Groupthink and Mass Hysteria as a Vehicle to Self-Transcendence (part 1 of 2)

Introductory: The Epicene Aeon

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim. —Gustave Le Bon

     Three events, two of them quite recent, have precipitated the writing of this post (and the following one). About a year ago I read Gustave Le Bon’s classic The Crowd: Study of the Popular Mind, which determined me to write more or less on this topic even before this blog was begun. That event isn’t recent, except of course in a geological sense—a geologist once told me that anything that happened within the past 10,000 years is “recent.” The second event was reading the epilogue to Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, said epilogue being an essay on the human intuitive yearning for self-transcendence, and various means of attaining it. Then, a friend (one of the few politically conservative western Buddhists I have known, so it was surprising that he sent it) sent me the link to an article on the website, “Why collective narcissists are so politically volatile.” I think it was the last that pushed me over the edge and started me writing.

     (You may notice that for a solitary monk living in a forest monastery in tropical Asia, significant events often amount to just reading something. Aside from that, the only really significant recent event (ignoring geological time scales) is that one of my favorite dogs is sick.)

     First let me criticize Aeon. The aforementioned article discusses how a certain personality type, the collective narcissist, is largely responsible for outbursts of political extremism. The author states:

     Research from my PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London shows that people who score high on the collective narcissism scale are particularly sensitive to even the smallest offences to their group’s image. As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image, and respond to them aggressively. Collective narcissists believe that their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others. They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. In other words, collective narcissism amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.…To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights.

The examples given of collective narcissists and calamities brought about by them are: the anti-immigration “far right” English Defense League; Muslims in Sudan wanting to kill a British schoolteacher for allowing her students to name a Teddy bear “Muhammad”; a group of Argentinians enraged over the Falkland Islands war of 1982 to the point of persecuting the driver of a car with a license plate reading H982FKL; Turks enjoying the EU economic crisis; Portuguese enjoying the German economic crisis; Polish supporters of the current populist government in Poland; the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre; “perhaps” both world wars; the election victory of Donald Trump; and the election victory of Brexit. It is interesting, and strikes me as significant, that this list of examples does not include some very obvious recent cases, much more obvious in fact than some of the ones on the list. For example Trump’s victory is attributed to bigoted nationalistic exceptionalism as a form of collective narcissism, but there is no mention at all of the anti-Trump leftists rioting in the streets, howling at the sky, smashing windows, pounding heads, and setting things on fire because they didn’t get their way, or begging the government to reject the result, to this day finding any vague or groundless rumor to use as a propaganda tool to destroy this man who was never considered an evil racist until he stood in the way of their holy agenda. They felt entitled to victory; if Hillary Clinton had won, and Brexit also, conservative nationalists and others would in all likelihood not have produced the spectacle of impotent, petulant rage that the actual losers produced. Mainly what the Trump supporters are accused of, other than collective narcissism, is peaceful voting. Nor is there any mention of the anti-Brexit demonstrations, antifa riots in the USA and Europe, Black Lives Matter riots and demonstrations, howling protests on university campuses (over such issues as visiting conservative speakers or politically incorrect Halloween costumes), or the narcissistic political fanaticism and ideological intolerance of employees and management at western tech communications firms like Google and Twitter. It seems to me that these examples would be at least as applicable to the thesis of groups of narcissists demanding special consideration and treatment, as the ones given in the article. Some of these groups specifically demand privileged treatment, as with affirmative action or the overthrow of constitutional election results, or the silencing of dissenting points of view—not equal rights. But the article was written by a European academic social scientist, which virtually guarantees her status as a PC progressive with an ideological axe to grind. The subliminal moral of the story: The left is good and wise, the right is bad and foolish.

making America safe from fascism

     I’ve read a few articles on Aeon, and it seems to me that the site is an attempt at filtering philosophy through fashionable “progressive” ideology with the idea that it will still be authentic philosophy after it comes out the other end. No doubt sometimes it is; but mostly it appears to degenerate into fashionable pseudo-intellectual fluff or propaganda. I read another article on the site about the technological singularity (in which artificial intelligence is expected to surpass human intelligence, rendering the future completely unpredictable); in which the author opined that only men (I don’t remember if he specified white ones) tend to be worried about the singularity as only they consider rationality and intelligence to be power and something to be highly valued. Humbug on Aeon. Then again, western philosophy in general is in severe decline. Philosophers, being human, tend to follow the fashion, as medieval European philosophers followed Catholic theology—but now the fashion is much less wisdom-oriented than Catholic theology.

