Mental Health Matters: A troubling wave of behavior
August 30, 2017
We like to think of ourselves as individuals, as smart enough folks who think and behave the way we see fit. We see ourselves as rational, thoughtful, principled, and decent folk.
If it makes sense, we're all in. If not, well, forget it.
If someone tells us we're off base, in left field, undereducated, or ignorant, or that we harbor mistaken beliefs, we are properly offended. Our sense of honor, our sincere belief that we are reasonable and thoughtful people, is undermined.
"I'm my own person," we tell ourselves. "Nobody gets to tell me what to think or how to behave."
If I choose to appreciate and applaud a Bernie Sanders or a Donald Trump, that's my decision, my choice, freely informed by my own good judgment.
Or so we think.
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But social science research tells us something else, that we are, above all, social creatures, highly evolved over the millennia to seek out others more like us, to band together, and to think and behave like those around us.
We seek acceptance in and from the groups we choose. We are prone to "go along to get along."
This proclivity has the virtue of providing cooperation and cohesion within the group, but the downside of promoting an "us" versus "them" world view.
So what happens when a bunch of people with similar ideas get together?
Well, it depends. In larger groups, or crowds, people will do and say things they wouldn't do alone. These can be good things or bad things. Crowds can generate murderous rage, committing atrocities that individuals, acting alone, would never do. They can also be altruistic, friendly, supportive, and even fun.
An example of the latter is "Woodstock Nation," nearly 50 years ago: 400,000 "hippies" converge on Woodstock, N.Y., some on drugs, particularly the evil marijuana weed, some simply stoned on the joyous atmosphere, and the music. And there was no violence. A few "bad trips," but a remarkable absence of aggression in a sea of sweltering humanity.
And then there was Charlottesville, Va. White supremacists, armor-clad, marching with burning torches through the streets and passing by a synagogue, all the while chanting, "Jews will not replace us," displaying swastikas, and, drawn from Nazi ideology, shouting, "blood and soil."
Call people scurrilous names, yell, scream, defame, and most people, untrained in the fine art of defusing threat or provocation non-violently, respond in kind. Anger begets anger, and it goes downhill from there.
A sad and sorry sideshow, but people were injured in Charlottesville, and one was killed.
How does this happen in America, today? Social, cultural, and historical reasons, particularly the legacy of slavery, reconstruction, and Jim Crow laws account for some of it.
The psychology of crowds, "crowd or mob mentality," an underreported process also matters. A group, angered by their life circumstances, by the disappointments, deficiencies, traumas, and tragedies of their own lives, come together and are thrilled and exhilarated by the magic and power of chanting as one, by the project of giving full-throated voice to their beliefs.
A confluence of factors, including presidential tweets, and combative legislators, have brought us to this sad and sorry point. Whether its white supremacists, black lives matter baiters, antifa activists, the roar of a President Trump, the pandering of a Nancy Pelosi, or the vituperations of a trustee or commissioner, it's open season, all the time, against those who hold opposing views.
At this moment, I am troubled by what seems to me to be a rising tide of bigotry, intolerance, hostility, and, yes, self-righteous rage at those who hold different beliefs.
We who live in and around the majesty of Lake Tahoe like to think of ourselves as immune to these poisons, this venom.
I wonder. Attend a town-hall event, a meeting of the town council or the county commissioners, or a gathering of one of the many organizations or groups of which you may be a member.
How do people address each other? Observe how contentious issues are handled. Be aware of the difference between reasoned analysis and personal attacks. Can people disagree without being disagreeable? Can they give voice to their concerns, their beliefs, without defaming, demeaning, or denigrating others? Can they stake out a position without vilifying others with different views? I wonder, and worry.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.