In the late 70’s, I learned about the research of Nevitt Sanford. He was my professor and founder of the graduate school I attended. He was also one of the authors of a landmark research project begun shortly after World War II that resulted in the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Catalyzed by the Jewish holocaust in Germany, they set out to discover if there was some pattern of human personality that allowed for the receptivity to prejudice that could lead to de-humanization and ultimately mass violence. He was one of the most gentle, thoughtful, and kind academic leaders I have ever known.
The research, however, was quite controversial.
Illuminating at best, and suspicious science at worst (they used questionnaires to test for fascist tendencies and were heavily influenced by psychoanalytic language and Marxist concepts), the research nevertheless opened up my eyes to patterns of behavior that solved some perplexing questions I held. How could a person be simultaneously conventional in their social attitudes yet extreme in their viewpoints? Similarly, how could someone be both violently against what they perceived as control over themselves, yet seemingly willing to join others in denigrating and having power over others not in their perceived group? I was particularly struck by their description of what they called surface resentment. “We refer here,” they wrote more than sixty years ago “to people who accept stereotypes of prejudice from outside, as ready made formulae…in order to rationalize and – psychologically or actually – overcome overt difficulties of their own existence.”
Surface resentment is not the same as authoritarianism but it is a close enough cousin to be fanned by group passions. Weisberg in his column on the tea party writes that “nostalgia, resentment, and reality denial are all expressions of the same underlying anxiety about losing one’s place in the country, or of losing control of it to someone else.” In other words, a popular movement fanned by fears of economic, social, or status dislocation acts as a magnet on all surface resentments, especially for those who have felt ignored or pushed aside by multi culturalism, global movements in industry, and elites of various kinds who seem smug, arrogant, and disconnected from the difficulties of their own existence. This is why even if active tea party supporters are largely made up of older married white men of European ancestry with a Christian background; there is plenty of room for others who harbor resentment. The feelings are at once frustration that no one is listening to them and anger that there is far too much sympathy for gays, Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, and other out groups, far from the mainstream – or more insidiously replacing them as the mainstream.
Patrick Buchannan, the Republican candidate for President in 1992 and 1996 referred to this as “culture wars” and explicitly linked sympathy for these out groups with the nation’s decline. This week, the number one book on Amazon is The Roots of Obama’s Rage by Dinesh D’Souza, charging that Obama is driven by an anti-colonial ideology inherited from his African father and who seeks to diminish America’s strength, influence, and standard of living. And in a sad competitive clash of stereotypes among out groups exposed to discrimination, the CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was fired on Oct. 1 for disparaging the Jewish comedian Jon Stewart as a bigot. He argued that Stewart, like many middle class Jews and CNN staff, never faced real prejudices as he did having been born in Cuba and growing up in Florida – “I grew up not speaking English, dealing with real prejudice every day as a kid; watching my dad work in a factory, wash dishes, drive a truck, get spit on.” For Sanchez, the surface resentment against people not like himself burst forward as he denigrated Stewart for among other things, surrounding himself only with people like himself. We see in others the negative qualities that are so difficult to see in ourselves. And the ghosts of our original colonial identity as subject to power and the history of our maturing into a power that dictated to others is now coming back to haunt us in a myriad of twists and turns.
And it is not just the men. One female supporter of the tea party blogged that women are a critical part of the movement. “These are fierce women. These are women who have passels of grandchildren, who are heads of their families, respected decision-makers and rulers of their roosts… I think back to the report… on the Glen Beck event and the army of moms with huge garbage bags directing the hundreds of thousands to pick up after themselves. This is how we feel about America right now. We’re done waiting for you to clean up your trash. Momma sees a mess and darn it, you’re going to clean it up and you’re going to do it RIGHT NOW while we supervise. Now get over here and put that trash in this bag!” The metaphor is all about being in charge again, rulers of the roost, and about others who don’t pick up after themselves. Damn it, get in line.
I want to confess that on a personal level, I understand these various reactions to discomfort. When events seem out of control, I want to feel in control and it is at these times I am most inclined to react from surface resentments and project negative motives, even stereotypes, onto others – especially on those who differ with me.
At a group level, however, these dynamics describe elements of what my coauthors and I came to call collective folly. Collective folly is made up of two sides of the same coin. On one side is the movement toward separation and fragmentation. Group members resist ideas, other group members, or other groups that are deemed “not me” or “not us.” There is a tendency toward confirmation bias and the ignoring of divergent perspectives or data. At its extreme, destructive polarization is the outcome.
On the other side of the coin is the movement toward false agreement and the façade of unity. Group members appear to be unified, at least in what they are opposed to. The consequence is conformity within the group even if the ideology of the group supports individual rights, libertarian ideas, progressive politics and other ideologies seemingly contradictory to conformity. This movement masks a separation that already exists, among its members as well as outside itself, and consequently prevents the group from considering data and perspectives that could help it develop a more complete understanding of the reality it faces. At its extreme, unanticipated catastrophe can result.
What both sides of the coin have in common is a discomfort with complexity, paradox, ambiguity, and uncertainty. Both movements of collective folly ignore or explicitly distance themselves from divergent views and perspectives. The question is how do we confront these two movements of collective folly without being drawn into the very dynamics they describe.
Read the concluding essay in this five part series: What Can Be Done.