Thursday, 31 January 2013

Gladwell, Community Building, and Principles

Malcolm Gladwell came to Fort McMurray last night and I was definitely excited to hear him speak. I've read three of his books 'Blink', "The Tipping Point' and 'Outliers' and found his lecture last night was more of the same; insightful, engaging, witty, and exuding a sort of gentle intellect. The thrust of Gladwell's speech was to give us McMurrayites some insights into community building based on a number of stories and case studies he had come across.

One of the case studies he used was Roseto a small community of 3000 people located in the isolated hills of Pennsylvania. Roseto is remarkable according to Gladwell because in the 50's while other Americans were dying of cardiovascular and other diseases, in Roseto people were dying of old age despite bad diets, smoking and lack of exercise. Gladwell suggests that this is because of the strong sense of community that he painted a beautiful picture of with his prose. I have no reason to doubt his claim it does seem to make sense. During my graduate studies I came across a lot of research praising the benefits of positive psychology on human health, and certainly having a strong social support network would impact that. In his book 'Outliers' he describes a leader who changed the dynamic of this town:

"In 1896, a dynamic young priest — Father Pasquale de Nisco — took over at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. De Nisco set up spiritual societies and organized festivals. He encouraged the townsfolk to clear the land, and plant onions, beans, potatoes, melons and fruit trees in the long backyards behind their houses. He gave out seeds and bulbs. The town came to life. The Rosetans began raising pigs in their backyard, and growing grapes for homemade wine. Schools, a park, a convent and a cemetery were built. Small shops and bakeries and restaurants and bars opened along Garibaldi Avenue. More than a dozen factories sprang up, making blouses for the garment trade. "

Gladwell cited another case of an isolated French village that was renowned for hiding Jews during WWII while the rest of France was cooperating with the Nazi's and in fact rounding up Jews. He told a story of how a group of teens in that village stood their ground against French police charged with gathering Jews for concentration camps, bravely telling them they would not obey and they would continue hiding Jews. Eventually the Nazi's decided that the village was more trouble than it's worth and left it alone. Gladwell believes that this village was able to stand firm and do the right thing because it was isolated and strongly principled in its Protestant beliefs

Gladwell made a lot of interesting points about designing spaces to be attractive and useful to people that I won't get into for the sake of time. The gist of his message was that Fort McMurray is isolated and therefore somewhat protected from outside influences, we have all the resources to build a world-class community, we need mavens (experts) to guide us and we need to pick a frame (a center or principle) around which to build our community. He went as far as to say it doesn't really matter what that frame is we just need to pick one. This is where I depart ways with Gladwell, I would suggest the right frame is key.

Frames are valid only if they are congruent with reality. For example the frame that the Nazi community built itself around was not valid, because it was not congruent with reality, it did not recognize Jews as humans and it assumed that violence was a way of solving problems and these are both false views of reality with no evidence to back them. Beliefs about the world we live in are of utmost importance because they ultimately inform our actions, and so I would beg my fellow citizens of this amazing region to consider whether your beliefs (your frame) is congruent with reality or not. Where did your beliefs come from? Why do you have them? Do they meet basic standards of logic, reason and evidence? Gladwell mentioned during the Q&A that he does not self-reflect much and so I can understand how he might arrive at the thought that all frames, cultures, beliefs have relatively equal merit. 

Let's look at what his case studies are actually saying about building community:

1) Leadership - Roseto had a community that was built around the leadership of Father de Nisco. His leadership style was that of a servant, someone who encourages and gives. I call this legitimate leadership. To be legitimate the followers have to be willing (attraction as opposed to compulsion) and the goal needs to be individual empowerment and seeking to eliminate the need for leadership. When you have this type of leadership in a community beautiful things happen.

2) Principles - The little French village differentiated itself from the rest of France in that it was centered around Protestantism. Protestantism differentiates itself from Catholicism in that it has a strong tradition of individualism. It taught that individuals have a relationship with God without a priestly class or church necessary to intermediate. When you have a strong community that recognizes the rights of individuals you have a force for good in the world.  As a corollary almost all evil acts ever committed were done in the name of a vague concept called 'the greater good'. This concept is simply a justification that allows individuals to harm other individuals.

People in this city need to pay attention to the lessons here. Any legitimate and sustainable community that is going to be built has to be built from the frame of legitimate leadership and respect for individuals (otherwise known as human rights). Compulsion, coercion, threats, and actions that threaten and harm individuals in the name of 'the greater good' are to be avoided. 

One way in which 'leaders' are attempting to build community in this city is through expropriating land for a new development. Expropriating land for a development is immoral because theft is immoral and the only way to possibly justify expropriation is by subscription to the highly irrational idea that it is moral for one class of individuals to use force against another class. When this development is built all I'll see is a monument to the individuals that were harmed for the greater good.

Gladwell makes some great points that about our strengths here in Fort McMurray. We have a ton of opportunity because of our resources and we are isolated. I often joke about YMM seceding...I know it sounds bug-nutty to most people who are content in the conventional cultural paradigm of left-right politics, but I do long for the day when a territory can be inhabited without rights being violated by a group of individuals that folks call government. I am often asked why I don't just become a hermit or leave the country. The truth is I value community much more than I dislike my human rights being violated and obviously it could be much worse (and it likely will be). That won't stop me from dreaming and preaching about a better way, I owe it to my kids and grandkids to try to build a world that is sustainable and respects their rights and the only way I'm going to do that is if I convince enough people in my community that the correct frame to building community starts with the non-aggression principle so that individual flourishing is linked to what kind of value you bring to the community around you and not how much power you wield.