The growth of micro-communities and the increased power of these communities reflects a powerful shift in the ways in which citizens of contemporary democracies express their opinions in public. Micro-communities range across a vast landscape filled with advocacy, anger, faith and belief. The challenge is that each small community believes so strongly in its values that debate and even contradiction are hard for its members to accept. Internal dissension, when it arises tends to be personal and focussed on short term disagreements. Some of these communities, like those involved in the anti-vaccination movement, are able to convince others that unproven and often discredited ideas have enough validity to put their children in danger.
One of the major characteristics of micro-communities is their adherence to discourses that over time, become self-justifying. As these communities gain strength, they try and convince others of their legitimacy, using whatever means is at their disposal.
The issue is even more complex because within these micro-communities, you often find nano-communities, smaller and smaller clusters of people who use their knowledge of the public sphere to further fragment the broader groups they are a part of.
The general public sphere is suffering as a result of this combination of fragmentation and advocacy. There are less opportunities to create buffers between questionable assertions and declarations which claim to be on the side of truth. The absence of buffers means that debates on important issues come and go at high speed. There is less awareness and concern for the implications of advocacy. The goal is to win arguments irrespective of their validity.
Broadly speaking, politicians do not understand the implications of this breakdown of shared values and assumptions, but nevertheless have to cope with the effects. How does one manage this efflorescence of groups? Who speaks for them? Who is able to talk to them and use rational discussion and argument to counter their closed discourses?
Some may suggest that the task is impossible, but it is possible to deal with this phenomenon. Schools, particularly our universities have to retain the capacity to critically intervene but only if those interventions are based on science, humanistic thinking and empirical data. Counter arguments also have to address the profound sense of fear that is a by-product of repeated reinforcement that is the hallmark of micro-communities. Emotions rule when what we need are a variety of vantage points from which people can examine their own assumptions and perhaps learn from others who may disagree with them.