Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Mob mentality

  • J.M. Sorrell FILE PHOTO

Published: 9/5/2023 4:59:59 PM

It can be exhausting to engage in critical thinking and to listen to and learn from others who challenge your world view or your plans for activist work; however, without it, growth is stunted and opportunities are lost. People in identity groups who simply reinforce positions may risk morphing into herd/mob mentality. Social psychologists define groupthink as deindividuation with components such as losing self-awareness, the acceptability of behavior usually seen as unacceptable, and the diffusion of responsibility rather than taking personal responsibility.

At its most dangerous, a person may lose her/his principles because adherence to a common identity is so primary and hyperbolic propaganda accelerates behavior and action. It can happen on any end of the sociopolitical spectrum. Primary movers count on mob mentality for obedience and loyalty without question. A particularly effective tool is to convince herd members that they are morally virtuous and that the “others” are doing evil or causing harm.

The average German and residents of conquered countries may not have participated in the Holocaust en masse if they did not believe they were stomping out evil. When they turned on their neighbors and friends, it was because they came to believe that Jews, Communists, gay men and lesbians, progressive artists and intellectuals and many others were morally corrupt and dangerous to their way of life.

Most of the Capitol rioters on January 6, 2021 believed they were patriots rather than treasonous traitors. With time and more complete information, some of them now understand they were engaged in a violent insurrection as an exploitative tool of the person who lost the presidential election. Others are sticking to their stories to save face.

When a movement or cause is met with humility and a willingness to engage in productive dialogue yet the righteous mob is more wedded to the black and white of being correct where perpetrators and victims have fixed identities, an opportunity to reassess and recognize each person’s humanity is lost. Victim consciousness shuts down the conversation whereas individual responsibility, experiences and thoughts open the dialogue.

Mobs can be small or large in their common identity. It scares me to think that men from seemingly average or normal lives are capable of gang rape if the circumstances line up where a woman is rendered weak and unable to seek help. Men egg each other on, and some warped code of masculinity demands participation in the horror. How could they dehumanize a woman in this situation while professing to love their wives and daughters? This is where the acceptability of behavior usually seen as unacceptable occurs.

In groups, most people are more concerned about getting cast aside than stepping up to prevent harm or to speak from their conscience. Group members get lost in the rhetoric and party line, and they reward each other for adherence to spoken and implicit instructions.

Powerful institutions effectively shut down dissent until a whistleblower or a few brave people speak out to expose injustice. The Catholic church got away with covering up large scale child sexual abuse for decades since the flock was expected to be obedient to its authority. Same with the Boy Scouts. In both of these cases, the institutions had the audacity to project gay men as dangerous and incapable of leading young people while their purported heterosexual men of moral character abused children. Bait and switch.

When are groups affirming and productive rather than thoughtless and destructive? When they allow for dissent and varying perspectives with the absence of arrogance and an unmovable stance. Groups are beneficial when they recognize the humanity in people outside the group. An immature and potentially dangerous group does not accept ambiguity, grey areas and self-examination for their own harm doing. When hearts stay open with humility and empathy, connections are made. When a castigatory ethos is primary to the group, the potential for bridge building is greatly diminished.

A totalitarian modus operandi is not limited to the obvious culprits such at Hitler, Mussolini or Pinochet. Each of us is capable of descending into mob mentality just as each of us is responsible to think and act as an individual with integrity. If one is unwilling to risk the loss of group membership, one is not in a healthy group.

I have been particularly inspired by the words and actions of Frederick Douglass, AudreLorde, James Baldwin and Gloria Steinem throughout my adult life. The most important and consistently relevant philosophy for me comes from Douglass: “I prefer to be true to myself even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and to incur my own abhorrence.” If your own moral compass is damaged by group identity, it’s time to do something different.

J.M. Sorrell is a feminist at her core. She believes in justice and equity with an open heart.


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