Philosophical Sunday: Is a new-group thinking culture rising on the internet?

Caution: This is my uncensored mess of philosophical thoughts! Tread lightly!

One of the more insidious results of living in the shadows of socialism is that our culture has inadvertently adopted tons of strange psychological neuroses from Socialistic thought (especially the more radicalized type of totalitarian socialism that is how most socialism, by default, becomes) With the advent of social media, these psychological neuroses, or instinctive group-thinking, is growing much more prevalent.
In a sense, we are a bit lapsed in our psychological development of coming to grips with the idea that natures acts separately from our thoughts.    For many centuries, we had religion, which gives us illusory control over the unpredictable elements of nature. By imaginatively thinking we have control over nature, or that we can somehow predict the actions of nature, it makes us feel secure. Through religion, we can conform to this illusion of security and safety. Some of these widely accepted myths are not religious in nature, but we adopt them because our parents implicitly instruct us to believe them without any thought or consideration that they might indeed be valid.

For example, many people who live in the Northeast still believe that tornadoes can never occur there. The truth is statistically there is a lower risk of tornadoes, but this strange myth demands the obstinate belief in the name of relative security that tornadoes never happen in the Northeast. If we just believe that they never can happen and this belief is passed from century to century ( I call this the age fallacy), it begins to hold the false sense of validity to many of the believers. If a high number of people believe it, that large swath of people thus must be correct; how can so many people, including my own mother or grandmother, be wrong?

Before World War II, the widely held belief that the Jews are somehow unsaved, and deserve to live separately from the European, Protestant majority  created the right type of environment for Nazism to easily assimilate itself into a Germany, besieged by war. In times of high insecurity, this is when the neuroses of group-thinking start to worm themselves into our psyche. With so much deep-seated antisemitism in Germany (and most of Europe), along with economic turmoil, it was easy for a charismatic, totalitarian despot to take over without much argument not from just the Germans, but from most of  anti-Semitic Europe as well. And, that is something easily dismissed now in our precarious, politically correct culture; most of Europe unquestionably allowed Hitler to come into power because it is easy for ideological, mad-men to take over areas, where people are most vulnerable to dogmatic forms of group-thinking.

Of course, our new group-thinking (hindsight fallacy) says that Hitler was irredeemably evil (He essentially is), and that the German people must have been very dumb for letting Hitler take over. The Chinese must have been stupid for letting Mai take over, so-on and so-on.  But, we don’t think about the conditions those people were in, and the fact that a version of Stalin, Hitler, and Mai can still take over. The emergence of more fundamentalist thinking in religion is an outcrop of this; it is fueled not by economic despondency, but a fear that secular humanism is out to usurp religion. As a result, fundamentalism demands more unquestioning acceptance of very extreme stances on the literalism of Biblical text (a belief as ridiculous as tornadoes not occurring in the Northeast), and the belief that certain types of ideologically impure people are not just evil, but irredeemably evil and you should not associate with them.

In areas of a depressed economic state or lowered education (areas that teach education is bad b/c it is secular humanist and ideologically impure), fundamentalist has much more sway.    With the insecurity or fear that atheists, homosexuals, feminists, immigrants are out to destroy Christianity (for Islam, the groups may be a tad bit different as per geographic area,), fundamentalists believe that if they unquestionably believe in things, Christianity will be preserved. Just like with the tornado myth, if we unquestionably believe that tornadoes cannot affect a certain area; we can will our minds to believe it’s true. Before World War II, the Germans believed that if they slowly accepted that if certain unwanted ideological or cultural groups  did not somehow exist any longer, the state and honor of Germany (or Europe, as a whole) could be preserved. For communists, they believed that if they ideologically purged themselves of libertarian, capitalistic ideals, their supposed perfect Utopian state could be preserved.

We are living in the shadows of wars and chaos spurned by techniques of extreme group thinking that led us astray from granting us security. But, with social media and the emerging attitudes of unswerving devotion to a certain opinion, or ideology, have we really learned from World War 1/2, or the Cold War, or the Cultural Revolution of China? Or, is part of our new group-think techniques to somehow imaginatively believe that we are safeguarded from war and are of course not as dumb as the Germans, Russians,or citizens of China during particular trying times.

