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Language knows no master. If ever a definitive description of life and the best philosophies possible in it will be written, the people who come after will know how to subvert it: they will, starting from the smallest and working up to the grandest, redefine its words to mean something convenient for their own beliefs; they will bend the belief system toward their own by changing the simple equivalencies of terms. As a result, it will become its own opposite, over time, although the fundamental structure will remain.
A term that became popular in the last decade is "groupthink," referring to the social animal herd-tendency which causes people to bleat out dogma without having any idea of how to understand it. Like most pop-culture diagnoses, it favors an us/them approach which makes everyone in the room feel that, by comprehending the term, they have somehow surpassed all the others, and thus have found a new level of understanding. Yet even the term carries a weight of irony, in that not only can it be misinterpreted, but it can be a form of what it describes, by the very nature of this inclusive, devotional, just-sign-here access to what is perceived as absolute truth.
One seemingly ugly reality that confronts us as developed and not nascent beings is that in order to have civilization, or any kind of belief system, most of the people who work within that group have to be thinking on the same page. Of course, popular literature and movies find this appalling, since what happens to individuality? they cry. The grim face of it is that individuality as an absolute doesn't exist, in the sense that each person would be entirely a creation of their own impulse; this is bad math, which has an equation defining itself without reliance on its starting data or even on mathematics itself. This bad math holds that we are each self-creating gods, having no origin and no reality to which our ideas correspond, and that it's most important that we define ourselves apart from all others. Reality contradicts this.
In reality - that distant place where, when the ego-games of youth and pretense of adulthood are spent - we confront the actual mechanisms that sustain our world, and subsume our "it oughtta be this way" rhetoric to practical, this-is-how-we-survive concerns, for any consensus to exist there must be some degree of similar thinking. Obviously, there will always be critics who point to that and scream "groupthink!" and thus run off smugly congratulating themselves for being different and not falling into the herd, when they have no answers for what must be done as a collective, and thus are in denial of reality itself. This doesn't concern them - their whole agenda, literally, is to make themselves look good and thus to get ahead socially and politically. Obviously, these people are death for us all.
So some degree of group agreement is necessary, but is there a danger of groupthink as well? Certainly, and we cannot see it more clearly than in the Marxist and Rightist groups of today. These are composed of parrots, who rehash the same dogma in new forms but accept it unquestioningly and repeat it. There's a danger in that, in that these people do not understand what they parrot. In most cases, this isn't a problem, since most people lack the aptitude or dedication required to understand politics. When leaders succumb to this, however, a certain kind of spiritual death occurs, but even more importantly, a real-world crisis is engendered: they are no longer testing their ideas against reality, but are constructing castles in the sky and pointing to them saying, "well, it oughtta be" - this is the essence of academic Utopianism, and in the only view of history that matters, that which is measured over millennia and not decades, it is a form of calcification that might appear to be as lively and free-spirited as something else.
Critics - or those who passively point and try to tear down ideas, without suggesting anything to replace them except the airy dogma described above - are notorious for pointing out such groupthink, such conformity, and by finding it in some who uphold an idea using it to "discredit" that idea. Without individuality, they proclaim, there is nothing except groupthink, and therefore the whole concept reeks of submission and conformity, they argue, and therefore should be forgotten. They have forgotten however what philosophers have long learned, which is that any philosophy must pass its own tests. The finger pointers who scream "groupthink!," have, paradoxically, succumbed to groupthink itself by finding in anything but absolute granularity a viable solution.
Granularity is like group consensus; some of it is needed, but taken to a calcified extreme, it becomes death. The extreme of granularity is a popular social pose in almost any era, where people claim to take a little bit of this philosophy, and a little bit of that, and thus to have something "unique" to them which represents them and proves their worth, because after all, no single philosophy was good enough for them, so they must be master of all. This is little more than egomania. No civilization, or organization, can be founded on everyone thinking something different in all ways; that lack of consensus becomes a bickering family in which each member undoes the work of every other, fighting for personal control. Hilariously, the response of most granularists is to argue that such bickering is a sign of healthy government or salutory "diversity of discourse," but somehow, nothing ever changes because each individual is an island, caught up in arguing for his or her own form of control. Thus, business as usual goes on behind closed doors, while the drama of politics and leadership resolves nothing.
