Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The herd mentality lives and destroys.

Recently I read that a man who had founded a gay dating web site was pushed off the board of his own company. His offense was that he donated money to John McCain’s campaign. I wouldn’t give McCain the time of day but I wouldn’t fire someone merely because they had. I read the news article which linked to a web site talking about the situation. And I read the comments there. They were filled with vitriolic statements, mainly by Democrats, about how they refused to use this web site because the man was a Republican.

Please note I’m not saying they don’t have the right to do that. I’m just illustrating a point.

Only yesterday I was watching an old episode of Boston Legal where a young, beautiful, but emotionless, woman is on trial for killing her wealthy, elderly husband. There is no evidence whatsoever that she did kill him. But the fact that she wasn’t likeable was used by the prosecution. She is cold because she is a killer, that was their argument. At one point a receptionist at the law firm, played by Bette White, makes a gleeful remark about how she just loves to see “beautiful” people pulled down. And the show portrayed a media feeding frenzy all circling around for the kill.

This is the very dark side of human nature. As a species we evolved with certain characteristics. Those characteristics may have fostered survival of the species in our prehistoric, herd days. But they don’t fit our life today. In fact, they are detrimental. Whatever you think of evolution it was most certainly NOT intelligent design.

This herd mentality survives today in numerous ways. And our most destructive political systems play on this mentality: Nazism, Communism, etc.

One aspect of this is the need that people be alike. It demands high levels of conformity. Admittedly conformity is less restrictive today, than in the past, but it still exist. Anyone who “just doesn’t fit” is often targeted and attacked.

I thought the film A Cry in the Dark (aka Evil Angels) with Meryl Streep portrayed that well. This is a true story about a family of rabid Seventh Day Adventists. Their infant daughter is snatch from their camping tent by wild dingoes and killed. The mother is arrested and tried. The media and public in Australia, where this actually took place, engage in vicious attacks on the family because they are “different”. Rumor becomes “fact” as it is spread about. And the lives of an entirely innocent, grieving family, are devastated by the murder trial. Worse yet the mother is convicted! Only later was the evidence found that she was innocent and released.

But our species has the instinct of hyena. We see "difference" as weakness. People start circling looking for their moment. They are like wild animals with a taste for blood. They can’t wait till they dig their teeth into the prey’s throat. And they find the whole escapade very entertaining.

A second aspect of primitive evolution is that we are always on the look out for enemies. Some argue that we actually need enemies. This need for enemies has two consequences. One is that when a real threat exists we tend to exaggerate it. We get hysterical about some perceived danger and we go into panic mode.

That tended to work in our evolutionary days. If our ancestors heard a rustle in the bush the best defense was to flee. Most the time the rustle was nothing, perhaps just wind, or a rabbit. But those who fled lived. Sometimes the rustle was a real threat. The curious, who actually bothered to check if the danger was real, sometimes got killed. Those who fled survived to pass on their intrinsically fearful genes. Those who were braver and more intellectually curious were more like to get eaten and thus not as likely to pass on their genes.

The result is that our species is predisposed to scare mongering. There is much benefit to being a scare monger. Media outlets makes billions of dollars exaggerating real fears or reporting on imaginary fears. Politicians love panics as they are excuses to increase their own power. And by whipping up such panics they get elected. It is even better if the fear is totally imaginary. That way, any solution they offer to “the problem” will work. It’s win-win for them.

Herd animals often abandon the weak or different. They cull them, expel them from the herd. They often send them into harms way intentionally. Better the lion eat the lame one than attack the herd is much how it goes. Why is the human species any different?

We like to think we’re smarter and more evolved. But often that isn’t the case at all. We get whipped up into hysteria and begin screaming for blood rather easily, with the flimsiest of excuses for doing so.

We can talk about the witch hunts that dominated our species in Europe. That is one example. But we like to think of them as being centuries ago. We ignore the fact that our species, to this day, is still killing people as witches in various parts of the world. We prefer to think of those people as “inferior” and not really part of our civilized culture.

The reality is that our civilized cultures took such witch hunts to new levels of sophistication. Hitler did not come to power in some backwater Third World country. Scapegoating Jews was not unique to Hitler either. Nor has it stopped. There are entire organizations that exist for this very reason today -- they continue to blames Jews for all the world’s problems. Can anyone say Mel Gibson?

If not Jews what about blacks? Of maybe “illegal immigrants” or homosexuals? The list is actually endless.

We had a witch hunt for purported communists that became oppressive. We have a government which pushes the fear of terrorism as an excuse for every unconstitutional action they take. And what happens to those who question the fear mongering? They, of course, get accused of being witches or “witch enablers”.

Question the way the “war on terror” is conducted and you become a enabler of terrorism. You “hate” America because of it. Question the way sex offender laws have been blown beyond all reasonable limits and you suddenly get accused of wanting to molest children. When Judith Levine wrote her book, Harmful to Minors, she was accused advocating pedophilia. Her book did no such thing, as anyone who has actually read it can attest. What she argued was that the way we deal with adolescent sexuality, as a society, is inflicting more harm than it prevents. Considering that most government solutions to problems create more harm than they prevent I hardly find her claim that surprising.

No matter. She and her book were targeted with numerous false accusations that spread from Right-wing web site to Right-wing web site. Along the way the accusations got more lurid and incendiary. The herd was circling. The “different” one was targeted and they were thirsting for blood.

Levine, whose work is heavily documented, says the conservative talk show hosts had a field day. She didn’t know what to expect until she had her first appearance. The host asked her if she was a mother. She said she wasn’t but was close to her nephew and niece. She recounts how it went from there:
“Do you touch your niece and nephew?”
“Of course I touch them.”
“And how do you touch them?”
“I could feel where this was going, but was powerless to escape. ‘I hug and kiss them, I stroke their hair, I rub their backs.”
“And at what age would you say it is appropriate to start touching your niece and nephew in order to initiate them into sex?”
This is par for the course with anti-freedom conservatives. If you want to legalize drugs they want to know why you want to feed cocaine to five-year-olds. If you want to legalize prostitution they accuse you of running white slavery operations for ten-year-old girls. If you question their hysteria you are the enemy. Of course you are. Really. They know if people question them that their entirely puffed-up campaigns of fear will deflate. They are like the Wizard in Oz, a tiny, feeble man behind a curtain, who uses smoke and mirrors to project a fearful image, in order to induce panic in others, and thus control them. When some damn dog pulls away the curtain their entire fraud is exposed for all to see.

This herd mentality makes it possible for the sleazy and unprincipled to stampede the public in a direction that benefits them. It is a popular means of securing what they want. Just remember that in every stampede there are victims, people get hurt. Of course, if you are convinced that there really are witches, you sooth yourself with that information. After all, that is precisely what is being sought -- to hurt people.

I personally find this trait in our species disgusting. Of course that makes me different. And that means I must be a witch. Burn the witch! And when the embers from my burning die down just comfort yourself in knowing there is an endless supply of witches whose persecution you can enjoy and no doubt will.

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