“Gated Communities of the Mind”

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.”

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7 thoughts on ““Gated Communities of the Mind”

  1. What, after all, is a ‘safe space’?
    It seems there is new information on the Maya since I read about them 40 years ago. Can you recommend a source?

  2. Thanks for the history lesson! Anymore I pretty much equate gated communities with asshats who think they are above the law and everyone else.

    • Ja, when you blend “semi-private area” with “Home Owners’ Association” and let egos take over, nothing good bubbles out.

      You’re welcome.

  3. You are right, nothing good comes from a self-appointed group engaged in monitoring their neighbors for proper maintenance/condition of property for the primary purpose of “protecting property values” (sometimes to the detriment of the wellbeing of the home owner: such as banning window ac units in hot/humid regions or telling a HO that they *must* spend money they do not have to fix some trivial flaw. After all, the appearance of your house if more important than making sure you have food on the table.) .

  4. On the Maya: The Jungian collective unconscious strikes again (or something). Among the pile of books that I’m reading intermittently (due to chaos) is William Carlsen’s “Jungle of Stone”, the story of two men who’d heard vague stories of the ruins and decided to seek them out and learn more. It hasn’t really delved into Mayan history, but chronicles a quest to follow rumors, legends, and stories to find the actual sites of Mayan ruins, back during the early part of the 19th century. Of course, just to make things more interesting, they’re doing so while a civil war / war of secession is tearing apart the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America, about which I’d known nothing before starting the book. I’ll probably do a review of it on my blog once I’ve finished it.

    (Speaking of reviews, when I have a few moments I should do a review of “Forcing the Spring”.)

    On anti-gentrification: The new Cincinnati Streetcar has caused two sorts of anti-gentrification forces to emerge from the woodwork. The first were the typical sort, but the others were some from nearby neighborhoods who fear the residents of Over-The-Rhine (where the streetcar runs) being displaced into their neighborhoods as a result of gentrification.

  5. 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.

    It’s possible that they ARE upper middle class, and are attacking the upper-lower-class and lower-middle-class folks who live in “bad areas” but take steps to, like you said, keep stuff from vanishing. (or at least make it harder)

    The good apartment complexes– as in, those that didn’t have a whole lot of 20-something year old guys hanging around at 2:30 pm in the middle of the week when I was going around looking for a place to rent for our newly-three family– were gated communities. It crosses “we can afford to live here” with “we can eventually LEAVE here”.

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