Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mob Rule, Part 3

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The mob mentality – it is dangerous to both our personal character and to society at large. If we subordinate our actions to the beliefs and decisions of a group we become less human, less than we should be. We also endanger others and risk passing along false or bigoted beliefs to our families. This is a problem that has plagued society throughout history and it shows no sign of going away on its own. If it is to be eliminated we must take action against it.

How do we recognize the problem so we can deal with it? Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the mob mentality is that we can so easily participate in it without realizing it. Indeed, the essence of a mob mind-set is not thinking about what we are doing, a severe form of groupthink.

How then can we stop this nonsense? How to eradicate or at least reduce the mob mentality in our society? It won't be easy but there are ways to do it, and it starts with each of us. We must look at our own lives and thinking patterns before we can presume to tell others how to correct their own mind-sets. A recipe for starting to do this is:

First, self-awareness. We must learn to ask ourselves if we really believe what we say in public, or are we just putting up a front? Are we just “going along to get along?” This self-examination is probably the hardest part. Ideally we will learn to examine ourselves in the heat of a group consensus. However even thinking about it afterwards is helpful, that can be a step towards clear thinking in the face of inappropriate group consensus.

Second, if we find that we are showing signs of a mob mind-set, we can attack the causes directly. If we are deindividuating ourselves we can stop and think of ourselves as individuals. I could say to myself, “Hal, you are a person, an individual with a brain and integrity of your own. Why don't you act like it? Who will you see in the mirror tonight, a real person who acted like a man or someone who gave up his personhood to others?”

Third, we can also look at the “enemy” as individual human beings, not part of an amorphous group. I can think that each person who opposes me is a human with a face, with human desires and needs. Those people may enjoy the same sports I enjoy, watch the same sunset I watch, and in many other ways be the type of people I might enjoy knowing. The fact that we have different colored skin or disagree on politics, religion, or other things is really only a small part of who we are. If I can call those people by name that will help even more. It can be easy to hate someone for the disagreements we have or the color of their skin. It is more difficult to hate Bill Smith who likes football and barbecues, but happens to disagree with me in one area.

By such measures we can reduce our own susceptibility to mob mentality. That is an important beginning. What next? How do we help and encourage others to do the same? The first step is to have the courage to speak up. Frequently a group will refrain from anti-social action if only one person points out the problems. That should not be surprising since most members of a mob are indulging in groupthink. They believe everyone else agrees with the group. One person speaking out can destroy that fallacy and they may all wake up to the reality of what they are doing.

However there are cases in which one person opposing is not enough. I doubt a Ku Klux Klan cross burning would stop just because one person spoke out. However even then there are measures that can be effective. The first is to reverse the deindividuation, essentially re-individuate some of the mob members. If possible call them by name and mention something in their lives that calls them back to their humanity. In the book To Kill a Mockingbird Scout does this by calling Mr. Cunningham by name, then apologizing for the fight she had with his son. Suddenly that man must recognize himself as an individual. He can no longer put aside his own personhood.*

Though a work of fiction, I believe that is an example of how a person can be reminded that he is not simply part of an amorphous group, he is a human being. I suspect that even a KKK member, if he can be identified by name, would respond to such an approach. His anonymity would be removed and he would be forced back into the world of individual persons.

OK, I know I've given my readers (if I still have any) a tall order. However nothing worthwhile is likely to be easy so I challenge you to do your part by first examining yourself, then by having the courage to speak out when a group is going off into the mob mentality. It may not be easy but I promise that it will be worth it.

*I thank the author of the Wikipedia article on “Deindividuation” for reminding me of that episode in the book.

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