     As an aside, I suppose there are some who might accuse this blog of similarly running philosophy through an ideological filter. But I would venture to suggest that openly adopting or defending a position is not the same as sneaking a position in through the back door while pretending not to adopt any position at all, other than nonpartisan objective truth. It’s like the difference between Breitbart and CNN: Breitbart wears its non-leftism on its sleeve. It makes no secret of the fact that it has a non-left orientation. On the other hand, CNN pretends to be unbiased journalism, and is thus required to camouflage and deny its rather extreme leftist bias. It’s not only propagandistic, it’s dishonest.

     Anyway, by far the most impressive and important inspiration for me in writing this is Huxley’s essay, discussing the universal human aversion for being a mere puny little human, for being one’s own imperfect egoistic “self”; and discussing various means, positive, negative, and otherwise, of forgetting ourselves. Huxley had obviously become a mystic by the time he wrote the book, and his explanation for our aversion to being merely ourselves is that, deep down, we intuitively know that we are not our body or our ego; we feel our unity with the undifferentiated consciousness/energy (sometimes referred to as “God”) pervading the entire Universe. We are always in contact with Infinity, and all but the most spiritually comatose blockheads and sociopaths, perhaps, are very dimly, deeply aware of it all the time. With such an awareness lurking about at a subliminal level, we can’t be fully satisfied with our little personal melodramas, our entrapment inside a meat vehicle defined by weaknesses and limitations, and doomed to eventual certain death. Our spirit yearns for something greater, possibly even more real. Anyway, as Buddhist philosophy points out, identification with an ego, or with anything else, cannot possibly be fully satisfying, with or without mystical intuitions.

     So, many of the strongest, most sensitive, intuitive, and courageous spirits strive upwards, in an attempt to merge with the universal Spirit, the highest reality, somehow. The highest realization of this endeavor would be called Enlightenment by a Buddhist, and by a Christian perhaps Sanctification or the Beatific Vision. It may be that most modern westerners do not even allow the possibility of this; yet through spiritual efforts they may still leave themselves, their “selves,” behind as they find exaltation in meditation or mountain climbing or some other mind-expanding, uplifting experience. Really dedicating one’s life to upward transcendence is difficult, sometimes a harrowing ordeal, and most people simply are not ready for that. They want an escape that is easier, and rather more comfortable.

     Most healthy, normally adjusted people living in a society escape from their own limitations, their own petty humanity, on what Huxley calls a horizontal or sideways path: they remain human beings living in the world, but they commit themselves and lose themselves in socially acceptable ways: romantic relationships, family, a career, social service, classical music, dancing, movies, sports, nature, video games, science fiction, breeding tropical fish, making pottery, debating politics at espresso bars, whatever. Even most forms of popular religion would qualify as a horizontal path—more or less wholesome, blameless, and still quite human.

     As for the downward paths to self-transcendence, Huxley allowed that there are many, but he emphasized three big ones: intoxicants, animalistic sexual behavior, and what he called “herd intoxication.” Although he had already become a mystic, Huxley apparently hadn’t quite yet begun experimenting with mescaline (he wrote The Doors of Perception just two years after The Devils of Loudun), as he asserts that drugs, including alcohol, result in psychic damage and inevitably lead to self-escape in a downwards direction, to a level of subhumanity.

     He was rather more openminded with regard to sex. He allows that, if accompanied with genuine love, as is the case when sex between two married people is viewed as a kind of sacrament, then sex can lead to a horizontal transcendence of individual selfhood, or even perhaps can be genuinely uplifting. On the other hand, he mentions two forms of sexual self-transcendence to a subhuman level: the natural, “innocent” sexuality of animals, as glorified by writers like D. H. Lawrence, and the more depraved orgiastic stuff, including extreme BDSM and the sorts of activities that can really mess people up. The latter variety especially becomes like a narcotic, with people requiring greater and greater stimulation to help them forget how miserable they are otherwise—and with the spiritual effects of the activity itself ultimately being a major cause of the growing misery, leading to a downward spiral. Huxley included the orgiastic behavior of the “possessed” nuns of Loudun to have been this sort of self-transcendence into not just an animalistic but more a demonic level of consciousness.

