Can We Really Trust Communities To Use Common Sense?

Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein (or Lincoln Barnett)

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations cannot.

It’s also reminded us that social media – despite the many benefits – simply can’t fulfill this function. Your thousands of followers are worthless compared to the handful of people you really can rely upon.

As Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard have written – a lack of sufficient connection is dangerous because social connection is a primal human need. Connection is also a “superpower” that, as the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, makes human beings smarter, happier and more productiveMeta-analysis research found a 50% greater likelihood of survival for the participants of studies who had stronger social relationships.

These powerful connections have meant that we’ve largely abided by the new social contract and disproved the Hollywood stereotype of how humankind would behave in a dystopian global emergency. Rather than mob rule, looting homes and hitting people over the head for a can of baked beans, we’ve queued politely outside supermarkets and applauded key workers from our doorsteps. Additionally, people appear to have begun to reevaluate their relationship with the largest social institution ,the NHS, accepting their own role in prevention through personal responsibility.

So far, so good.

Communities appear to have a hell of a lot going for them. In fact this could be the time to make the move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek instead to solve problems with communities not for communities. This might be the moment for organisations to finally address important issues about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

And yet, there’s a counter narrative that has emerged during the second half of lockdown, that people and communities simply can’t be trusted.

The call from the prime minister to apply “good British common sense” has attracted both criticism (it’s vague and confusing) and praise (from others who argue that people will act responsibly given the chance).

So which is it? Because if our organisations wish to bestow more responsibility on communities, and recognise citizens themselves are closest to the problems that matter, surely we need to trust them to do the right thing?

Instead, the media has delighted in recent weeks at finding examples of communities wilfully breaking the social contract. Admittedly, right from the early days of the lockdown there were some limited examples of what Douglas Murray calls “outbreaks of the irrational mind” – such as stockpiling toilet rolls or attacking 5G masts.

Now though, as we slowly emerge from isolation, there has been an increase in stories designed to highlight the inherent stupidity of people. Photos shared online seem to show people standing much too close together in public and generally being irresponsible.

It’s always worth remembering when stories like these enter mass circulation that you are not always seeing an accurate version of the truth. For example, there have been cases of photographers using effects that compress images, unfairly representing the local community.

Additionally stories only go viral when they portray uncommon behaviour. The rules of viral media dictate that the content needs to be either funny, touching or profoundly stupid. I always try and remember before sharing or commenting on viral stories that what is on display is not an accurate representation of real life, rather it is an outlier.

You can argue that examples of deviant behaviour give us the opportunity to ‘course correct’ and remind us of the importance of following a social code. However the cynic in me feels that these examples become all too convenient tropes to be used by the hierarchical and status obsessed to justify why communities need more rules, less autonomy, and more state and social sector sanctioned services.

Deep down most people are reasonable and can use their common sense to do the right thing.

By way of example , yesterday I was talking to a neighbour comparing and contrasting two different approaches to distributing food boxes to older people. One is thriving and has delivered thousands of packages, one is floundering and has scores of undelivered donations.

The difference? The latter has become obsessed with minimising risk through finding the ‘right’ volunteer that has the right DBS check, has access to a suitable vehicle and can meet an exhaustive set of hygiene standards.

The other by comparison has kept it simple, tapping into existing community networks and giving people guidance but basically trusting them to be sensible.

The lesson here is to take a street level view of lockdown as described by Charlotte Kiri in this wonderful post. As she says:

What’s happening at street level is not based on a relationship that assumes that one party has a provision and one has a need, and because the acts taking place are small and frequent and over a small distance, daily and undramatic there is hope that these relationships will sustain and strengthen into whatever world we find ourselves in beyond this lockdown

You should never waste a good crisis, and it would a terrible shame if our new normal reverted to seeing people as passive and needy recipients of services.

The pandemic has shown that all the reports of the decline of trust are incorrect.

We’ve actually shown remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We have calmly listened to the experts and followed their advice and changed our lives as a result.

So now is a time for the social sector to repay that trust, showing that we trust our communities to do the right thing , to act with fairness and empathy and to use our collective common sense for a common good.

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response


6 thoughts on “Can We Really Trust Communities To Use Common Sense?

  1. Great post Paul and you’ve chosen my favourite section from that wonderful post from Charlotte. I so hope that one legacy of lockdown is that more people have discovered all the gifts their neighbours have to share and that we are all givers and receivers of these gifts.

  2. Interesting observations Paul. Always well written. I find myself flip-flopping between the need for more personal responsibility / risk management to seeking greater clarity from leaders?

  3. I’ve downloaded Rutger Bregman’s “Humankind” to read while I am in hospital next week ( Its premise is that humanity is fudamentally kind and co-operative, but that it suits leaders to portray them as the opposite. A telling phrase I heard the author deliver on a podcast recently was “When elites look in the mirror they make the mistake of believing that everyone is a selfish as they are”.

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