The subtle benefits of gatekeeping for communities

March 1, 2019

When I think of a “community” I think about a group of individuals with shared interests and values unifying under a common label for a unique purpose. There is a distinct difference between liking something and being a part of its community. This much should seem obvious at a glance. I may enjoy casting a rod into a lake for a few hours for fun now and again, but I don’t consider myself a fisherman; I may have deeply enjoyed “Black Panther” when it came out, but I wouldn’t say I’m invested in or a fan of the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe. Passive participation is not necessarily indicative of membership in a group.

So how can we decide who is or is not a part of a community if it is impossible to base it on behavior alone? The critics of gatekeeping would say that in every case the best way to tell is by asking the person in question. If they believe they belong to a community for some particular sort of entertainment, then they do. Nobody is hurt by the inclusion of as many people as want to be included since it is all just for fun anyway. This is a problematic approach for me.

Community members must all have a certain ideological consistency in order for their group’s name to mean anything. If people are allowed into a community while simultaneously rejecting its core values or showing lack of interest in its primary goal, the community will eventually dissolve into something meaningless. For example, a certain person claims they are a competitive chess player, but their idea of the rules are all wrong and they stubbornly refuse to conform. They want pawns to be able to always move diagonally, they think castling is cheating, and they only think someone wins if they take every single one of the other player’s pieces. Another certain person plays by the rules, but has no interest in beating their opponent, plays only when compelled by someone else and does not concern themselves with learning advanced techniques. Obviously neither of these individuals can be rightfully considered competitive chess players! It is a necessary truth that competitive chess players are invested in discovering who is the best player amongst themselves by using a universal and fair rule set—a truth that these example players fail to acknowledge.

Membership in a community, it seems to me, should be something typically bestowed upon someone by the respected and established pre-existing members of said community. Either someone trusted to represent the shared integrity of the community needs to vouch for an aspirant member or the latter must be able to demonstrate certain credentials or knowledge that are indisputable before they can be unanimously seen as part of the group. This should not be seen as an aggressive or antisocial proposition. Denying someone the title of ‘Trekkie’ because they don’t know Klingon from Vulcan is not (typically) done with the intent of telling someone they can’t think “Star Trek” is amazing, but to prevent the discussion of the well-researched and detail-valuing community to be marred with possible misinformation or retreading of tired arguments. The ways in which a community contrasts itself with the rest of the world is a primary way in which it maintains its identity. That is to say: communities are inherently negatively defined.

The concerned reader might be asking themselves why we should care so much about protecting communities from intruders at the expense of those just trying to enjoy their hobbies. I have two important responses. First, if you truly value happiness above all else, then what is gained in satisfaction by the person wrongly admitted to a community simply pales in comparison to what is lost among all a community’s members when they come to realize their group affiliation is now losing its value. Further, if too many are inducted with such laxness, thus making dissolution inevitable, it will be a complete loss for all parties: members and aspirants alike. Second, I believe there is something fundamentally necessary in human psychology that calls for group politics of this manner. A great deal of my personal identity is based on my own community affiliations e.g., religious, national, political and so on. If these groups had no gatekeepers, then they would cease to be meaningful labels to me and, therefore, my own self-image would cease to be uniquely defined. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to extend the same importance my role as a member of my generation has to something like my role as an avid supporter of my favorite sports team. These identities, if they are valued highly, are the sort of thing someone could be almost animalistically compelled to defend when threatened.

Clearly this isn’t a sort of cut and dry issue wherein boundaries are drawn in permanent marker. Contrary to how it may seem, I think of membership in communities as a rather fluid concept in general. It is not always clear whether someone that wants an acknowledgment of membership shares group values or not regardless of any way in which they are tested. The topic at large is open to many exceptions to my argument. That guy that told you you weren’t a ‘real’ Queen fan because you don’t like most of their B-sides is still a jerk, I just advise against fallaciously correlating him with gatekeeping as an insult before taking into consideration all the benefits you reap from gatekeeping yourself.

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