Pursuing good works sans crowds?

By Dave Healy

The crowd.

Its anonymity can be appealing. Consider: lost in the crowd, far from the madding crowd. One follows the crowd at the risk of autonomy and individuality. In some cases, we’d rather stand out from the crowd.

One can get in with the wrong crowd. (Is there a right crowd?) A crowd is something to work, also something to play to. How big is a crowd? If you’re a twosome, one additional person might be enough.

A more recent form of crowd lingo: crowdsourcing—a particular kind of outsourcing whereby the responsibility for providing information or answers is delegated to large groups. The practice reflects a concept sometimes referred to as “the wisdom of the crowd,” an idea that’s not new but that’s gained greater prominence in the Information Age.

Aristotle is sometimes credited as the first person to describe the notion: “It is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually but collectively, than those who are so.”

Individuals in a crowd need not be “good.” But crowd wisdom is most reliable, the experts say, when a crowd is diverse, and when its members render their judgments autonomously rather than when influenced by those around them. Such crowds don’t assemble; rather, they are assembled—by others seeking their collective wisdom.

With crowdsourcing, then, people need not volitionally join crowds. Aggregators can create them out of the disparate data that accumulates relentlessly and exponentially in cyberspace.

Virtual crowds can be wise even if the members have no contact—indeed, especially if they have no contact.

What about physical crowds? They offer benefits, such as protection. An individual fish is less vulnerable in a school than alone. On the other hand, physical crowds can attract attacks, as mass shootings demonstrate.

Crowds amplify our emotions, sometimes for good (singing in a group, cheering at a sporting event, applauding at a concert) and sometimes for ill (mob violence). Crowds create peer pressure: It’s hard to sit during a standing ovation or kneel during the national anthem. We do things in a crowd we might never do alone.

What happens when simply being in a crowd is dangerous? That’s a question we’ve had to confront in recent weeks. First, we were advised to avoid groups larger than 250, then 50, then 10. Nowadays, if we’re good citizens we practice social distancing: no handshakes, no hugs, no human contact. Standing out from the crowd isn’t an assertion of individuality; it’s a survival skill.

Maintaining our common identity?

How do we maintain our common identity—as a nation, state, city, neighborhood, workplace, church, school, team, family—in the face of prohibitions on being together? Members of a church are often referred to as a “congregation.”

What happens when they can’t congregate?

The writer of the Bible’s New Testament book of Hebrews admonishes, “Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.”

Can we provoke one another to love and good works without assembling ourselves together?

Can we avoid crowds without crowding out compassion, generosity, kindness?

To quote someone many of us remember, “Yes we can.”

We can deliver meals, sing from our balconies, purchase gift cards, support charities, share ideas and resources, write letters. We can keep the faith.

Yes, we can!

Dave Healy is former editor of the Bugle and lives in St. Anthony Park.

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