The Herd in the Head by Costica Bradatan

 Cartoon of the Day: Herd Mentality

‘Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists.’
– René Girard (1923-2015)

Have you noticed how, when crossing a busy road, you feel a sudden
urge to speed up and melt into the crowd? Whether you are in Rio de Janeiro
or Bangkok, New Delhi or New York City, your animal instinct tells you
that it is safer to venture as part of a herd than on your own. Fear
brings us closer together. The evidence is not just anecdotal. When we
are herding, neuroimaging experiments show increased activation in the
amygdala area of the brain, where fear and other negative emotions are
processed. While you may feel vulnerable and exposed on your own, being
part of the herd gives you a distinct sense of protection. You know in
your guts that, in the midst of others, the risk of being hit by a car
is lower because it is somehow distributed among the group’s members.
The more of them, the lower the risk. There is safety in numbers. And so
much more than mere safety.

Herding also comes with an intoxicating sense of power: as members of
a crowd, we feel much stronger and braver than we are in fact. And
sometimes we act accordingly. The same person who, on his own, wouldn’t
‘hurt a fly’ will not hesitate to set a government building on fire or
rob a liquor store when part of an angry mass. The most mild-mannered of
us can make the meanest comments as part of an online mob. A herd can
do wonders of psychological transformation in its individual members; in
no time, prudence turns into folly, caution into recklessness, decency
into savagery. Once caught up in the maelstrom, it is extremely
difficult to hold back: you see it as your duty to participate. Any act
of lynching, ancient or modern, literal or on social media, displays
this feature. ‘A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe
and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great
majority of men,’ writes Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power (1960).

The herd can also give its members a disproportionate sense of
personal worth. No matter how empty or miserable their individual
existence may otherwise be, belonging to a certain group makes them feel
accepted and recognised – even respected. There is no hole in one’s
personal life, no matter how big, that one’s intense devotion to one’s
tribe cannot fill, no trauma that it does not seem to heal. That’s why
cults and gangs, fringe organisations or sects hold such an
extraordinary appeal: to a disoriented soul, they can offer a sense of
fulfillment and recognition that neither family nor friends nor
profession can supply. A crowd can be therapeutic in the same way in
which a highly toxic substance can have curative powers.

Herding, then, engenders a paradoxical form of identity: you are
somebody not despite the fact that you’ve melted into the crowd, but
because of it. You may be nobody on your own, and your life an empty
shell, yet once you’ve managed to establish a meaningful connection with
the herd, its volcanic, boundless life overflows into yours and more
than fulfils it. You will not be able to find yourself in the crowd, but
that’s the least of your worries: you are now part of something that
feels so much grander and nobler than your poor self. Your connection
with the life of the herd not only fills an inner vacuum but adds a
sense of purpose to your disoriented existence. And the more individuals
bring their disorientatedness to the party, the livelier it gets. And
all the more dangerous.

These
are all instinctive reactions. No matter how much rationalisation we
do, they are the insidious working of biology in us. ‘We share with
other animals a surprisingly wide range of similar instincts to herd in
groups,’ observes the economist Michelle Baddeley in her book Copycats and Contrarians
(2018). That’s how we’ve survived, after all. A long evolutionary
history has conditioned us to herd, as a quick glance at our closest
animal relatives can confirm. The primatologist Frans de Waal, who has
studied the social and political behaviour of apes for decades,
concludes in his book Mama’s Last Hug
(2018) that primates are ‘made to be social’ – and ‘the same applies to
us.’ Living in groups is ‘our main survival strategy’. We may not all
be involved in cults, fringe organisations or populist politics, but we
are all wired for herding. We herd all the time: when we make war as
when we make peace, when we celebrate and when we mourn, we herd at work
and on vacation. The herd is not out there somewhere, but we carry it
within us. The herd is deeply seated in our mind.

As far as the practical conduct of our lives and our survival in the
world are concerned, this is not a bad arrangement. Thanks to the herd
in our minds, we find it easier to connect with others, to communicate
and collaborate with them, and in general to live at ease with one
another. Because of our herding behaviour, then, we stand a better
chance to survive as members of a group than on our own. The trouble
starts when we decide to use our mind against our biology. As
when we employ our thinking not pragmatically, to make our existence in
the world easier and more comfortable in some respect or another, but
contemplatively, to see our situation in its naked condition, from the
outside.