Our social media may ostensibly appear to be democratic, but in many ways it is a false sense of democracy, and we are vulnerable, more than ever, to group thinking taken to it’s ethical extreme. Most  group-thinking can be innocuous, and may even help compel people for ethical good, as long as it is guided by an acceptance and appreciation of democratic ideals With more economic turmoil in recent years, the neuroses of group-thinking are emerging more than ever. Remember, group thinking is not necessarily a conservative ideal (a particular myth perpetuated by liberal thought),or a liberal ideal (a particular myth perpetuated by conservatives). Part of the rhetoric tools of this group-thinking is to call the other group “sheep,” even though we are all sheep in a subjective sense. We are living in the wreckage of two world wars and a cold war, where we still have no clear sense of how to make peace with the paradox of different opinions, or Einstein’s theory of subjectivity.

The rise of the new group-think is more fragmented and fueled by separatist notions.  Again, many of these new group-think groups are well-intentioned, and they accept some degree of diversity of opinion. But, the rise of separatist attitudes  online has been a cause for concern, for me. On Facebook,Twitter, and Tumblr, we have the innocent tool of “liking” things and “favoriting” things. Again, these tools in themselves are harmless, but the way Facebook now organized the most-liked comments first are a cause for concern, as this tends to organize comments not by quality (completely subjective), but whether or not they are preferred by the group of people on a particular Facebook page. Facebook rewards you, in a sense, for conditioning your opinions to be favored by a certain ideological group. Again, this is completely harmless for most people. But when it is taken to its extreme, it can be dangerous.

On the internet, we have seen a rise of “lynch mobs,” fueled by a certain collective sense of righteous, sanctimonious anger towards a certain ideologically impure comment, made by someone. As evidenced by the Paula Deen incident last year, companies and people vindictively sought to outright destroy everything about her career. They didn’t want her to apologize, and no one wanted to seize the opportunity for constructive dialogue about racism (as part of the ideal of Socratic dialogue/effective democratic dialogue). People seethed, and wanted nothing but destruction of her.

Right now, our political sphere is a polarized mess. We have conservatives and liberals branding each other in superlative ways about how deeply corrupt the other group is (objectively, neither group is evil). This the same type of dialogue that takes place among progressive religious groups and fundamentalist religious groups. The added dangerous element for fundamentalist groups is that they metaphorically seen the ideologically impure group as irredeemably evil (much like the Nazis viewed the Jews/ other groups), and worthy of unrepentant torture. It is very ironic that the Nazis used hellish forms of torture, as if metaphorically acting out the various forms of torture in hell, as described in the Bible by Jesus (about various unsavory, irredeemably evil groups).

Many people saw what Paula Dee did (a mere faux-pas in a highly stressful situation) as irredeemably evil. Once, we devalue someone to the impossible rank of being irredeemably evil, that adds an extra-slick edge to the moral slide of taking out righteous vengeance on that person. Yes, harming a person’s career is nowhere near as egregious as what the Nazis or Stalinists committed.but the fact that the process of group thinking being taken to its degree of taking out vengeance in some form took place, is cause for this discussion. We are at a point, in history, where economic turmoil could exacerbate a deadly incident of this kind of righteous violence being committed  by one ideological group against an ideologically impure enemy.

We live in a social culture of peer-pressure, and that is something that cannot ever be eradicated. We really just have to accept group-thinking as an intrinsic part of our social culture. I will reiterate this point (because arguments can be hard to cover all bases), not all group-thinking is bad, when well-intentioned, non-vengeful, and respectful of diversity of constructively articulated opinions. I am a huge fan of harmless snark, satire, criticism, as long as it qualifies for the attributes above. These things need to be substantive, and admire the democratic nature of the entertainment world.

I do fear, though, that we are building the tools to make dangerous group-thinking become a nightmarish reality. Fundamentalism is still teaching Christians to never doubt, never question, and never imagine. In public schools, we often purge our curriculum of any type of information that incites critical thinking, and instead encourage silent, unquestioned acceptance of certain popular theories. Within our literature courses in public schools, we often focus on reading comprehension in terms of memorizing character names and other linear elements to distract our minds from thinking too much about the paradoxes, subtext, and inconsistencies within written text. The same action occurs in churches that rely on sermons over discussion groups, or verse memorization for younger children; all of it is fueled by a group-think desire to implicitly force kids to accept certain things without question.

