I have always been fascinated by the behavior of people with strongly held beliefs. They always seem to differ in intensity when discussed in an individual setting and when presented in solidarity with others. The larger the group, the more intense and irrational the behavior becomes.
As an activist, I have seen this play out in such a wide array of arenas, from political and religious groups, to environmental and social causes. As we become more and more polarized as a nation on whatever the topic du jour may be, I felt compelled to examine this phenomena more closely.
In Manatee County, Florida where I was born and raised, I got a front row seat to the latest public display of “groupthink” during a protest and counter-protest regarding the removal of a Confederate Monument that has stood on the grounds of the old courthouse for almost 90 years. I decided to attend this rally as an objective observer since this particular gathering provided me the perfect opportunity to be just that. I have no set belief on how the matter should be handled. I see equally valid arguments for the monuments’ value in history, logic telling me that if we don’t know our history we are doomed to repeat it, and that if used properly, they can actually be an instrument of healing. On the other hand, I also see the potential for these monuments to remain a symbol of division and pain, and I see them being used to raise solidarity among people who espouse hate. Whether these monuments symbolize hate or not is irrelevant, the fact remains that they are used in that way. But does that automatically mean it should be removed? I still do not have any answers as far as what should be done to find a resolution to this specific topic, but I do feel strongly that we have to search for a different approach, both individually and collectively if we are to survive not only as a nation, but in a much larger sense, as a species. This contention not only applies to Confederate Memorials across the South, but on any other of the numerous “hot-button” political and social issues that are currently brewing in our society.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr
After doing some research on the groups that planned to square off, I found some chatter on social media that the confederate group had planned to “muster” at a small municipal Skate Park several blocks from the courthouse and march to the site of the protest. I decided to start my observations there ahead of the rally. When I arrived, I found no protesters. What I did witness was a dozen or so kids, ranging in age from about 7 to a few in their early 20’s. White kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, kids with purple hair and mohawks and kids with plain old normal haircuts all skating together on a hot August afternoon. They high-fived one another when they pulled off a 180 kickflip or an ollie. The older more experienced skaters helped the smaller kids. Laughter and camaraderie filled the air. I smiled. The juxtaposition of this scene with the potential powder keg of racial and social discord that was about to unfold just blocks away made me realize that maybe there is hope for the future after all. As I worked my way back downtown, the police presence was heavy for several blocks around the courthouse. After what happened in Charlottesville, they were obviously preparing for a worse-case-scenario. I felt a sense of dread come over me that I could potentially witness the dark violent underbelly of human behavior. I wondered how an idea, how a point of view could become so imperative to an individual that it could not only incite, but also justify violence in their mind’s eye. I would not have to wait long for my first display of Groupthink to show itself.
“The main principle of Groupthink is this: The more amiability there is among the members of a policy-making group, the greater the danger that independent thinking will be replaced by Groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed at outgroups”
More than an hour before the protests were to officially begin, the streets around the courthouse were lined with news crews, police and individuals representing far more than the two opposing sides of the issue at hand. There were a few lone voices for peace and unity, displaying no outward political or social agenda. They seemed to me to be there as a quiet voice of reason amidst the tension that was already starting to build. Arguments erupted but were quickly diffused. I could feel the fear and anger all around me and there was a point that I thought maybe this was a bad idea and I should just go. A protester stepped forward and pushed another. Both were quickly escorted away by police. This confrontation unfolded directly in front of me and I had to step back off the sidewalk and into the street to avoid getting bowled over. As I was gathering myself, I noticed a woman of about 60 walking slowly up the sidewalk toward the monument with a sign that read:
Let us gather to celebrate the things we love
Instead of fight over things we hate
Without provocation, a man draped in a confederate flag called her a hippie-communist. Another man in a Black Lives Matter shirt called her an idiot as she passed. Yet another person laughed loudly in her face and said “HAHA yeah, right lady, keep dreamin’. Go the f…. home” She never flinched, she never engaged. She just kept walking, eyes forward. One man spit on the ground as she passed, but I can’t say for sure it was directed at her specifically. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that a simple message of hope could be met with such spite and hatred. I wondered if under any other circumstances this woman would be received differently by her attackers. Perhaps they had met in a quiet coffee shop and she expressed this sentiment one-on-one, would the reaction be the same? I highly doubt it, and I would venture to say that any response and ensuing dialogue would be positive, and more in line with both individuals core values and morals. I lost sight of the One Love woman and did not see her the remainder of the protest. I’m not sure if she left or just got lost in the throngs that were now gathering. Another elderly couple was also openly ridiculed by both sides for their message. Apparently, groupthink does not like ambiguity or “fence-sitters”.
As I wandered through the crowd, eavesdropping on interviews, conversations and arguments between people, I noticed a trend that made my head spin. I would stand there and listen to people giving interviews, espousing the need for love and unity while being rational and thoughtful with their words and their viewpoints. Once away from the camera’s attention, the same person would engage with the other side and almost immediately the personal insults and hateful comments, irrelevant to any meaningful discourse, effortlessly flew off their tongues. The larger the support group behind these many mini-confrontations, the more personal and more vicious the attacks became.
