Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against Groupthink


Today I’m struggling with an age old moral quandary. When does support become a bad thing? Where is the line that separates support from enabling? At what point does faithfully supporting your community turn into irrationally circling the wagons?

It seems that our community spirit is a double edged sword. Our ability to stand together and support one another has throughout human history been the source of our greatest and most noble as well as our dumbest, most irrational actions. The fact that humans started working and living together in tribes made us strong against all obstacles yet to this day this tribal mindset of ours leads to constant fighting and even bloodshed. It is as if the same thing that makes us form strong communities and families also leads to the “us versus them” mindset that makes us do and say the most obviously imbecilic things. Which brings me to the topic of groupthink.

According to Wikipedia: “Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group. ” That in itself is pretty dangerous. Still, it does make sense in a way. After all, in order for a group to function as a cohesive unit, every individual whim can’t be catered for. It’s not ideal and it’s not always for the best but it does make sense. For a group to work effectively one course of action has to be settled for and for that to happen not everyone will get to have their way – otherwise it would be like trying to herd cats!


In this sense, groupthink is a less than ideal situation and can lead to some problems. I for one am not a fan of groupthink in this sense. It causes people to stay inside the group comfort zone and this in turns hampers progress because new – and possibly better – avenues of thought are left unexplored. However, thanks to the information age and the popularity of online discussion forums, there is another type of groupthink on the rise that I find far more disturbing than the more traditional kind.

My friend Lawrence and I were discussing this phenomenon a while back (He wrote a very good blog post on logical fallacies where he very graciously credited me with working out this secondary definition but I feel it's only fair that I share the credit for this. Please go check out his blog. ) During time spent on various discussion boards, we found that very often one member of a group would say something that we knew the rest of the group disagrees with very much but not only would they keep quiet, they would actually step up and defend this member and his opinion when someone belonging to another "group" criticized it. I think it is also fair to call this groupthink – when an ally and his viewpoints are defended simply because he is a member of your own group and even when said ally is obviously wrong . This type of groupthink absolutely destroys any moral high ground the group could have claimed and undermines the credibility of the entire group.

I ran into a particularly ugly example of this yesterday on a Facebook group discussing evolution and creationism. One of the more vocal creationists came out as a holocaust denier. No, calling him a holocaust denier is putting it too kindly. His exact words were: “lol!! haha ,sorry but I dont believe in the holocaust” (seriously, how much of a douchebag do you have to be to even type a sentence like that?!) He then went on for several pages telling people – some who actually lost grandparents in the death camps – that the holocaust was a big lie and was basically just a propaganda trick by the Jews, English and Americans to vilify the good Christian people of Germany. Now up to this point, things were pretty bad. It got a whole lot worse when some of the other creationists on the board – who never let the opportunity pass to blame Hitler and the holocaust on Darwin – actually defended this guy! Not one but several suggested that maybe he was just being misunderstood, that he probably didn’t doubt the holocaust but most likely simply had some questions about some of the numbers given. (This was not the case at all, something he made crystal clear when he quoted Tom Blair saying: “Do I "deny the Holocaust"? No! No indeed. I hope the holocaust is not denied and never forgotten. I hope the holocaust is remembered as the greatest propaganda effort and hate campaign ever waged against a civilized people”) This kind of behavior leaves me at a loss for words.


Now as Gumby pointed out in his blog on the similarities between Creationists and other conspiracy theorists, this kind of behavior is common to a lot of groups. However it disturbs me a lot more when it happens among Christians. Christians already have a very bad reputation for unchristian behavior on Internet discussion forums. When a Christian in a public forum makes statements that are cruel, ignorant, bigoted or arrogant the image of Christianity becomes slightly more tainted in the eyes of non-Christians. When other Christians refuse to speak up against those statements (in effect giving their silent approval) the damage is increased a hundred fold. The simple act of not speaking up speaks volumes to those outside of the faith, confirming every negative stereotype they already have concerning Christianity and Christians. How much more damage then is done when other Christians actually defend the people making such statements?

So what are we to do? I certainly do not think we should swing the pendulum to the other side and start constantly berating each other in public over every single disagreement. Surely though, some things are just so wrong that staying silent for the sake of unity is not an option. Some have suggested rather approaching people in private instead of airing dirty laundry in public. Certainly that is proper and Biblical even but I do believe that in some cases more is needed. Especially in severe cases where a lot of damage is done in public, the problem needs to be addressed in public. After all, everyone saw the offense, but they will see nothing of the private reprimand, so then what is the actual difference between addressing the matter privately and doing nothing at all? I believe there is a line that can be crossed where addressing a wrong becomes more important than maintaining unity (and I think the Apostle Paul would agree with me on this...) It was for this reason I started the "The Christian I am not" series on this blog - there are some things done in the name of Christ that I feel I need to distance myself from publicly lest I am seen as actually agreeing with it and/or supporting it.

If anyone has any thoughts on the subject I would love to hear it. How far should support go? Surely we should be willing to cut others some slack, but up to what point? Does anyone have a clear guideline or does everyone just tend to play this one by ear? Where does protecting Christian unity end and standing up for what you believe is true and right begin?

