The Herd: When the whole is less than the sum of its parts

By Tim Bearly
Reader Contributor

“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche

O how I yearn to belong! O how I crave the attention and acceptance of the masses! How I would gladly sacrifice my individuality at the altar of conformity—just to experience the unparalleled euphoria that results from being a member of a homogeneous crowd!

Do you share the sentiment? Indeed, you do. Though you may not be eager to admit it.

Clap your eyes on the ravenous swarm of insentient drones, with their hive-mind — devoid of originality, critical thinking and independent thought — ostracizing and marginalizing any individual who dares to stir up the nest of mental unity.

Like a multitude of cells forming a single organism — unconscious of its own inner-workings — it is their immutable cohesive bond which enables them to accomplish tasks which no individual could on his own; however, there are many cases when the virtues of the amalgam inevitably become vices.

Aristotle needs revision: “The whole is (not always) greater than the sum of its parts.”

Aware of this, we still itch to belong — to adhere — because we need to feel as though we are a part of something larger than our pitiable and soulless selves.

It appears that no individual or ideology is immune from the affliction of the herd. Even the Ayn Rand acolytes of “individualism” form a group-mind when an assembly is established among them.

“Let us all go on strike and gather together at Galt’s Gulch with other like-minded individuals to prove that we are sick and tired of collectivism!”

Yeah, no contradiction there.

A metamorphosis occurs within us when we gather together — reminiscent of the morphological and behavioral changes that occur among certain species of grasshoppers when they crowd together. No crowd, it seems, is exempt from this phenomenon — not even the seemingly “above the fray” centrists.

When under the magic spell of the herd, any thought that can be reduced to an emotional incantation is preferable to reason and logic. The multifarious slogans that opposition movements chant in unison can often be condensed to the same propagandistic communiqué: “us good, them bad.” It is in such an atmosphere that the wizards of sophistry thrive and the men of courage — the contrarians who refuse to yield to the consensus of the crowd — are cursed for eternity.

This does not imply that all crowds and mass movements are bad (per se). Our history books are replete with examples of how social change was only made possible because of the people who were willing to take to the streets and march in protest (sociocultural evolution cannot occur without a united struggle); nevertheless, there are also many cases where social movements and revolutions have completely spiraled out of control. When most of us lack the strength and courage to swim against the tide, our fate is determined by the arbitrary social current of our generation.

Our fear of being ridiculed and condemned by the group can sometimes result in self-censorship, which can have a detrimental effect on the decision-making process. Envision a car careening toward a cliff, and everyone in the car is too afraid to grab the wheel and change the course; that is groupthink in a nutshell. Or, if you prefer that I don’t engage in hypotheticals, take a look at the lickspittles in Congress who are too afraid to speak out against President Trump for fear that it will harm their career.

Trump: “Take the gun first, go through due process second.”

Republican congressmen: *silence*

Perhaps these sycophants will muster the courage to be critical of their supreme leader someday, but only when it becomes “safe” to do so. No one, it appears, wants to be the one to shout out: “The emperor has no clothes!”

But it would be a mistake to think that this issue is about Donald Trump or the Republicans. If Hillary would have won the election we’d be witnessing an almost indistinguishable claque: Democrats in Congress would be too afraid to speak out against Hillary for fear of being abandoned by the party. This is not only the nature of political parties, but also of all nations, religions, social movements, institutions, cults and groups of any kind — all of them have different degrees with which their members are compelled to follow the herd.

But what about you and me? We’re not groupthinkers, right?

Ignorant of our own actor-observer bias, we grant amnesty to ourselves for the same gullibility and obsequious behavior that we demonize the others for.

“The other party is totally indoctrinated.”

“But not us,” we allege.  “We’re immune to the echo chamber. We’re impervious to the sway of the fickle mob. We’re freethinkers!”

(Sing it with me, everyone!)

“We’re freethinkers, yeah, yeah, yeah 

We’re freethinkers, yeah, yeah, yeah

(In perfect harmony!)

We’re freethinkers, yeah, yeah, yeah

We’re freethinkers, yeah, yeah, yeah

but not the other crowd…”

Good work, my children. Now put on your Nikes and help yourself to some phenobarbital-laced applesauce. Away team, it’s time to graduate to the next level.

Our spaceship has arrived!

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