Non-Credentialed Community and Meaning

A bit more from Chris Arnade's book Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. See my first post about the book, and why God blesses McDonalds, here.

In the passage below, late in the book, Arnade describes how "back row" America deals with the chronic humiliation they experience within the American meritocracy. Across the chapters of the book Arnade has described how "back row" America deals with their humiliation in various ways. Drugs. Faith. Refusing to move away from home even when the jobs have fled. Racism.

What do all these have in common? What promise do they hold out for "back row" America?

Arnade describes them as forms of "non-credentialed" community, which in turn confers "non-credentialed" meaning, worth, belonging, and value.

In a word, even in the the face of stigma, non-credentialed community confers dignity.

From Dignity:
People respond to humiliation in different ways, but the most common response is to find a source of pride wherever possible, even if that means in places the status quo doesn't approve of. It means trying to find a community or activity that values them. For those in the back row, that means a place that doesn't demand credentials.

Drugs are one of them. Bars, drug traps, and crack houses offer communities that don't care about your past, your failures, or the color of your skin. As long as you join in, shooting up or taking a hit or swallowing the pills, it is all OK. They also offer a numbing salve from the pain of humiliation. It is a reckless choice, but when your choices are limited, recklessness might be all you have.

Many churches offer that, especially Pentecostal and evangelical faiths. They offer a community with few barriers of entry, regardless of someone's past. The only requirement is a desire to reform, to live a different way, to accept a set of rules on how you live your life and how you expect others to live. They also provide a place in the larger world. You may not be valued here and now, but you are valued by God, and you will be valued in the afterlife.

Living in the place you grew up doesn't require credentials. It's a form of meaning that cannot be measured. Family doesn't require credentials. Having a child is an action that provides meaning, immediate pride, and a role, especially for a mother, who can find value in raising a family.

There are other non-credentialed forms of community that come with far greater stigmas but can appeal to anyone frustrated enough.

Racial identity is one, providing a community that doesn't require any credentials beyond being born. Like drugs, it is rightly stigmatized, but also like drugs, it can appeal to the desperate.

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