; my family, but the community we live in; my friends but the community of writers in the area.

So, now that we’re clear as mud, let’s talk about “giving back to the community.”  (Give me a minute.  Must control fist of doom.  Okay.  I think– Yeah.  I’m all right now.)

Why does that phrase annoy me?  Haven’t I said that various groups, starting with my family have helped me along the way?  Aren’t I prone to books that become group efforts?  Even in Darkship Thieves, with an individualistic narrator, told first person, would Thena have got anywhere without Kit and his family?

Yeah.  Okay.  I’m not advocating the lone wolf way of life.  I’m actually – particularly for a writer – highly social.  My profile can tip introverted or extroverted, depending on how I feel.  And though I recently had the first party we’ve held in 9 years, it wasn’t so much not wanting to do it, as the fact that my schedule has kept me in “h*ll on Earth” for about that long.  I love AIM and email because it allows me to get work done AND talk to my friends every day, on my own schedule.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: humans are social animals.  It is both our downfall in many ways, and one of our greatest advantages.

No, what gets on my nerves is two fold “community” and “giving back.”

First of all, let’s define community as it applies to any individual.  What communities am I a member of?  Well, I’m an American (Thank you, G-d, thank you, for allowing me to find my tribe.)  I’m a Coloradan.  I’m part of the science fiction community and the writer community.  I’m part of a community of libertarian (note small l, guys) thinkers community.  I’m part of the cat rescue community.

So, what am I complaining about?  Shouldn’t I be giving back to those communities?

These are my middle fingers.  See them?  They’re waving in the air.  Yes, it’s rude.  But it’s not as rude as telling me I need to “give back.”

I should give back what?  What have I STOLEN or TAKEN from anyone?

“But Sarah,” you’ll say, “doesn’t being an American give you the freedom and peace of mind to carry on your life?  Don’t you like the rights you have as an American, to make an example of a community?  How could you have anything or be anything if you were squatting in a dirt pile, clutching a spear to defend your food?”

Uh.  Right.  And every one of the other American citizens has decided, FOR MY SAKE to make sure that we live in an ordered and lawful society, have they?  All this effort has been expended to let little Sarah achieve her goals, is that it?

“Well, no” you say “that would be ridiculous.  But we have these laws and conventions and customs that allow each of us to develop and do our best.  It’s a community.  You got to give back.”

See middle finger?  We are a nation founded on laws.  Those laws allow each of us to do our best – that’s why we have these laws.  It’s called our constitution and to the extent it’s not ignored, it works better than any other organizing charter in the world.  BUT it doesn’t work because we each wake up in the morning, sing kumbaya and decide to abide by it.  It works because it functions well with human nature.

To hell with you and your giving back.  My duties as an American are to defend and uphold the Constitution that made me an American (yes, I took that oath when I got citizenship.)  That’s not giving back.  That’s my duty.

“Okay, okay,” you say.  “What about the writer community?  Are you going to deny you’ve had mentors along the way, people who put themselves out to teach you and help you become the writer you are today in both craft and career?”

I have no intention of denying that.  Yes, a lot of writers help me and have helped me.  Yes, some sacrificed time and earnings to do so, or risked displeasing their publishers.

So, shouldn’t you give back?  Well… no.  What I got was freely given.  This doesn’t mean I’m a monster of ingratitude.  Most of the people who helped me along the way have claims on me.  I’ll do anything for them when I can.  Some have tested this.  BUT it is not “giving back.”  I didn’t steal something from them that I’m scrupulously returning.  Rather, I’m under obligation to their kindness and their friendship FREELY given to me.  And they have the claims of kindness and friendship on me.  What is the difference?  Well, for one I don’t feel I owe them a finite amount.  Their claim on me is infinite.  I’ll do what I can when I can until one of us dies.

I also pay it forward.  Some of you I mentor, even if I’m the world’s worst mentor ever.  (I hope this will change as I’m more able to control my own schedule and perhaps as health stabilizes a little after this upcoming round of “consorting with doctors.”) And I teach a workshop in Bedford, TX, ever September (and no, the price doesn’t go to me.  It benefits the local library.)  And I try to advise people online.

Do I do this to give back?  Well, hell no.  I didn’t take anything away from the newbies coming in.  I do it because I’m human and I remember being where they are.  I needed help (and eventually got it, but not a for a while.  I didn’t KNOW anyone) and so I give help.  It’s a love offering, freely given.  It’s also, in a way, a self-interested act.  When my newbies develop nicely, I have new authors I love to read.  As a reader that’s a plus.  (And I’m eagerly waiting Kate Paulk’s next con book.)

“You call it love offering, we call it giving back.  Why are you arguing words?”

Because words matter.  When you give back something, you return what you took.  It’s an obligation – sometimes a legal obligation – and it puts you under a constraint to act a certain way.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I undertake work under an obligation, I feel like I’m lifting a very large rock, pushing and making an effort to get it where it needs to go.  I rarely fulfill an obligation, particularly while someone stands over me screaming “you owe me” with a light and happy heart. RES has made the point in the comments that it’s hard to do for money what you do for enjoyment, and the same thing applies.  I’ve found that I have an almost pathological distaste for editing – even though NRP is waiting for me to do some of it – if I’m obliged to do it by contract.  I will read/critique friends stories fine, but NOT if I’m the editor for an antho, say.  If I owe it, I keep blocking on doing it.  If I owe it, then I hate doing it, and will try to do it as quickly as possible.

Most of all I hate the idea of “giving back” because it presumes that the individual is nothing without the undefined, faceless community.  No one is going to dispute that people do best with rule of law and private property (well, the “community people” might dispute that last.  That’s all right.  They’re wrong) but the “community” doesn’t do that for the benefit of its members.  Rather, each of its members does that for his/her own benefit.

I also hate the (you knew we’d come to it, right) Marxist ethos at the back of that phrase.  In “giving back” is the idea that whatever you achieved was achieved at a cost to others.  Instead of a group, where we each do better because we have this charter that supports all of us (which is what the best writers groups I belonged to were) we end up with the idea that people did this FOR you and that whatever you have came at their expense.

It all comes back in the end to the idea of economics as a finite pie and a closed system.  This is completely insane (each of us now has more “wealth” than any king in the Middle Ages) but it is the only way Marx could define envy as a virtue, and, by gum, he was running with that.  Envy is only a virtue if anyone who does better is a thief.  Someone needs to “give back” only if he took more than his fair share.

This is my middle finger.  See my middle finger?

But I’m not a thief.  I didn’t steal.  And the faceless “community” can earn its own rewards as I have.  I will give, but I won’t “give back.”  I will volunteer, but I volunteer because I want to.  (A lot of my volunteering involves saving orphan and sick kittens, and much as the cats I’ve known have enriched my life, I don’t owe the “cat community” anything.)  VOLUNTEER should be just that.  Don’t get me started on the schools that “require” “volunteer hours.”  It strikes me as getting kids used to slavery, and I disapprove of slavery.

What I have is mine and I earned it.  I will pay back the debts I know I owe along the way – and the cornucopia of the retribution on those is infinite, mostly because what I was given was a free offering, and I return it as such.  There is no limit to what I can give in those cases.

For the others, the ones who want a piece of me because “you’re not squatting in the dirt and defending your possessions against all comers” can have my middle finger.

The end result of your envy and your belief anyone who achieves anything owes you something IS a society where we each squat in the dirt and fight off entitled little pests like you.  (Well, not really like you.  You’ll be long dead.)  I will fight to my last breath your attempts to make me “give back.”

Go and make your own.

*crossposted at According To Hoyt*