6.11. How Threats Unravel Communities

When our communities feel threatened, we often do things that weaken them, in the name of strengthening them.

Communities that feel threatened can go a little ballistic.

They’ll narrow the acceptable range of beliefs and behaviors, become strict and inflexible, start kicking people out whom they used to welcome, and raise their standards for whom they let in.

They’ll start to become hostile toward those whom they’ve defined as their enemy—and paranoid that some people within the group itself are enemies, who are intentionally or unintentionally sowing discord.

They’ll try to enforce solidarity and discipline—but often end up becoming exclusive and oppressive instead.

In short, when our communities feel threatened, we often do things that weaken them, in the name of strengthening them.


Let’s distinguish between the inner circle group members, and the outer circle group members.

The inner circle is smaller, heavily committed, and usually holds most of the power in the group.

The outer circle is larger and less committed.

The inner circle has an ambivalent relationship with the outer circle.

You need numbers. You need followers. The more people belong to the group, the stronger and more influential it is.

But popularity also creates managerial headaches. It brings in a lot of people who are inconsistent in their beliefs and their commitment. It’s challenging to be in charge of a big group.

Furthermore, the inner circle—quite frankly—often thinks they’re better than the people in the outer circle.

They’re better because they were there first. Because they believe everything in the party line. And because they’re much more invested in the community.

It creates a dynamic where the people in the inner circle need the people in the outer circle—but don’t always appreciate them.

What they want is for the people in the outer circle to shut up, fall in line, and do everything they say. But the outer circle folks, of course, are a bit more independent-minded.

So when the threat comes, the inner circle folks don’t just feel threatened by whatever external threat they’ve defined.

They feel threatened by the independence and the lack of total commitment from the rank-and-file.

They need support and commitment from the outer circle folks, if they’re going to survive the threat. But those people aren’t seen as reliable. They might just abandon the group entirely, instead of fighting the good fight.

Add all this up, and this is why groups are always playing up their threats, always demanding total obedience and commitment, always making it seem like you’re a traitor or a bad person, if you aren’t in the thick of it.

It works on some people. But on a lot of people, it doesn’t.

They get tired of being blamed and shamed, of being told deviations from the party line won’t be tolerated. They start to feel used, rather than welcomed.

This is how we end up with a lot of small, tight-knit, ideologically narrow communities…but very few large, tolerant, egalitarian communities.

So pay attention, and do your best to disrupt these dynamics, when you see them happening in your own communities.

The inner circle may feel like it’s doing the right thing. But often, their ultimatums end up backfiring on them—keeping their communities small, intolerant, and no better able to face any real threats confronting them.


This is the 103rd in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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