     But of course the transcendence/escape into subhumanity that Huxley would attribute to today’s (and his day’s) acts of “political volatility” would represent his third big one, “herd intoxication,” the mob mentality, or mass hysteria. This type of mental state is the primary focus of Le Bon’s pioneering book; and it seems to me that the article in Aeon misses the mark by a long shot if it insinuates that all the political hysteria running rampant nowadays is conditioned by a certain minority personality type, the collective narcissist. It’s more a matter of people escaping from their own dissatisfied and dissatisfying futility, or trying to anyway, by joining a greater cause, especially if that cause has an element of ego-dissolving hysteria in it. That’s the subject of the next post.

the downwards self-transcendence at Loudun

Appendix: Selected Quotes from Le Bon’s The Crowd

This book, first published in 1895, has impressed and influenced such dissimilar national leaders as Theodore Roosevelt, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The book’s wisdom is all the more striking when one considers that it was written by a French guy. (The book is obtainable for free at Project Gutenberg and elsewhere.)

The great upheavals which precede changes of civilisations such as the fall of the Roman Empire and the foundation of the Arabian Empire, seem at first sight determined more especially by political transformations, foreign invasion, or the overthrow of dynasties. But a more attentive study of these events shows that behind their apparent causes the real cause is generally seen to be a profound modification in the ideas of the peoples.

The dogmas whose birth we are witnessing will soon have the force of the old dogmas; that is to say, the tyrannical and sovereign force of being above discussion.

Certain historical events—and they are precisely the most important—I again repeat, are not to be understood unless one has attained to an appreciation of the religious form which the convictions of crowds always assume in the long run.

At the bottom of the social ladder the system creates an army of proletarians discontented with their lot and always ready to revolt, while at the summit it brings into being a frivolous bourgeoisie, at once sceptical and credulous, having a superstitious confidence in the State, whom it regards as a sort of Providence, but without forgetting to display towards it a ceaseless hostility, always laying its own faults to the door of the Government, and incapable of the least enterprise without the intervention of the authorities.

All words and all formulas do not possess the power of evoking images, while there are some which have once had this power, but lose it in the course of use, and cease to waken any response in the mind. They then become vain sounds, whose principal utility is to relieve the person who employs them of the obligation of thinking. Armed with a small stock of formulas and commonplaces learnt while we are young, we possess all that is needed to traverse life without the tiring necessity of having to reflect on anything whatever.

Taine justly observes that it was by invoking liberty and fraternity—words very popular at the time— that the Jacobins were able "to install a despotism worthy of Dahomey, a tribunal similar to that of the Inquisition, and to accomplish human hecatombs akin to those of ancient Mexico."

Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations, and the reason why socialism is so powerful today is that it constitutes the last illusion that is still vital. In spite of all scientific demonstrations it continues on the increase. Its principal strength lies in the fact that it is championed by minds sufficiently ignorant of things as they are in reality to venture boldly to promise mankind happiness.

Let us merely call to mind how tenacious, for centuries long, have been religious superstitions in contradiction with the simplest logic. For nearly two thousand years the most luminous geniuses have bowed before their laws, and modern times have to be reached for their veracity to be merely contested. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance possessed many enlightened men, but not a single man who attained by reasoning to an appreciation of the childish side of his superstitions, or who promulgated even a slight doubt as to the misdeeds of the devil or the necessity of burning sorcerers.

It is the need not of liberty but of servitude that is always predominant in the soul of crowds.

Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries.

The opinions and beliefs of crowds are specially propagated by contagion, but never by reasoning.

…every opinion adopted by the populace always ends in implanting itself with great vigour in the highest social strata, however obvious be the absurdity of the triumphant opinion.

Crowds always, and individuals as a rule, stand in need of ready-made opinions on all subjects. The popularity of these opinions is independent of the measure of truth or error they contain, and is solely regulated by their prestige.

It is easy to imbue the mind of crowds with a passing opinion, but very difficult to implant therein a lasting belief. However, a belief of this latter description once established, it is equally difficult to uproot it. It is usually only to be changed at the cost of violent revolutions. Even revolutions can only avail when the belief has almost entirely lost its sway over men's minds. In that case revolutions serve to finally sweep away what had already been almost cast aside, though the force of habit prevented its complete abandonment. 

The beginning of a revolution is in reality the end of a belief. The precise moment at which a great belief is doomed is easily recognisable; it is the moment when its value begins to be called in question.

Formerly it might have been correct to say that politics were not a matter of sentiment. Can the same be said today, when politics are more and more swayed by the impulse of changeable crowds, who are uninfluenced by reason and can only be guided by sentiment?

…it must not be forgotten that, given the power possessed at present by crowds, were a single opinion to acquire sufficient prestige to enforce its general acceptance, it would soon be endowed with so tyrannical a strength that everything would have to bend before it, and the era of free discussion would be closed for a long time.



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