8 comments:

TPluckyT said...

I haven't read this yet but for some reason Tiffany/Sue said I should let you know that I will read it at some future point.

I've just been really busy and I like to take the time to absorb/digest what you have to say . . .

Just saying . . .

TPluckyT said...

I love the herding cats video . . . .

Thought-provoking post . . . My first inclination would be to say that it could be counterproductive to try and quantify "groupthink" if it is used in an attempt to apply the guidelines to every situation . . . That in and of itself could create yet another "groupthink" . . . "If you don't follow our groupthink rules you're out!"

However, surely there are characteristics or perhaps "results" of groupthink that could prove useful in identifying when it is taking place and allowing one to avoid it or minimize its damage . . .

I guess for me it falls under the category "if it looks, tastes, smells and walks like groupthink, then it is probably groupthink . . . And I know it when I see it . . .

Yet am I capable of seeing it within myself? hmmmm . . . Perhaps I should surround myself with a group of likeminded people to hold me accountable and keep me from falling into a groupthink mindset . . .

GumbyTheCat said...

I see fundamentalist Christian group-thinking all over the place. Haven't seen a specific Holocaust-denying example of it yet but I'm not surprised. Fundie Christians will defend their own no matter how un-Christian the offense is. As a matter of fact, my main mission on Topix is to roundly berate and criticize this abhorrent practice, because it's important to me to point out that all Christians do not think alike, and should call out their brothers for anti-Christian foolishness.

Of course, I am immediately labeled an atheist for daring to shine a light on their reprehensible behavior. I've had many a fellow Christian tell me to rot in hell for daring to stand up to them. The cool thing is, most moderate Christians, agnostics and atheists give me their wholehearted support. I know I'm on the right track when I have the respect of atheists (even though they think my faith is unwarranted). It tells me they appreciate my open-mindedness, which they don't see a lot of in Christians.

Fundies do not care about Christianity in general. They only care about being in that exclusive little club they call Christianity. To them, people of different faiths, or nonbelievers, are not to be looked upon as fellow human beings, worthy of compassion. No, to the fundies, these non-Christians serve one purpose - to serve as something to point at, laugh, mock, ridicule and condemn.

If Christianity ever disappears from the face of the Earth, it will be because of the atrocious actions of its self-proclaimed most faithful servants.

I don't care for PZ Myers' (Pharyngula blog) brand of militant "death to all religion" atheism, but I can certainly understand why he went that path. Fundies represent not only the worst of religion, but the worst of humanity.

RandomSue said...

Eugene - Very good post. Very thought provoking. This has been a problem through out the history of Christianitiy and it is dangerous! Too many destructive and things are done every single day in this world in the name of Christianity.

I believe that this groupthing attitude that is so prevalent in the church at large has one of two symptoms. Either you turn into a total ass clown that believes your purpose in life is to run about loudly proclaiming the views of the group as the one and only truth that exists OR you turn into a queit sheep that has no idea why you believe what you believe but the group says so and that is good enough for you. Just don't ever ask one of these sheep to give any further explanation.

There are many destructive things that occur in this world every single day in the name of Christianity. Groupthink is dangerous and counterproductive to the what Jesus tells us to be about.

As far as calling said ass clowns on the carpet, I believe that if you choose to spout your opinions publicly, you should be willing to be called to accountability publicly.

Just reading this post gives me hope that change can happen in this area. It needs to be discussed. It needs to be identified. It needs to be brought out into the light.

Tania said...

Very good post. I agree that groupthink is more often than not less than ideal. Consider, for example, how mobs become mindless savages, where as individuals they would not generally act aggressively. I read somewhere (sorry can't remember where) that young men who are normally quite sedate can turn into violent rapists in a group scenario. This of course brings up the issue of peer pressure, which I believe also plays a role, and not just among teens.

digapigmy said...

I've been trying to think of how to comment thoughtfully on this, but i was waiting to see what my friends said . . .

nice post eugene. i'm not sure there is an easy formula for when living by your ideals/beliefs becomes illogical and dangerous groupthink. that's probably why so many can go there eventually. we like easy answers . . .

my word verification is spather. it seems fitting somehow

RandomSue said...

Brent - you are too funny!

Murdoc said...

We talked about groupthink quite a bit in my upper division college courses. Yes, I went to college...& graduated with a 'real' degree. Groupthink was never talked about in a positive light, but more counterproductive, anti-creative, & lazy. How much "big business" in america is suffering the effects of groupthink right now? Probably more than I'd guess. Bring this into the church. Wow. Damaging to say the least. It's a creativity killer & also teaches people to shut their mouths & go with the flow, which may explain most of the morons that you've encountered on blogs, chatrooms, at church, etc... Having your own opinion or disagreeing with the boss/executive team/whoever, may put you into a uncomfortable position. I think the definition of unity that people tend to use in the church may be a bit flawed. What is unity anyway, besides being the word on my nephews football shirt?