Communities Don’t Know Best

The history of the Western world is one of imperialism, paternalism, and colonialism. There are long and terrible legacies left by outsiders who think they know best imposing their will upon those they see as in need of their divine intervention.

So it is with some relief that conventional wisdom, or at least progressive belief, shies away from this interventionist approach.

Communities know what’s best. Communities understand their own assets and needs. Communities have their own culture and an outsider with truly good intentions would not question those local norms and beliefs.

There are many great reasons for this line of thinking, and many dark histories that are cause to embrace this approach.

But, to take a somewhat provocative approach, we can still step back and ask if this is always true – do communities really know what’s best?

Consider for a moment this story from Paulo Freire, as told in “We Make the Road by Walking”

My respect for the soul of the culture does not prevent me from trying, with the people, to change some conditions that appear to me as obviously against the beauty of being human. …Let us take the second community in which men do nothing concerning home work. Women have to do everything at home and also in the field, and the men come back from the field just to eat, but the women have also been there working.

…Is it possible for me, concerning my vision of the world – because respect the cultural tradition of this community – is it possible to spend my life without ever touching this point? Without ever criticizing them just because I respect their traditional culture?

Freire goes on to make his opinion clear – it sight of such inequity, it is his moral obligation to say something.  He would not say it on the first day, but he would say it as soon as it felt appropriate.

“I have the duty to challenge that culture and those people,” he added.

Another example can be seen in the work of Walter Lippmann. Now, Lippmann is always getting a bad rap as being a cynical technocrat, but I interpret his approach as follows:

There are too many things going on for a single person to be an expert in them all, so we should encourage people to be engaged in the issues they care about but forgive them for taking a pass on the issues they don’t care about.

Not having an opinion on what should be done in the Middle East doesn’t make me a bad citizen. It just makes me an imperfect – aka real – person.

Now this is a really interesting approach, but the problem with it is that it ignores system power differentials.

If I “don’t care” about an issue in my community because I’ve been told over and over that my opinion doesn’t matter and I have no power to change an issue…that’s not a reason to encourage my self-selection out of the process. Maybe I really do care, I’ve just convinced myself I don’t.

What it really comes down to is treating communities and individuals with respect. Supporting them to be their best selves – and being open to their suggestions about how you can improve to be your best self as well.

Do communities always know best? Let’s be honest – no one ever knows best.


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