I’m not certain where I first heard or read the phrase, possibly in reference to Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, or in a nod to certain political and social trends. But it is one of those descriptive bits that easily invokes a neatly packaged idea that makes great sound-bite fodder. The implication, at least if the hearer/reader is familiar with gated communities and the sort of people who live in them in North America, is of a group of people with a lavish way of life who are separated by choice and by wealth from the rest of the world, safe behind their walls and (In Diamond’s case) thus ignorant of the disaster their behavior has created. Now, not having read that particular book because I could see his end-argument coming by the second page of the introduction, I don’t know if Diamond explains how the classical Maya (roughly AD 300-900 CE) could have known the consequences of their actions and deliberately taken the necessary steps to prevent ecological trouble without destroying their civilization in the process. One suspects the Maya lacked the observational tracking tools necessary to do that, but I digress. The phrase is evocative.
Interestingly, every reference to “gated communities of the mind” that I come across is negative. Gated communities and their residents are bad. Choosing to segregate one’s self into a group of like-minded individuals and families is wrong. Gated communities are blights, because people should not be permitted (in all senses of the word) to live in enclosed semi-private neighborhoods separated from others. Walls are bad. Neighborhoods must remain public spaces, period end.
I’m 99% positive that most of the people who use the term are thinking only about upper-middle-class residential enclaves in the United States. Because if they went to parts of South America, North Africa, East Africa (OK, lots of Africa in general), the remaining pre-1940 Chinese communities, Southwest Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and so on, they’d find that every community that can possibly be so is a gated community, physically and mentally. Because that’s how they survive. Low trust society? Don’t want your property disappearing the instant you turn your back, your relatives and small children likewise? Build a wall. Adjoin it to a relative’s wall.
Gates and walls are normal. Mental gates and walls are normal, especially in times of stress. This may be a good thing when it keeps people alive, or a less good thing when it prevents people from seeing trouble from coming until it hits them, and those around them, with the proverbial clue-bat. But how do you forcibly prevent people from selecting their mental and physical neighborhoods if they have the resources to choose?
The sense I get from the different references that invoke “gated communities of the mind” is that people should be restricted from picking their mental neighborhood unless it is open, vibrant, full of all socio-economic groups, and just like the one that the writer/speaker thinks is perfect. Unless, of course, you belong to a non-Western cultural group or certain self-proclaimed ethnic sub-cultures, in which a mental gated community is perfectly understandable. Just like having too many young would-be middle class people moving into poor neighborhoods and improving buildings and opening new businesses is wrong because it will raise the cost of living and drive out the people living there, and because it dilutes the purity of the local community. Or so I’ve heard and read anti-gentrification activists argue.
Who lives in the gated community, mental or otherwise, now?
I’m enough of a contrarian that I’m not fond of gated communities just because if I want to cut through and roam, or go walking in the mornings through there, I want to do just that. And in part because too many of the houses I’ve seen in those communities have been architectural follies that offend my sense of proportion and design, but that’s just me. On the other hand, if people have the money and land to build the things, and they are not a hazard to life and health, and they pay their property taxes and utilities on time, well, go for it. If you want to associate with people like you, that’s your business. I admit that I dislike the lifestyle of people who never get out of their own “set” and then proclaim themselves experts in [field] by virtue of never having done a lick of work in that field or having lived there. Interestingly, the bureaucrats and movie people never seem to fall into the category of people who live in the “gated community of the mind.”