The Case Against Community

In The New Yorker, psychologist Paul Bloom made a somewhat surprising case against empathy:

Empathy has some unfortunate features — it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.

Drawing on decades of psychological research, Bloom articulates the problems with using empathy as a guide to how we ought to interact with others. As a matter of fact, we tend to empathize with the people who are near us, close to us, and similar to us. Consequently, empathy directs our attention to that one single baby who fell down the well but away from millions who are dying in a genocide, and empathy makes us take out our wallet for that one terminal cancer patient we know while ignoring so many others with treatable conditions who will die due to inadequate medical resources. Many of the worst problems in modern society don’t come from an insufficiency of empathy, but from an overload of empathy.

Empathy is the micro foundation for the macro structures of community. At the macro level, then, the problems of empathy becomes the problems of community.

Sure enough, the existence of a community has upsides. It’s what makes us pour our heart out to a baby who fell down the well — because she is one of us. But the existence of a community also has downsides that are arguably more severe. It’s also what makes us turn our heads away from millions who are dying in a genocide — because they are not part of our community.

Of course, we inevitably find ourselves as members of various communities. However, given how parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate a community can make us, we’re often at our best when we are smart enough to rise above it.

Over at 512 Pixels, Matt Alexander recently extolled the virtues of the Appleverse community:

[…] we read, link, joke, and support each other online — regardless of readership or Twitter follower counts — because this is a community built organically upon compassion and shared beliefs.

The problem of community, as you might have guessed, is that same support given to the insiders can quickly turn into vitriol thrown at outsiders. Will Kujawa found this out when he leveled some mild criticisms at the new The Loop iOS magazine. As he puts it,

This automatic tendency to support each other, while mostly good, unfortunately leads to suspicion when it’s suggested I spend money on something a friend or colleague of theirs is selling — whether it’s a book, an app or a magazine subscription — as they’re not always the most balanced source when it comes to the overall quality and value.

It’s probably a sisyphean task to completely rise above our communities. I won’t pretend that I have. Still, I think it’s worth trying.

If we can get part-way there, then maybe we can stop the talk about perceptions, press releases, and commercials, and just talk about interaction design, file architecture, and other far more interesting and actually substantive things. Maybe we can even worry less about who is right and wrong but instead more about what is right and wrong. And maybe, just maybe, we can try to interact with others as not insiders or outsiders of a community, but just people with some things to say.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.


2 thoughts on “The Case Against Community

  1. I’m deeply suspicious of any call to do something against human nature; people are social pack-loving animals that build groups and then treat those outside those groups as “other.” Be they clans, families, cliques, communities or social circles, they are part of how people are built. Saying to “rise above it” might sound nice but I think it is unrealistic.

    • Are you against doing statistical or logical inferences because they run contrary against human nature — namely, cognitive biases like the availability bias? I hope not. Is it unrealistic to expect people to make statistical or logical inferences above their heuristic judgments? Not really.

      The way to respond to cognitive biases is, in other cases, to find methods around it. This case is no different.

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