Community is a new reality when you move from the busy city to a regional town. For me it happened 20 years ago but it was neverth less a culture shock. Suddenly the local issues, of which I was once blissfully unaware, exploded like cluster bombs around me and dodging the flak became a serious occupation. Yes, community is powerful and to be respected but relative to my line of work I see it as plain ‘dangerous’.
Like social media, sending a message has no rules and often descent people become hostage to a cause which renders them zealots. Sad to say community is not always the gentle, soft, furry ball of cuddles that everyone would like to believe it is.
In a recent television show, US writer, Aaron Sorkin posed the question to a group of students, “Al Qaeda is to the Muslims world, what ? ? ? is to America?” The three blank spaces left the students dumb founded, until Sorkin filled in the blanks. ‘K. K. K.’ he wrote – The Ku Klux Klan. He continued to explain that fundamentalism exists when we abandon pluralism (the belief in the concept of more than one idea) and that when we surrender this, we become zealots.
Sadly, community has come to mean the disengagement of pluralism and there are examples in every regional town, much of it based on parochialism. Here’s an example. Over the past five or so years, our town, now a city by the way, has engaged in a bitter fight over the location of a new regional hospital. Consultation after consultation saw neighbor against neighbor and we witnessed a nasty brand of name calling, including the use of a swastika on one occasion.
In marketing terms it became a ‘response’ campaign and what disturbed many people, including myself was the abandonment of ethics which accompanied the personal attacks. Someone once said, the first casualty of war is truth and in the case of vexatious community issues they were absolutely correct.
In my profession we are so often accused of being masters of spin, exaggeration and over the top statements. When it comes to community, let me say this. We fall a very poor second in those stakes compared to rhetoric and mis-speak of a community campaign. Much of which is driven by fundamentalists who either do not understand the use of statistics or deliberately utilise them to mislead.
One zealot claimed that the ‘majority of residents’ had voted for the hospital to be placed on a site he favoured and it read well – but it simply wasn’t true. The vote he referred to reflected only 47% of the town’s populace and so had absolutely no majority anointment. Another community member recently decided that changes in the CBD involving modernisation and upgrading of the main street contributed to the areas housing market decline. His reasoning? The decision to commence the refurbishment of the CBD coincided with the month’s housing figures began to fall. A real case of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ (‘It is, therefore because it is’). What should concern all of us is the use of such unchallenged statements, which can become reality to the perception of others while the truth is concealed amongst a barrage of mumbo jumbo.
Yes, community is powerful, but it better not be wrong, because the consequences of flavouring the message can result in damage to the greater good and foster poor decision making. We are community and if we cannot monitor ourselves, embrace pluralism and demonstrate tolerance to others’ ideas we will go the same way as one of the pillars of democracy – the Greek Empire.