In such a situation, if we are to make any progress, we need to pull
the herd out of our mind and set it firmly aside, exceedingly difficult
as the task may be. This kind of radical thinking can be done only in
the absence of the herd’s influence in its many forms: societal
pressure, political partisanship, ideological bias, religious
indoctrination, media-induced fads and fashions, intellectual mimetism,
or any other -isms, for that matter. Such extraneous factors
tend to lead us astray, when not blinding us altogether. That’s why most
of the time we don’t produce new, genuine knowledge, but only recycle
the established (herd-sanctioned and herd-pleasing) knowledge on which
our society relies.

And what a splendid sight, this recycling! There is something
bordering on the religious in the way a society relates to its
established knowledge. Not only does it treasure it at its institutional
core – textbooks, encyclopaedias, academies, archives, museums –
thereby making sure it’s handled with utmost respect. It never stops
glorifying and sanctifying it, to the point where it turns it into a
religion. And for good reason: a society’s established knowledge is the
glue that keeps it together. Indeed, this unique concoction – a
combination of pious lies and convenient half-truths, useful prejudices
and self-flattering banalities – is what gives that society its specific
cultural physiognomy and, ultimately, its sense of identity. By
celebrating its established knowledge, that community celebrates itself.
Which, for the sociologist Émile Durkheim, is the very definition of
religion.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith observes in The Affluent Society
(1958) how the articulation of the mainstream knowledge (which he calls
‘conventional wisdom’) resembles ‘a religious rite’. This is, he
writes, an ‘act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or
going to church.’ Since a society can’t live and function without
rituals (sacred or profane, explicit or disguised), its established
knowledge needs to be celebrated – ritualistically, loudly, and with all
due reverence – in front of the gathered community. From this
perspective, scholars don’t get together to share some new insights and
groundbreaking theories, but to perform a Sunday service of sorts
whereby they reassure their society, and themselves, that the societal
glue is in good hands. They ‘gather in scholarly assemblages’, writes
Galbraith, ‘to hear in elegant statement what all have heard before.’
The purpose of the ritual ‘is not to convey knowledge but to beatify
learning and the learned.’ It is not surprising that, on such occasions,
scholars – as befitting the priestly caste that they are – sport a
special kind of dress, medieval regalia or some other wizard’s robes.
Think only of the peculiar uniform (l’habit vert) and the little funny sword (l’épée d’académicien)
that the members of the Institut de France wear when they gather for
the public performance of their priesthood. Woe to those who dare make
fun of the pompous affair.

I find it highly significant that
Western philosophy was founded, as we usually like to think, by an
eccentric and a contrarian – someone who made fun of the herd as a
matter of both personal vocation and intellectual method. Equally
significant, the herd put him to death for doing so. Socrates’
two-folded story illustrates, like few others, what radical thinking
typically involves: eccentricity and defiance, courage and even
arrogance, on the one hand, and suspicion and resistance, resentment and
eventually revenge, on the other. A daring act of nonconformity to
society’s demands, followed promptly by a bloody societal response –
that’s how philosophising was born in the West. And this trauma of birth
has never really left philosophy: any subsequent re-enactment
of the Socratic daring would reactivate, to some extent or another, the
societal hostility. The more defiant the philosopher’s nonconformity,
the blunter the society’s response.

Speaking of literary artists, André Gide observed once that:

the real value of an author consists in his revolutionary
force, or more exactly … in his quality of opposition. A great artist is
of necessity a ‘nonconformist’ and he must swim against the current of his day.

What Gide says about the ‘great artist’ applies to the great
philosopher, too. The ability to ‘swim against the current’ should be
seen as an absolute prerequisite for the thinking profession. A thinker
will make no difference unless she goes against what her society
treasures and celebrates as established knowledge, and exposes the
substantial herding involved, not only in its making, but also in the
rituals of its preservation and sanctification. This usually means an
open confrontation with the priestly caste in charge of preserving the
established knowledge, followed by the thinker’s marginalisation,
excommunication and ostracisation. To the extent that she manages to do
all of this, she will have pulled the herd out of her mind and shrugged
off the claims that her society, openly or more insidiously, places on
her thinking. The philosopher may be utterly alone at this stage,
scar-covered and almost defeated, yet her thinking is clearer and more
profound than ever for it has freed itself from the herd’s bondage.

