What are the ethics of belonging?

'What does it mean to belong in the world, in Australia, in our community? Belonging invokes a sense of place, home, and safety. To belong is the core of being human and we define ourselves through a matrix of belonging. But that deep sense of belonging is often hijacked by political expediency or by crashing into one another. In the name of belonging there has been colonisation of peoples and the destruction of the environment.

Is it possible to have an ethics of belonging, to have protocols of culture that not only de-colonise society and nourish the environment, but where the denial of the other is transformed into connectedness? Such an ethics would be based on understanding the forensics of belonging, moving beyond ideology towards a principled exposure of our humanity.”

This is Baden Offord’s description of a lecture he gave at the Heart Politics gathering in 2005. Titled The Ethics of Belonging it taps into a deep and innate longing within us. I find myself leaning into his words. Where do I belong? What does belonging mean to me? Why does it resonate through my own values?  And when does belonging become political?

I question how we group ourselves and how these groups dictate our behaviour towards others. From ethnic groups to religious, to philosophical groups —what about groups of people who dress the same and who have similar life styles. The hippies, the ferals, the developers, the farmers, there are so many sections to our community. There is a security in being with others who are People Like Us. Is this based on our own values or on our assumptions of what people think or our own expectations?Or does it mean that our fear of NOT belonging is what really drives us?

This hunger to belong somewhere, to have a group that you fit into is explored by John O’Donohue in Eternal Echoes: Exploring Our Hunger To Belong. Where you belong, he writes, is where you inevitably continue to return. As you grow you develop the ideal of where your true belonging could be — the place, the home, the family, the work. You seldom achieve all the elements of the ideal, but it travels with you as the criterion and standard of what true belonging could be. You take with you everything that you have been, just as the landscape stores up its own past.

We build a shelter of belonging around us but how secure is it really? I look at the different “groups” where I think I belong. Many overlap with each other, some are in conflict with each other. How much do these groups dictate my behaviour?

Living in the hills and geographical belonging defines and connects people more than career groups. Rather than being asked “what do you do”, where you live is more important. The road you live on connects you. There is the strong sense that humans who live in clusters with each other are meant to look out for, and look after, each other, rather than live in isolation while near each other, says O’Donohue. Yet this doesn’t always happen. People find other ways to belong.

Celebrity watching provides a visual community where we can share in the ups and downs of another person’s life and even feel involved because we know so much about them. This fake sense of belonging emphasises our hunger to belong. And the internet. What does it mean to belong to a virtual community — an online that is constantly changing?

Nature and a sense of place, the familiarity of our daily landscape can enhance the belonging factor. When I see the koala swinging in the gum tree outside my window or hear the noise of the possum on the verandah, even when I hear the wind stream through the tress when I lie in bed at night, I feel like I belong. The nature around me connects me to that part of my world.

Baden, in his knowledge and studies on belonging explores and pushes the boundaries of our understanding of belonging. How belonging can be used for political purposes? How dangerous it can become to think someone should belong and fit in? The bandied around phrase “it is un-Australian” promotes this. Yet it is someone else’s definition of what belonging in Australia means. Belonging is about being connected to others. And it comes with responsibilities. Being left out or unwelcomed is not something any of us relish.

Our circles of community change and strengthen with age as we learn more about ourselves. If only we could bottle belonging and sell it at the markets. Without the ownership and exploitation that can go with it. And a guarantee that it will serve us — not be used against us.

That’s where the ethics of belonging come in.

Originally published in Here & Now magaine, 2005

Related to - Regular Columns | Inner questioning

By Susanna Freymark

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