Clearly democracy belongs to this form of thinking, as it is based on the granular individual and the importance to the ego of having "individual" ideas and the freedom to "express oneself" by picking some "unique" recombination of philosophy to date and proclaiming that it and only it will suffice for that free-thinking, spirited, "different" individual. But what have democracies accomplished? Outside of the big questions, such as attacking when being attacked or dealing with tsunamis, democracies focus entirely inward and create more detailed bickering. As a result, they advance only the basic concepts of democracy, and miss all of the long-term issues of importance. What was democracy's plan for stopping deforestation? For protecting natural species? For ensuring we do not all become drones of a corporate feudal state? Answer: there was none, but there was plenty of diverse and unique discussion!
The greatest groupthink is granularity, as it rejects the idea that any consensus can occurr without "being" groupthink. I put the term "being" in quotes because, while x may "=" y, in real life things aren't so linear. Thus any consensus may include some groupthink, particularly among those who are incapable of any meaningful contribution; this is not terrible, as it turns them from agents of "unique" and divisive philosophies into those can find accord and act it. This could mean that, in contrast to the last 400 years of history, some sort of actual direction and philosophical unity might visit our civilization. We'd all have to give up the illusion of our "uniqueness," however, and realize that what makes us individuals is not some pretense of political activism, but our individual characters: how heroic we are, what tasks we can do well, our emotional makeup, and the like. You can't make an individual out of a political theory!
This is reality, and it will be called "groupthink" too, because nothing threatens each human as an island like something toward which their theories must correspond in actuality. Pragmatism, or simply, realism - what's wrong with it? We live in the same world, subject to the same natural laws. We have roughly the same bodies. Like it or not, the same forces act within us. Thus, for most decisions, we need roughly the same thing; that's the nature of consensus, and that's how civilizations are formed. This isn't as popular as the idea that we are each gods who think up airy rhetoric and make an individualistic self-image construction out of it. Naturally, the ability to fantasize without consequences is usually preferred to dealing with reality...
But reality it is, and is it so terrible? Once we get over our personal pretense, and that's really all it is, of being "different" for having selected a unique mix of products, friends, political ideologies, and reading matter, we can return to focus on ourselves as actual individuals, and to build up our character from within. Individualism is won by facing what you fear and overcoming it, by making yourself better in every way, and by doing what is right regardless of the cost to your physical life or pretense of uniqueness. You weren't created out of nothing, a god in your own right. No - you're a human being, with parents and history culminating in you. Is that so hard to face?
It's not an easy answer, the kind that occurs in a soundbite and sounds good to everyone, so the issue is dropped and we all go back to socializing. Thus, it's never popular. For many people, it demands the impossible, since they are in wheelchairs of a metaphorical or physical type, and cannot achieve greater character or deeds; however, for most of the people you or I would want to know, it's very possible, and when the misleading groupthink of anti-groupthink is revealed, they can get to work on the real character that underlies the public perception of their selves, something we call self-image. And what would we call this overcoming?
It's an end to passivity, for one thing. What is the opposite of passivity? Anything that is active - activity is a category which can include many items. However, the most basic form of active philosophy is realism, of which nihilism and existentialism and idealism are subsets. When you recognize that physical reality is the ultimate reality, and that all of our ideas must address practical solutions within it, you've taken a big step toward personal autonomy by casting aside the illusion that "unique" airy rhetoric somehow makes you distinct from the uncountable horde of others doing exactly the same thing. Anti-groupthink is the new groupthink, and it's part of the same error that got us into our current mess: being passive instead of active.
Active people do not fear agreeing with others. They are confident in how they perceive reality, and have made up their mins about what must be done, and thus do not fear doing it, even if (insert unpopular person here) advocated the same, or the idea is old, or it offends other people. They simply care about doing what is right in a realistic sense. This is the only way to truly cut out groupthink, because it removes a passive focus - caring about what other people think, or trying to belong to a group - and replaces it with a focus on the task. Any shared idea involves some agreement, but agreement is not groupthink, necessarily; however, agreement not to agree on anything for personal pretense always is. Next time you hear someone shriek "groupthink," ask yourself whether this person is looking at reality including the task, or just jerking off to make a higher self-image for themselves.
April 6, 2005