Why our community succeeds where others fail - episode 2 - the limits of freedom

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Ramin Farhangi- co-founder of the democratic school « école dynamique » and co founder of the democratic eco village « Village de Pourgues ».  Author of TEDx and book "Why I created a school where children do what they want" (published by Actes Sud in September 2018). Ramin offers training for project leaders from Sudbury-inspired schools and villages.

In the first episode, I first defined what I mean by "success": we are 23 people (soon 30) coming from diverse backgrounds and we live in community in a stable manner. All of them are happy to live here and intend to stay. I also explained why I think that the ideological choice of individualism was one of the key factors of this success.

To embody this philosophical foundation, such a group must work to harmonize a common understanding of freedom.

Indeed, once a group is ready to embark on such an adventure, it encounters the problem that everyone comes with their own internal definition of what "individual freedom" is, in other words "respect for each".

A person's definition results from an infinite amount of conditioning since childhood concerning what is acceptable and what is not. Interpretations of what is "dangerous", "serious", "dirty", "unfair", "irresponsible", "aggressive", "liberticide", etc. are therefore necessarily diverse.

I am convinced that it is essential to work continuously on the development of a common definition of the limits of the « acceptable » so that a community of independent individuals can live together harmoniously.

Although this may seem counterintuitive at first glance, the most logical and useful way to define what individual freedom is is to define its limits.

In keeping with our individualistic logic, our group is careful to set rules concerning only the interactions between the individual and the group. It does not deal with judging projects and behaviors that do not directly impact others.

For example, establishing a limit on the consumption of alcohol or video games would be coherent in a collectivist logic. Such a group would have the power of dictating to its members what is good or bad for them, rather than trusting that everyone is capable of developing their own sense of reason and responsibility.
Our group does not concern itself with validating every project that a person wishes to carry (eg to install a compost, to organize a celebration, etc.). The question of personal projects that impact the group is slightly more complicated than a story of "total « let it happen" and I will talk about it in the next episode. In the meantime, I invite you to find out about the self managed organizations and the advice process. For the rest of this article, I will continue to focus on how we set the limits of freedom in everyday life.

Individualistic logic dictates that rules are set only to prevent harm to others, which generally allows for a much broader spectrum of personal choices at any given time. For example, for dangerous activities, everyone is allowed to play at will with a car, knives, skis, a flying suit, etc. as long as he is the only person to put himself in danger.
At the Village de Pourgues, you will see only these kinds of rules:
Danger. Any action presenting a potential or proven danger for the safety of other persons than oneself is prohibited.
Verbal and gestural abuse. It is forbidden to address an individual in an aggressive, insulting, humiliating, threatening manner.
Ageism. Every individual must be able to enjoy consideration and equal treatment from other people regardless of age.
Nudity. It is allowed to expose oneself naked only in front of consenting persons.

Today we have 3 pages of rules. The work of common definition is never finished, because the notions of danger, aggression, ageism and even nudity are relative. There is no truth but only possible choices about the tolerable limits in these areas.

In fact, when adding a rule to our list, it is rather basic principles that are fixed and not precise limits. At this point, we only make the choice that we will eventually study certain behaviors and evaluate whether they are out of bounds, without giving any evidence a priori.

The exercise of agreeing on the same definition of individual freedom really gets clearer when we bring situations to the attention of the group. The group will agree on a factual description of actions, a decision on considering them out-of-bounds or not, and possibly measure to protect and strengthen our framework of freedom.

Our Investigation and Arbitration Committee (CEA), which takes place as often as necessary, does a preliminary work in treating it, and then submit it to the approval of our Village Council, which takes place once a week. In our first year activity, the CEA has handled about 250 situations, that is to say as many opportunities to clarify our common framework.

Here is one of my favorite examples of a highly relative nature of our culture of freedom in Pourgues :  

For 3 or 4 days, X asks Y every night to wash himself. X insists for about 5 minutes even though Y expresses many times that he does not want to do it.

In this situation, X is the mother of Y, a 9 year old boy. We considered that such an insistence to submit another to a point of view concerning hygen, which is necessarly relative could be considered as harassment or ageism. On the other hand, it turns out that many villagers wash theirselves less often since they moved here. We are several to wash according to the need of the moment rather than carrying out a systematic daily shower (which also greatly reduces water costs!).

This point of view is related to the great importance we place here on treating a child with the same respect as we give to an adult. At most, we permit ourselves to inform a child of the possible consequences of his actions. We allow them to live their own experience in spite of everything, and we do not try to manipulate them to submit them to our will, even if we commonly think that it is "in their best interest".

I imagine that in the vast majority of families, it would have been considered that this child was dirty, and X simply played his normal role of mother. In Pourgues, we prove on a daily basis that cultural norms are relative because a group like ours has the ability to create its own standards.

Many similar discussions in CEA on plenty of subjects have gradually helped us to clarify our common vision of what is meant by "individual freedom".

It has been three years now that I observe the evolution of the atmosphere in « Ecole dynamique » and in Pourgues. I was able to observe that the progressive appropriation of this functionning by the members of the group allowed the ever more effective establishment of an atmosphere of well-being, freedom, security and respect.

I am convinced that it is this manner of functionning that makes Pourgues such a pleasant place to live together, and we are succeeding where too many wise and smart people fail in the challenge of building a community.