Sunday, January 3, 2016

Desire and groupthink

Let’s start with King Louis from Disney’s Jungle Book singing “You know, it’s true, oo, oo … I wanna be like you, oo, oo”. Or perhaps we might start, as we find in this Cyanide and Happiness short animation, by observing someone looking at something someone else has and then “deciding” to want that same thing for himself.  Desire, despite what we want to think, is not self-generated or spontaneous. It functions like a contagion — an infection, a virus, plague or zombie apocalypse. Despite these pejorative terms, though, desire isn’t always negative: the contagion can be joy or catharsis, or any number of good things too. The simpler (or more simpleminded) we are, though, the more spontaneous a desire will seem.
MBW-WarholDesire is always mediated through the other. So, the answer to the question of what we want is usually quite simple: We want what someone else wants. For example, “when a painter wants to become famous for his art he tries to imitate the originals of the best masters he knows” (Don Quixote, quoted on page one of René Girard’s Deceit, desire and the novel: Self and other in literary structure). This is absolutely beautifully captured in the hilarious mockumentary by Banksy, which demonstrates the absurdity of an art world obsessed with copying and pasting meaningless repetitions in order to be “original”. The image here of Andy Marilyn Warhol by the simulacrum called Mister BrainWash only goes to show that fame itself is parasitic upon mimetic desire. Even the leaders are the followers, as I’ve noted elsewhere.
So, yes, desire is always second hand, copied, borrowed. At its best, this second-hand desiring is a great way to ensure that we have free will: we get to pick and choose whose desires we want to borrow. At its worst, second hand desire is the desire of the crowd, the totality or even the totalitarian regime: we forget that we have a choice in the matter of what desires we end up borrowing. Proximity to the next or nearest mediated desire plays a big role here. We will tend to adopt desires simply because they happen to be the desires that we’re currently paying attention to. Thus, attention (cf. Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch) becomes a vital component of the way that desire is ordered.
Sometimes we choose whose desires we’ll borrow. Most of the time, we tend to be oblivious to our own choices, thrown about by various winds of doctrine, dogma and fashion. Even when people speak of “going with the flow” (forgive this appaling retro-speak), they’re essentially saying “Do what I do. Copy me”. Everyone is in the copying and pasting business. Your life in a formula reads as follows: Ctrl/Cmd + C; Ctrl/Cmd + V. You’re special, just like everyone else. I actually find it funny and rather provocatively symbolic that “control/command” precede the action of copying and pasting on a computer — our perception is that we are always entirely in control. The reality is different. Without going into the complexities of the various studies done on mirror neurons, which form the scientific description of this theory, I’d like to paint a picture of how this borrowing of desire might happen:
  1. First, Person A notices that Person B derives some experience (pleasure, joy, smugness, a sense of power, or any other appealing experience) from Object X;
  2. Second, if Person B resonates with Person A’s response to the experience — via empathy or envy or some other connective human impulse — then Person A will unconsciously/consciously reverse-engineer the experience to its origin and thus find/ create a connection between Person B’s experience and Person B’s desire for Object X;
  3. Three obvious things tend to become desirable: (1) The experience of Person B and (2) the Object (in this case, Object X) that seems to produce this desire and, most importantly, (3) the desire itself. This third desirable thing (the desire), however, becomes the one thing we tend to forget.
  4. In more confused cases, a forth thing might become desirable, namely Person B him/herself. This is, obviously, a logical faux pas, where “I wanna be like you, oo, oo” becomes “I want to possess you, oo, oo”. But, as I’ve already intimated, logic isn’t really ruling the roost here.
This formulation above may seem very technical and as a consequence might be somewhat misleading because this process isn’t usually rational or conscious (although, this doesn’t mean that it’s automatically irrational either — perhaps it is nonrational). Nevertheless, understanding the process helps us to understand, or at least describe, how this desire-according-to-the-other brings about the social order as we know and love/hate it. It also helps to highlight again the fact that a human being is not just a res cogitans, but is primarily a relational being — never isolated even when alone. The social other always precedes the self. And, because of this mimetic desire, we might understand how gatherings of various kinds happen. It even explains the formation of communities: people, when sharing desires, tend to bond. Birds of a feather flock together.
There are wonderful things about feeling like you’re part of a community, of course, but I want to just briefly look at flip-side, which is the phenomenon that we call groupthink. It’s a very worrying condition that also happens to be very difficult to overcome. Mimetic desire, after all, means that group cohesion tends to be valued above most other things, including reason, morality and truth. People generally would rather belong than be right. I know that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for groups to think alike. It is, for example, very good that most people think that murder is wrong and should be punished. What is bad, in my view at least, is when thinking itself is made taboo. The rule of groupthink is simple: ‘think’ like everyone else or you’re out. I’ve seen this happen so often that’s it’s almost comical now. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. For your further edification, here are some rules that tend to guide groupthink.