This is what has happened during some of the best moments in the
history of thinking. Socrates’ contrarian baton was passed on to a
series of philosophical mavericks, as colourful as they there were
daring: from Diogenes the Cynic to Hypatia to Spinoza to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil.
In one way or another, openly or in a more guarded manner, they all
went against the herd-thinking of their times, leaving a trail of
intellectual heresy, bold insights, and often social scandal. Through
what they did, such figures have kept the thinking alive in a world
where everything, thinking included, tends to fall into patterns and
routines, and eventually atrophy and die as a result. We are so made,
apparently, that we need to have a thorn in the flesh to stay
spiritually awake and intellectually alive. The contrarian thinkers
gladly oblige to provide us the necessary discomfort.

In his book On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill
comes at one point to praise eccentricity, of all things. It is the
‘eccentrics’, he suggests, who keep the world running through their
generous supply of bold perspectives, fresh insights and new ideas.
‘Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make
eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that
tyranny, that people should be eccentric,’ he writes. The more
eccentrics there are, the better the moral and intellectual state of the
world: ‘Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of
character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has
generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and
moral courage which it contained.’

It is this redeeming ‘eccentricity’ that contrarians possess in
abundance. The novelty and sharpness of their thinking come in large
part from their determination to stay outside the circle that any group,
explicitly or tacitly, draws in the sand to define itself. Left out as
they are, contrarians are not only in a good position to observe how
herding, marginalisation and exclusion work, but they no longer have
anything to lose by articulating and broadcasting their heretical views.
They are what ‘public intellectuals’ should ideally be – uncompromising
‘critics of society’ – and what, in practice, very few of them are.
It’s the vigour of their dissent, the force of their language, and the
seriousness of their commitment – their ‘quality of opposition’, in
Gide’s words – that turn them into such formidable figures. That,
incidentally, is also what distinguishes genuine contrarians from mere
provocateurs, for whom challenging the establishment is not a matter of
intellectual duty and inner conviction, but above all a form of
attention-seeking and a histrionic compulsion to entertain.

The peculiar cut of the contrarians’ minds, their innate distrust of
anything authoritative or established, their iconoclasm and radical
separation from the society into which they were born, all conspires to
give them access to a higher truth than their society can afford to
hear. Contrarians don’t care for fads and fashions, authorities and
hierarchies, and have little patience for the rituals of the
establishment. Since they have cut off their ties with their tribe,
nothing prevents them from seeing things as they are. Their dissent
doesn’t only free them, it gives them new eyes. Outstandingly learned as
he may have been already, Spinoza’s philosophical formation was
complete only when he was formally expelled from his community. The
unusually harsh herem (‘Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by
night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises
up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in…’)
helped young Baruch become the Spinoza we know today. The violent
expulsion from the safety of their community, and into an unknown and
cold world, amounts to a new birth for the contrarians. Thanks to the
traumatic act, they have now come into full existence.

We shouldn’t get too excited, though.
That contrarians cut such a brave figure doesn’t mean they will
prevail. For all their panache, courage and occasional success,
contrarians are never winners. They may win a battle or two, but they
can’t win the war. Since even our most lively and spontaneous acts
sooner or later succumb to patterns and routine, it is the establishment
that prevails in the long run, even if sometimes it has to make
tactical retreats and adjustments in the process. As the embodiment of a
community’s herd-sanctioned thinking, the intellectual establishment is
victor by default. Its confrontation with the contrarians, though, is a
sight to behold.

At first, the establishment will seek to crush and silence its
contesters. Not that it cannot afford to tolerate dissent but, like any
form of organised power, it needs to project self-assurance,
steadfastness and invincibility. Indeed, the rituals of marginalisation,
exclusion and scapegoating are meant to bring the community tighter
together – and rally it around its centre of power. By violently
expelling the undesirables, the group reassures itself both of its
righteousness and of its strength. The leaders of Amsterdam’s Portuguese
Synagogue who excommunicated
Spinoza were harsh for a reason. If, for all their best efforts, the
exclusion fails and the dissenters’ voices continue to be heard (from
the neighbouring city, from abroad, or even from beyond the grave), the
establishment will pretend to ignore them: that which hasn’t received
our stamp of approval is of no real value. Finally, when it becomes
clear that even that does not work, the establishment takes its most
drastic measure, one that rarely fails: it embraces the contrarians’
discourse and renders them mainstream. If Kierkegaard proves to be too
hard to get rid of or ignore, let’s terminate him by digesting his
thinking in a textbook format, and then teaching it to bored
undergraduates. No genuine thinking can stand that. If you can’t
suppress Nietzsche, you can do something even more damaging to him: turn
him into a field of academic study. What doesn’t kill me makes me more
ridiculous. That Nietzsche himself anticipated the move does not make
the blow any less lethal.