Again, religious groups are not exempt from this. Ideological groups are often shaped this way too. The irony of the way some atheists act mirrors their Christian brothers and sisters in an uncanny fashion. Some atheists raise their children to remove all signs of religion from their lives, or even teach them the reasons why religion can be a source of good for some people. Instead, these types of extreme atheists force the theory of evolution to become not just a theory of science, but a form of dogmatic theology that implies one must be atheist to be  a scientist. Or, the other variation that demands all people that think scientifically must somehow be atheistic, when there are many Christians that accept the theory of evolution and are very earnest, adept scientists. As a agnostic-atheist (somewhere in between), I have had the same temptations to accept the popular group-think creeds that exist for atheists, but I have slowly tried to move away from group-think tendencies that see and recognize any adherent of a slightly different opinion as irredeemably evil. Mocking religion is indeed a lot of fun, when you’re feeling extremely vengeful towards your former past as a adherent to religion, until you remember that you’re falling into the psychological trap of group-thinking. I have fallen so much into this  trap, as a staunch fundamentalist, a staunch liberal, a staunch feminist,a staunch atheist, at some point in my life.  That is why discussing this whole topic feels strange because you are acutely aware that you are just as vulnerable, yourself, to joining a lynch mob, seeing another ideologically impure group as irredeemably evil, or even becoming a Nazi (if you were born in Nazi Germany, and were not Jewish. If we are to be ethical individuals, we must accept these things without too much guilt or torment; we must see them as natural to our make-up as a human being, but we must also accept the gift of agency and sound-mindedness.

I had a well-respected English professor, who told me that she believed in the Victorian idea of being a disinterested observer, when we are encountering a foreign idea. I know many wonderful, intelligent Christians that hold this idea, along with believing in the dignity and worth of all human beings (egalitarian values), and our agency. Many Christians I know hold what many of my atheist/agnostic peers called humanist values, though they are really enlightenment values held by deists or pantheists. These are values that are inherent in our country’s constitution, and they are things we need to possibly uphold more, not as members of a particular ideological group, but as members of the human race. We must learn to read other people’s opinions without engaging in vengeful attacks against them. We must stop only reading stuff that has the highest statistics of “likes” on Facebook. We must learn to stop seeing arguments over issues with people, as occasions to somehow shut that person out and  separate ourselves from them (if they are being belligerent and abusive, though, that is a much different occasion). We must accept doubt, mystery, imagination, and paradox as beautiful things, rather than a source of destruction to our beloved fragile sense of security.  It is normal to feel offended, but we must learn to discern past that fleeting sense of feeling offended, and accept that not everyone will agree or concur with our opinion: this strange tendency to want everyone to agree unerringly with you is a symptom of  hubris.

     With our insipid job search culture (looking for certain prime subjects that are tritely eligible), news channels with shouting and talking heads egotistically declaiming their dogmatic opinions, our own Facebook arguments with spiteful anger (I am guilty of all this!), we must learn to keep a cool, reasoned head. We cannot let ourselves sink into the morass of a Brave New World society, structured on homogeneity in opinion and pleasure and a love only of inanity with our opinions.   Next time, you offer an opinion or review (this applies to me, even more-so than others), learn to critically read it over, as someone with a separate opinion: How can you shape your reviews or arguments to encourage constructive deviations from your held stance? With the new politically-correct culture and internet comment wars (absent of any constructive writing), I sometimes fear that we are very well on the brink of becoming a Brave New World society. When I am on Huffington Post and the  headline itself subjectively asserts a politically-correct, ideologically pure opinion, I lament the loss of more objective news-writing, and wonder if we are digging ourselves into a hole, where we no longer know how to fact-check, think for ourselves, and analyze issues closely.

 Psychologically, none of us, especially myself, can entirely help indulge in group-think egotism, it makes us feel safe, and we get an instant ego-lift by people favoring our comments on news-sites and Facebook. Bad opinions or seriously critical opinions might not get “likes,” and we won’t know how to function at that point. Our linear, inane cover letters for jobs may never get responses, and culturally we are told that we need to somehow change our comportment and conform our opinions thoughtlessly. We are in the midst of a culture that is adapting to new forms of technology, and we need to learn not to let our worst psychological vices enslave us in the mire of never thinking outside the box. We cannot let other people make us destructively change our appearance, personality, and opinions, due to the demands of a culture that vies for complacency and a false sense of temporary security. We need to learn how to respect ourselves, our bodies, and our sense of personal well-being.  If we forfeit these things, we are no longer human.

Questions to consider:

What is your opinion on the new group-think culture? Is there a way that we still compromise, without interfering with our cherished democratic freedoms?    What do you think about such notions, as “age fallacy,” and the “hindsight fallacy?” Are these fallacies thinks you were/are aware of, and would actively seek finding some way of overcoming them?


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