Philosophy Weekend: Delusions of the Group Mind

When I write about the concept of the group mind, I’m often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn’t need an advocate.

The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives — whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not.  We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives.  We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.

In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous “Neighborhood Watch” volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans.  The first shock is the injustice of the crime — a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.

But George Zimmerman’s crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the “group mind” are all over this case.  Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community’s “Neighborhood Watch” program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger.  When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision.  What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city. 

This is a familiar pattern in the annals of human atrocity.  The worst things we do to each other tend to be done by groups, for groups. Am I an advocate for collectivism?  Ha!  Most of the human crimes I spend my time speaking out against — war, racism, economic exploitation — are not crimes committed by individuals against individuals but by collectives, for collectives, against collectives. When George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin, he was shooting a person he didn’t know. The bullet was intended, in the words of an old bar-brawler insult, “for you and everyone who looks like you”.

Could I ever be an advocate for collectivism?  No, but I am an advocate for a broader understanding of collectivism, because the only way to mitigate the awesome power of groupthink in our lives is to understand it more clearly. This is why I have been writing about this topic so persistently in these weekend philosophy posts — I can’t think of any important feature of human life that is so poorly understood by all of us as our instinct to constantly think about groups, within groups, for the sake of groups — all the while denying that we do so.

Between the headlines from Sanford, Florida and the even worse news of a slaughter of 17 Afghani civilians by an American soldier — “for you, and everyone who looks like you” — it’s been a rough week in the news. But there’s another, smaller story making the rounds, the most wonderful and beautiful story I’ve heard in a while. As clueless politicians and pundits debate the “benefits” of a US or Israeli military strike against Iran to prevent the future deployment of weapons of mass destruction, a small group of Israeli and Iranian citizens have been exchanging public messages on Facebook, declaring from Israel that “we love Iran” and “we will never bomb your country” and, from Iran, “we do not want a nuclear bomb” and “Israel, we love you too”.

What a brave and pure message! Who had the courage to begin this phenomenon? To hear the word “love” in this context is so jarring, so unexpected … and yet it must be a basic fact of life that we all do love each other, at least a tiny little bit. If groupthink and the group mind leave us with bitter historical memories and lots of bad karma, it also gives us this common ground: we are human beings together, and we recognize each other as such. These friendly Facebook messages are being shared between people who don’t know each other, who will almost surely never meet, who only wish to be allowed not to hate and kill each other. “For you, and everyone who looks like you”. There’s still lots of hope in our screwed-up world.

5 Responses

  1. Most of the publicity about
    Most of the publicity about this case comes from a media left with nothing to draw viewer attention now that Casey Anthony has disappeared from their cameras. I have lived near Sanford for 30 years. What was reported the first day and what was sunsequently reported has shifted as the media blew this incident up. George Zimmerman is not white, he is hispanic, and his friends and family are reticent to speak out for him. The black community does not have the same self-control. The media will interview anyone who is black, regardless of whether they live in Sanford, know Trayvon, or were actually present at the scene.

    George Zimmerman ended in the hospital due to the beating he received prior to the shooting. This is usually a good platform for self-defense. Durting the 911 call played he is the one calling for help, not Trayvon. A ‘skittle’ does not cause a grown man to cry for help, not does it put him into the hospital.

    Most of the neighbors who were present that night the shooting occurred said the same thing as George. – the area had been burglarized a number of times by black youths; these statements came from both black and hispanic neighbors. most of them said, at the beginning, they were glad people like George were patrolling the streets. By now, the facts of the case have been so distorted by the media that many of those first interviewed do not know what they said and are making contrdictory statements on the air, often on the same night to dofferent stations.

    Perhaps this is due to the socialization that you spoke of – it certainly exists in all of us. I do blieve, however, that in this particular case, as in that of Casey Anthony, the media is mostly to blame for fanning the fire. they are encouraging ‘racism’ in the people they interview and are broadcasting those interviews that play this up. The media could stop now, but they want viewers, not truth.

  2. I appreciate the broad point
    I appreciate the broad point you’re making, Levi, and I’m excited to see you reboot this series. In the Martin case, if it is what it looks like, we have exactly the problem that individualists try (and fail) to solve with their disavowal of group action. We need to come up with better solutions to the question than the soul-twisting and ultimately unsatisfying answers we’ve got from individualists so far.

    Also: is there an “Americans love Iran” page?

    As for Joann, if you’re right, boy are you right. The problem for the majority of us is that for whatever reason, that story hasn’t really gotten out. I’ve heard what you stated, but it’s been drowned out, and so we have to judge by what we hear, tempered by a healthy skepticism of the media (based on the profit instinct that you cite.)

    On the other hand, it seems like a good investigation of the event and a clear statement by the chief of police would go a long way to setting the facts straight–releasing Zimmerman’s hospital report, etc. The State of Florida has begun such an investigation, and I for one am eagerly waiting for the results before I can let loose with my full indignation.

    As it is, I think it is wise to offer enough outrage to join with the now very loud groupthink in its pursuit of a real fact-finding mission. The trouble is once we get this sort of thing going, it’s hard to slow it back down–a dilemma that might be worth exploring, Levi…

  3. Having experienced war on
    Having experienced war on several fronts over several years, no one who truly fights wants war or doesn’t wish for peace. As for the idea of collectives, it’s interesting food for thought. However, I can’t get past the comment regarding the Staff Sergeant (NOT an officer, btw, not that it matters, but words have meaning, right?). I hope it’s not being used as an example of military wholesale slaughtering of individuals or those that look like those individuals… It’s a disturbed individual who needs to be held accountable for his actions. I can relate firsthand multiple instances of restraint by Marines that the enemy had no problems exploiting and not showing towards ISAF, let alone the abuse of their native peoples. Try consoling a local policeman whose 8 yr old son was strangled in front of him for not cooperating with islamists. Never mind the Muslim Major, while here in the US, shot just as many people and has yet to be tried. This SSgt’s blood has already been called for. Lets discuss the groupthink of apologists, namely a lot of leftist thinkers, who seem to justify this oppression of the right and overlooking a lot of issues in the name of some sort of greater good. While I wish the world truly changed based off of warm feelings and facebook messaging, the election b.s from 2009 should prove that the regime in Iran cares not for the hopes and dreams of well wishers. These types only respond to power, for good or bad, it is what it is, and we’ll see what happens. Do I wish for the people to stand up to the theocracy? Absolutely. Not looking for the trifecta of invasion ribbons, believe me. But as my optimism waned with each tank that rolled into Tieneman square, I won’t keep my hopes up for Iran and hope that if free peoples move in, militarily or whatever, that it will be done in a better way than the last few places I’ve been…

  4. AJ, thanks for the correction
    AJ, thanks for the correction about “not an officer”, fixing that now.

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