Saturday, April 5, 2014

collective outrage

Social outrage can be a marvelous thing. It fills uneasy gaps in conversation and, who knows, it can even lead to corrective action. The revolution overthrows a cruel and grasping status quo and then, like as not, awaits its own revolution. But, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." So ... man the barricades!

All this and more like it floated into my mind yesterday as I did a quick-hit reread of the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a French and Jewish army officer wrongly accused of treason in 1894. He was tried and convicted and publicly degraded and imprisoned based among other things on the will of a much-aroused and sometimes anti-Semitic public who, like group-think anywhere, expressed a critical mass of social outrage. If we agree with each other, then what we agree on must be true.

Like the trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States in 1921, public opinion swirled and gushed and was hot as lava in the Dreyfus case. Had Sacco and Vanzetti shot two men to death? Their open profession of anarchy certainly didn't improve their chances in the trial dock. By 1927, when they were executed, there was no assured consensus, though in 1977, the governor of Massachusetts issued a proclamation stating the two men had been unfairly tried and wrongly convicted.

Dreyfus fared a bit better. By 1906, after stints in a penal colony, he was exonerated and returned to the army that had stripped him -- literally and metaphorically -- of rank and "honor."

No one cares about what happened 100 years ago, I suppose, or, if they do, history is a safe-sex topic from which they can maintain a cool and reasoning distance. The awful heat of any given moment cools ... and allows for thoughtful (read safe) consideration.

But, moving closer to a modern-times home, the almost casual lynching of black men in the United States in the earlier days of the 20th century, the sometimes violent, sometimes subtle dismissal of homosexual lifestyles, the disparity in income, or the Vatican's denial of complicity in the priest sex abuse scandal can all warm the lava of social outrage. What isn't "me" when considering Dreyfus or Sacco and Vanzetti suddenly takes on a new life, a new heat, a new outrage ... this is more convincingly "me." Passions aroused, I join the mob ... if you agree with me and I agree with you, then we are both right, our cause is just, and what we assert is true. And maybe it is.

Part of what interests me in all this is an occasional flickering of guilt that arises when I realize I don't entirely trust group reactions. It's nothing contrary. It's not as if I had a better mouse trap. It's just that when the lava heats up and the group gathers to cheer ... well, something within holds back. I may agree in general, but when others strike up the band of agreement, my own agreement becomes suspect. How much of my agreement is based on group hug and how much on honest persuasion? I feel somehow trapped in LaRochefoucauld's observation that "the intelligence of the mass (group) is inversely proportionate to its number."

Are groups really stupider than the individuals who comprise them? My experience is that the answer is probably yes. It feels vaguely misanthropic, which is not at all the intended tenor. It's more an observation than a criticism. But like anyone else, I wistfully wish I might rest easy in a group hug as proof of truth.

And what is true socially -- the accumulation that inflames the outrage -- is also true within, I think. How many facts and fancies have I gathered as an inflamed throng to support an outraged heat? How many times have I done that and then felt secure in "if you say it's true and I say it's true, then it must be true?" How many conclusions have I reached in this way?

Probably a lot ... with a lot more to come. I guess the only ameliorating balm I can apply is this: There is nothing wrong with conclusions as long as A. I assume responsibility for them and B. I do what I can to correct them when I find that the topic has been falsely accused.

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