Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Losing oneself in the maw of collective self-satisfaction"

David Rieff in "The Unwisdom of Crowds," discusses the desire for comradeship and the inclination to surrender your own judgment to that of the crowd.
.... Anyone who was ever bullied in a schoolyard, or, more to the point, anyone who ever joined in the bullying or just stood by while it was going on, knows full well where that feeling that no blame attaches to you if you are doing what everyone else is can lead. You end up doing, or at least condoning, things that you would never do solo, and that you have a hard time justifying once the crowd disperses and you are on your own again. Recapturing these scruples — at once the burden and the blessing of individual consciousness — does not mean moving from the utter conformity of the crowd to its polar opposite, an absolute non-conformity. To be a true non-conformist is rare, which is probably just as well, since absolute non-conformity would mean rebelling not just against some particular convention, but rather against all convention, and, by extension, all continuity with the past. Taken to this extreme, non-conformity becomes the moral equivalent of economic autarky — self-sufficiency taken to the point of nihilism, and few travel down that road (our modern pose of non-conformity is another matter). ....

.... As a teenager during the late 1960s, I spent a great of time demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. I have changed my mind about a great many things in my life, but I remain as opposed to that war at 57 as I was at 17. But I remember vividly my profound discomfort before joining every protest rally I ever participated in, and my equally profound sense of relief when I could finally detach myself from the crowd. The former seemed like losing oneself in the maw of collective self-satisfaction..., the latter like recapturing one’s identity, complete with all the dissatisfactions that are the mark of our individual humanity. In a crowd, one can only say, “Yes, we can.” But it takes an individual to say, “No, we can’t.” ....

The lesson, whether about geopolitics or daily life, should be clear: if what you are thinking could just as easily be expressed in a slogan, and shouted out or held aloft on a banner by a crowd, then you are probably not thinking at all. And in troubled times such as our own, times of the most enormous moral, social, cultural, and technological dislocation, that is immensely dangerous. [more]
The Unwisdom of Crowds | Big Questions Online