This is one in a series of “writings” that have to do with the psychological nature of culture. Other essays in the series that might be of interest to you include:
I invite you to consider the context of the series as a variety of perspectives. We need to learn to examine what we accept as common knowledge.
In a previous discussion, we examined the nature of consensus. It is, at once, “better” decision making than simple democracy, and somewhat less likely than democracy to omit actual truth in deciding on courses of action. The common proposition that consensus is more likely to be “right” than simple democracy seems reasonable. Consensus building is simply more deliberative that simple democracy. The argument is that more deliberately taken decisions are likely to be better than less deliberate ones. When deliberation involves actual truth as its target (we can use juries in courts of law as our example), the deliberateness of consensus just feels more likely to yield correct decisions than more arbitrary methods like anonymous voting.
Interestingly, we might propose (and I do) that consensus building has a goal of encouraging all parties to its process to agree on the outcome of its process. It is proposed that the give-and-take of the process will yield the best conclusions overall. The conclusions reached in the process have an almost sacred nature attached to them. When some matter that requires truth for its resolution is at stake, the allure of consensus seems to argue that truth has been ascertained, and that the process produced that truth. For the most part, it is likely true that parties to consensus building (or most of them) genuinely desire that truth be “discovered” in the process. Regardless of that, though, the findings will be presented to others as truth whether they are or not.
Let’s interject self-service into the consensus building process. Suppose that in some set of deliberations, a particular entity has such an interest in the question at hand, or in the conclusion reached, that said entity might wish to selfishly influence the consensus that is to be reached. If the entity has adequate power, the entity might use that power in the effort to obscure truth in an effort to determine the outcome of the consensus building process. That entity exhibits a desire that there be a particular outcome that is colored by an appeal to consensus. If the entity’s power is adequate to influence most or all of the other members of the convened body, then the quality of the deliberations will be totally compromised and truth may well be trampled in the process even though the body presents the outcome as though it were truth.
What might such power look like? Might it be brutish? Of course, in small group settings, the pressure for conformity, so that the consensus can be announced, can be enormous. In fact, it may include poorly veiled use of the relative power of some entity – particularly an entity with responsibility for the outcome.
Paradoxically, while it is apparently true that consensus building is more deliberative than simple democracy, it may be very strongly influenced by mindsets that exist in the greater society from which the consensus building body is selected. In other words, a more or less anonymous entity which we might call “the general public” may exercise great power over a consensus project. The very anonymity of “the general public” may make brute force attractive to some of its members who have an interest in the outcomes at stake.
Democracy is really large-group-action in slow motion. When emotions run high in some matter, mobs may result and violence may follow. We have adopted the conventions of democracy to calm emotions generally in matters of general public concern. In that sense, democracy is presented as a preventative to mob actions which may simply reflect raw emotions. Because, however, emotions are the vehicle for mob actions, we may wonder whether emotions can actually rule the day in democracy in general. Can the same kinds of emotional currents carry an argument in a very large group as they can in a smaller group? More to the point, can irrational emotions determine the outcomes of even the most deliberative processes?
I propose the answer to these queries is “yes.” If a smaller group can persuade a larger group to agree with it, or to intimidate any sub-group that might disagree, then the same emotions that rule a mob can be made to rule a society. Let’s call that “groupthink.” Groupthink can be a powerful phenomenon. It has the power to simply overrule any rational deliberation. It even has the potential power to overturn truth in favor of a lie.
Moses had to deal with groupthink (Numbers 14:1-4). The occasion was the report of the spies whose mission had been to discover conditions in Canaan. Ten of the spies were fairly negative about the prospects. The problem was that Moses had already been instructed by The LORD to take the people into the land. That entry was the mission of the people, not a decision as to whether or not to go. Now, the ten spies led the emotions of the people in the direction of not entering. Their “recommendation” ran directly counter to the mission. That conflict became so significant that the people began to consider deposing Moses and “electing” a new leader who would give them what they wanted – not what God had commanded. The groupthink that emerged was dangerous in every dimension, but so what? They thought God could be overruled by the will of the people. He wasn’t.
Samuel had to deal with groupthink (1 Samuel 8:4-22). Under God’s guidance Samuel warned the Israelites that the idea of having a king was not a good one. However, The LORD permitted them to have what they wanted. He told Samuel to agree. Then He told Samuel to warn the people of the harm they were doing to themselves. Still, they demanded a king. This came to produce such wretched consequences for them! In this case, God allowed the groupthink to prevail, but warned them through Samuel of the consequences for the nation.
Pilate succumbed to groupthink (Luke 23:13-25). He had told the people who were “in charge” of the groupthink of that day that he found no reason to comply with their desire to do violence to Jesus. They persisted. Pilate had Jesus crucified. Groupthink took the day. Horrible violence followed. Even though God was well aware of these things, and knew of their redemptive value, the groupthink did not have redemption in it at all. It was violent hatred. Our Father used the results of the groupthink, but that does not validate what the people did.
Turns out that groupthink might yield poor results. It might even be a weakness in democracy. In some cases, groupthink may not actually be thought at all except in the mind of a party with a particular interest in some outcome who chooses the power of a loud voice to prevent true, deliberative thought. Have you ever heard a “loud voice” promoting some social idea? Was it groupthink? Why did it have to be such a loud voice?
I suggest that groupthink won’t produce the Kingdom of God. In fact, “a still small voice,” as of the Spirit of God, is far more likely to bring about the appearing of the Kingdom.
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