  • Collective rationalization: Everyone does their best to explain away views that don’t seem to comply with their own. No one challenges their assumptions. To keep the sense of belonging in tact, no one ventures too far from home. This sort of thing is evident in religious and irreligious groups alike. Even the New Atheism has become a movement, perhaps even a religion. It’s far easier to assure yourself of your ideology when others are helping you on your way. Let all non-conformists unite!
  • Decreased moral sensitivity: Members of the group believe, without a doubt, in their own rightness. They therefore ignore the larger moral consequences of their own decisions. This, sadly, sets up the possibility of being thoroughly cruel to minority groups in the name of what is right. Blaise Pascal noted that “We never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience”. Historically speaking, Christians, who supposedly subscribe to what Nietzsche regarded as a religion for the weak, often step outside of their own religious ethic of looking after the outcasts, strangers, widows, orphans, and so on for the sake of group cohesion. Belief and morality, it seems, often fall prey to groupthink.
  • Stereotyping: Outsiders are named and shamed. The other is reduced to a cardboard cutout. The idea is that it’s much easier to destroy someone who is not remotely like you. Everything is then done to convince the self that the other is indeed entirely other. You can observe this easily in most political debates. The “enemy” is always made out to be two-dimensional, whereas the friend is always pictured as being wonderfully complex in her multi-dimensionality
  • Peer pressure: This is obvious and somewhat implicit in the other characteristics. Pressure is put on those who would dare dissent not to dissent. This pressure is usually unspoken, but it is real nonetheless. You’d think that this characteristic would only be true of kids, but it’s horrendously true of almost any group of people you come across.
  • Self-censorship: Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not uttered or exposed. Individuals will feel that their own doubts are unreasonable, so they soon shove their own doubts aside. Groupthink proliferates taboos.
  • The illusion of unanimity: The majority view is assumed to be unanimous. Democracy has gone horribly wrong when this happens; when, for instance, you cannot challenge the government without being thought of as unpatriotic. People in leadership positions are especially prone to setting up this illusion; after all, their power, at least as they perceive it, is reliant upon people agreeing with them. Have you ever sat in on a meeting once where I could tell that everyone in the meeting vehemently disagreed with the guy in charge, but where no one said a thing?
  • The illusion of invulnerability: The group is often slightly too optimistic about their own views and so are often willing to take dangerous risks. I’ve heard of religious extremist groups that encourage others to “sell all their possessions”. And it may even sound like a noble thing (it seems so brave!) until you realize just how vulnerable such a move can make a person. (Christians who subscribe to the radical image of the Book of Acts, I feel, should also read the practical wisdom of the Didache regarding the distribution of goods; people who sponge of others weren’t regarded with much patience by the early church).
  • Self-appointed mind-police: Members will often do everything possible to protect the group-leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness. They will police those who may potentially step out of line. All religious groups have a history of seeking out heretics. The issue, as per point number 2, is usually not about what is right or wrong, or correct or incorrect, but rather concerns who gets to be “in”.
There’s a parable that is told in the book of Genesis (Chapter 11) about the Tower of Babel. I’m sure you know the story well. In it, a lot of people get together and, by means of a particular technology, set out to build their own utopia. But the God-character in the story sees what’s happening and he steps in to confuse the languages of people. When they can’t understand everyone anymore — when they no longer speak in one voice (hege-mony) — they split up and move apart. The utopia fails.
The message of the parable seems very powerful: it is not a story about the origin of language (I am not a literalist on this one — I read the story as a legend or a myth of a kind for reasons I won’t go into here), but a story about the importance of having other voices. It is a story about the importance of disrupting groupthink. Bearing this in mind, there is one last characteristic of groupthink that needs to be noted:
  • Narcissism:  I know it’s normal for people to want to be unified in their groups, but without genuine difference, isn’t the group just a kind of support group for narcissists? Groupthink, ultimately, is just one person talking to another person with the hope that they will hear their own thoughts coming right back at them.

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