I experienced this directly when a gentleman in a red shirt who was wandering the perimeter of the action said to me “It’s just part of history, I don’t know why it’s such a big deal now.” When I didn’t respond, he prodded “What do you think?” I politely told him that I was there as an impartial observer and that I did not wish to engage in discussion to which he replied, “Why is that, because you’re one of those f…..ing commie assholes?” Now, anyone who knows me or anything about my political views knows how laughable that conjecture was, but it displayed to me very clearly how powerful the need to belong to one side or the other really is to people. “What would make you say that?” I asked, sincerely wanting to know what would make him draw such a conclusion, to which he replied “Well, look at your shirt!” The shirt I was wearing contains three words. Freedom Isn’t Quiet. I informed him it was a Harley-Davidson Shirt and not a political statement. Of course, it was not my shirt at all that sparked the comment, it was the fact that he could not get a bead on where I stood. He formed an opinion and passed a judgement, then openly made a personal attack based on absolutely nothing. Because of my unwillingness to engage him, to either validate his opinion or to argue with him, I automatically in his mind became a member of the outgroup. He called me a bitch under his breath as he walked away. That’s how groupthink works. It is subtle, yet insidious.
If you have ever watched Star Trek, you are familiar with the Borg. This is groupthink taken to its highest level in the science-fiction realm where an individual is assimilated into the Borg, becoming one with all other Borg creating a hive-mind organism that erases all individuality. William Whyte derived the term “groupthink” from George Orwell’s “1984” and described it in a 1952 Fortune Magazine article stating “We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity- it is, after all, a perennial human failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity- an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient, but right and good as well” Yale research psychologist Irving Janis later concluded that in order for groupthink to take hold within a group, cohesiveness is the main factor, and it works kind of like the fictional Borg assimilation. The more cohesive a group becomes in their ideas, the less discussion and individual input from members of the group become. Group cohesiveness becomes more important than the individual’s freedom of expression, which is a necessary ingredient to make sound decisions and bring resolutions to social and political problems. Once this cohesiveness is entrenched, no outside opinion can even be heard, much less considered in any effort to resolve an issue. The result is a hive-mind Borg mentality that will fervently defend its position by dehumanizing and marginalizing the opposing views. I see this phenomena in nearly every activist group I can think of, including some groups I have been involved with in the past. I am guilty of this myself, we ALL are to some degree. This need to be a cohesive group is ingrained in our DNA from our hunter-gatherer days. Early humans had to to band together in order to eat, stay alive and procreate. It was a necessary part of our survival and evolution. As we have evolved into a modern society, our social structure has become wildly more complicated. And it has happened rather quickly when you are talking in evolutionary terms. It is a human tendency that no longer serves us well. While any cause may be righteous, it can still develop these qualities and become counter-productive. We need to recognize that so we can evolve past it.
“To effectively Communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”
Society is filled with a myriad Borg-like groups today. We see it very blatantly in politics, where Republicans and Democrats are blanketly dismissive to one another, even to the point of destroying families and personal friendships. One need not look any further than the comment thread of any political post on social media to see this happening in real time. No one actually engages in any meaningful discourse because no one is actually listening to the other side. We are waiting our turn to respond without any critical thinking taking place. We are all guilty of that, although I am personally working to change that about myself. There are political activist and “hate” groups cropping up that operate completely on groupthink. Antifa is the latest organization to make headlines by being deliberately violent to somehow further their cause. It’s easy for me to be dismissive to a group that proclaims to be “Anarco-Communists” simply because logic tells us right off the bat that Anarchism and Communism by their very definition are the bookends of the political spectrum. It’s an oxymoron. The fact that they exist at all and have a rather good-sized following is an alarming trend. The same goes for the continued existence of the KKK and the Neo-Nazi organizations that seem to be gaining traction here and across the globe. We seem to have lost touch with our compassion and empathy, and that is evidenced simply by the existence of these groups. So, what about the rest of us? Where to we fit into (or get sucked into) this mentality? Have we all fallen victim to groupthink? It is present in every one of us to varying degrees. It’s embedded in how we view others outside our own race, our churches, our civic organizations.
It is in how we view others who do not share the same morals and values as we do. It skews the way we see those who do not share our own socio-economic status. It drives our judgement of others that do not live the same lifestyles we do. When will we learn to respect differences rather than continually try to dominate one another? One thing I learned from the One Love lady is the she, and only a handful of others, were doing it right. We will get nowhere if we continue to lock into an all or nothing position. Everyone will never agree on everything. We need to learn to let go of things that don’t directly affect us. Seriously…if the two gay guys down the street want to get married, how does that directly and personally adversely affect your everyday existence? Before we go railing for (or against) any cause, we should all ask ourselves that question. We must learn to be respectful of things we might not agree with. We must learn to listen and to communicate effectively. We must learn to be compassionate to what we don’t understand. We cannot fight hatred with hatred. We cannot fight injustice for some while we are inflicting injustice on others. We must learn that violence over an opinion can never be justified. Fortunately for us here in Manatee County, outside the three arrests early in the evening, the rains came and helped bring the rally to a peaceful conclusion.
And then there was this guy. Bringing a little levity and humor to remind us of our human folly. I think in some ways, he had it right too.
photos 1,2,4 from Rose Lipke. Photo 3 from Pixabay