In America, if you want to vote for the people who would prefer to tax the wealthy more than the poor, you’re also going to vote for the people who want to protect a woman’s right to choose. Communities come with a set of ideals that seem to have nothing to do with each other.

The size of a community is determined by optimizing who is in and who is out based on that bundle of ideals. Smaller communities might have a smaller set of niche beliefs, or they may have many beliefs that lead to just a tiny intersection of folks who are interested, engaged, and belong.

Workplaces can be like this, too. Much of the dust up at 37 Signals/Basecamp has to do with bundles of belief. At one time, the community of folks who liked 37 Signals product and content had a particular set of beliefs. Then, it turned out, the founders were uncomfortable and challenged by the assumed values of the community they created and found themselves in. They chose a pathway that ran counter to those values, and the community changed. 1

Organized religion is a powerful community because it is both explicit about belief and complicit in creating those beliefs. It is a community whose purpose is to generate folks who must adhere to its values.

Communities use beliefs as boundaries– in these areas we’ve identified, here are the values we hold as a community. And communities break when new challenges arise and they are forced to generate new values. Lately, it seems a new burden that has been placed on communities– the inability to opt out of holding any value at all. I don’t remember the particulars, but I think it was sometime during the George Floyd protest that there was some dust up within an online yarn pattern community. I don’t remember if the yarn folks were taking the side I agree with or not. I don’t really think that matters. I think what that incident points out is that whereas in the past, trading yarn patterns would never have required establishing beliefs about police brutality directed at African Americans, today, sometimes that’s a requirement.

This is a huge burden on communities.

I play volleyball a few nights a week here in Baltimore. I have no idea what these folks think about what’s happening in Gaza. I don’t have any clue how they feel about Donald Trump. I don’t know if they’re worried or excited about AI. Because we are all self-centered, I project the views and values I have onto these people– I like them, and so my assumption is that we would generally agree on all things. But because I’m also somewhat self-aware, I’m positive if the rec league volleyball pick up players suddenly had to express their values across all of these areas of belief, our community would be fractured.

This is the dance we require. There are times we have to take a stand. There are times that certain values need to be a part of a community. There are times where the broader global discussion might even require that we all, to a degree, “take a side”. But there’s also a lot of pleasure and joy and community in spaces that can be more narrow. There are times and places that have a right to be guarded from having to expand their bundle of belief.

In the US, our political system is structured to guarantee two political parties. And many folks are often dissatisfied by their choices, because a system with two parties incentives generating a set of opposing bundles of belief that come as close as possible to splitting the population evenly. In this optimization problem, very few people can point to one political party and feel satisfied with the bundle of beliefs they are signing up for. Few individual preferences are met while we optimize for a very specific compromise. In politics, we require parties to take a stand on virtually every matter and make values clear in all things.

It’s not always the right decision to require the same of every community we walk in.