People throw around the word community frequently these days – especially in today’s pluralistic and hyperconnected world. Yet, this concept, which is largely viewed positively, also inherently implies a level of homogeneity that may handicap our ability to really know what is going on around us. I’ll explain.
In a community, we have a sense of belonging. We share and learn from each other’s experiences. We feel safe and secure. We know the rules, and we see our common self-interests. We connect.
The world thrives on this kind of consensus, and we should strive for it. The world is built upon teamwork, and we should seek it and reward it.
However, community can also stand in the way of taking in all the information available and coming up with our own conclusions. We need to make sure that the power of the individual is expressed and asserted, and our ability to think critically and independently is encouraged.
We are social creatures by nature, and that brings with it certain tendencies to go with the flow and seek approval from our peers. It leads to a pack mentality that can express itself in unintended and negative ways. “When everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking,” as Benjamin Franklin put it.
Today, we engage in social media by connecting with people who share our experiences: our digital community. Sharing, in fact, is what it’s all about. On matters of great importance (and no, buying a flat-screen TV or a cell phone are not among them), you likely gravitate to websites that support your currently held beliefs. I mean, really, does anyone actually use the Internet to change their mind anymore on issues like immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, global warming, capitalism, regulation or the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots?” No, I think not. Let’s face it; we flock to places that feel familiar, our comfort zones.
What impact can this have? Just take a look at the banking industry, an elite community perhaps but a community nonetheless. Would the banking crisis have occurred if more executives exercised a little independence and demonstrated some critical thinking? It turns out collateralized securities weren’t a safe investment just because everyone was selling them. Would company after company pursue socially reckless policies if there were more independent, critical voices in play? I doubt it.
Does all of that sound outrageous? I hope so. I’m trying to be deliberately provocative to demonstrate how your individuality is simultaneously overrated and under attack and you probably don’t know it.
Now, as we work to influence the direction of the future, the world needs independent thinkers more than ever. I encourage you to examine what you truly believe and why. What issues you will stand up for and defend, or attack? Our society needs more constructive disagreement that leads to productive compromise, and we need to do it in “real time.” We shouldn’t rely entirely on the organized discontent fomented by political movements. Every day is filled with one thousand moments of truth. How we react to each is what distinguishes us as critical beings.
In our profession of public relations, we need to show our clients this same kind of courage and individuality. In many ways, our clients are asking us simple questions: How does the world work? Are we doing the right thing? They need to know we will use our powers of critical thinking to counsel them on their unique set of communications and business challenges, and not just settle for the path of least resistance.
Demonstrating critical thinking may boil down to questioning a half-baked decision, or someone stepping forward to ask simply, “Why are we or why aren’t we doing that?” We all need to be that person.