Communities have tremendous capacity for making change. They allow us to think beyond the moment, beyond ourselves, to build up relationships that can sustain us in difficult times. As individuals, we all have starkly-defined limits; but as a group, working in harmony, we become greater than the sum of our parts. This is why collective action has so much potential for transforming the world around us. Even when we act alone, we are leveraging the things and the ideas of the people who came before us, our elders and peers. And when we stand tall like giants it’s because we’re standing on someone else's shoulders, and they in turn are standing on someone else's shoulders.
A collective gets it's strength from its individual members. This means that in order to prosper, a community needs to respect its members as unique human beings, each with their own history, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. A successful collective will have an elastic structure. It will be capable of stretching its boundaries as needed, flexing its expectations and granting each individual member the freedom to act out their own nature within the supportive framework of the community. As a kid my father always told me: your freedom ends where that of someone else's begins. This is a boundary that has to be studied, negotiated and respected.
Similarly communities and individuals sometimes run into trouble when the needs of the group clash with the needs of the individual. Sometimes “personal freedom” is at odds with the needs of the larger community. We can see this in relatively minor things, like when someone wants to stay up all night playing loud music and their neighbors can’t sleep. But we can also see this tension playing out in bigger issues, like gun ownership, for example. What does the individual want, and what can the collective agree on.
To some extent, we all make compromises when we agree to become part of a community. We agree to be governed by certain rules. We accept the need to pay taxes so that we can have roads, clean water, and public schools. We accept the presence of a police force because we want to be protected and feel safe. All of these compromises can come with tensions. And we’ve seen, in recent months, how many of these compromises can become precarious, especially when the original promises aren't held.
And of course, sometimes the needs of the local community are going to conflict with the rights of the individual. We are seeing a lot of debate these days, at a societal level, over whether there should be limits applied to free speech. The debate over “cancel culture” is a great example of this dilemma. Do an individual’s free speech rights sometimes need to be curtailed, if that individual is spouting offensive opinions? Is there ever a place for banning books? Is it a good idea to pull down statues of public figures, when their behavior has been deeply problematic or destructive?
In a longer conversation on cancel culture the singer and activist Billy Bragg has pointed out that often, in our media-saturated environment, what passes for “free speech” is nothing more than an attempt to sow chaos. Bragg said, “Politicians and their surrogates have realised that stoking division is an easier means of gaining support than seeking consensus. In such a toxic environment, a slavish dedication to the right of free speech is a liability. From Donald Trump’s twitter feed to the depths of the QAnon conspiracy, the right to say what you want, whenever you want, to whoever you want, with no comeback is undermining our freedom.”
These are complex questions which often don’t have a single right or wrong answer. In fact, it’s a sign of strength when a community can openly talk about these issues. The more that we can discuss these questions together, the more resilient our community becomes. A robust debate can add to our understanding of one another.
But in order for debate to be truly meaningful, we need to listen to each other with trust and with openness. We need to understand our own boundaries, wants and needs, those of others and those of the collective. There are trade-offs but sometimes the wish and wellbeing of the collective is beneficial for us even if it’s not exactly what we’re wishing for.
This piece was originally inspired by the Intelligence Squared debate on Cancel Culture with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Julie Bindel, Kehinde Andrews & Billy Bragg.