You can’t miss the irony: contrarians define themselves against
the establishment, mock it savagely, and do everything in their power
to undermine it. And what does the establishment do? It turns them into
an –ism. Rarely has revenge been sweeter. No sooner did Spinoza
die than Spinozism was born. Should Nietzsche miraculously come back to
life today, he would die again, of shame and embarrassment, to see how
we ‘problematise’ his insights in our Nietzsche courses, seminars and
conferences. Walter Benjamin’s habilitation thesis was deemed
unsatisfactory by the University of Frankfurt, which denied him access
to a teaching career. Today, there are few universities where Benjamin’s
work – his habilitation thesis included – is not subjected to
mind-numbing ‘problematisation’. While he was alive, Emil Cioran waged
merciless war against universities. He thought them to be a public
danger – ‘the death of the spirit’. Academics have just started
‘problematising’ him. The establishment always wins.

The end-result of this vindictive ‘problematisation’ is a highly processed product, as tasteless as it is unhealthy: canned thinking.
Ideas that were once fresh and wild and pulsating with life have been
thoroughly exsanguinated, cleansed and sterilised – and then drowned in a
heavy sauce of impenetrable jargon, for conservation. Jargon is the key
ingredient here, the transmutation agent. For it is primarily through
the work of jargon that the academic herd finally defeats the
contrarians. Nothing can stand its corrosion; nothing remains the same.
Everything that used to be irreducibly personal, colourful and weird in
the contrarians’ writings is now reduced to an impersonal common
denominator. Jargon brings everyone in line, makes no discrimination,
shows no favouritism – and no mercy. It’s equality gone crazy.

It would be wrong to say that jargon is just an ‘academic style’.
Jargon is not a style – it is the death of style. It is slow
assassination. Drowned in jargon and subjected to its corrosive work,
the stylistic richness of the contrarians doesn’t stand a chance. You
take this canned version of their thinking into your mouth to taste, and
you feel nothing. No matter how savoury and flavourful and wholesome
the contrarians are in themselves, and how different from each other,
they now taste more or less the same – the unfailing sameness of
processed thought. You look for some traces of their unique spirit in
what’s been written about them – peer-reviewed articles, conference
proceedings, doctoral dissertations, college textbooks and whatnot – but
you look in vain: all you can find is blandness.

The system has swallowed them up, masticated them thoroughly, and
then spat them out. The contrarians are now safe for public consumption.
And utterly defeated.

Have you noticed how, in today’s
academia, we feel an urge to speed up and flock toward the centre of the
herd? Afraid to be left out, exposed and vulnerable, we would do
anything to be where the pack is most dense. Whether we are in London or
Los Angeles, in Paris or Beijing, we always seek to melt into the
academic herd – as if this were the most natural thing for a scholar to
do. Our survival instinct tells us that it is safer to go with the herd,
and not against it – indeed, to be at the centre of it, rather than at
its margins. We use a fancy term for it, ‘networking’, though that will
fool no one: it’s an instinctive reaction, the barely disguised
expression of the drive to survive.

To inhabit the centre, where most of the resources seem to be
concentrated, we will do anything: work on whatever topic happens to be
trendy, whether we have something to say on it or not; blindly imitate
those in positions of power and influence; adopt the phraseology à la mode
and the latest jargon, no matter how tasteless or silly; avoid taking
risks in any serious matters, and in general refrain from anything that
would make us stand out and jeopardise our safety. In our heart of
hearts, we know that, for anyone who aspires to genuine knowledge – to
see things as they are – this political game is a recipe to failure, but
that does not worry us too much. ‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is
better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed
unconventionally,’ observed John Maynard Keynes about a century ago.
When your main aspiration is to stay at the herd’s centre, you do
whatever the herd’s conventions tell you to do – reputation or no
reputation.

In his eccentric hymn to eccentricity, John Stuart Mill said this
about his age: ‘That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief
danger of the time.’ In retrospect, though, Mill’s time looks like the
most contrarian of ages. The year 1859, when On Liberty was published, was also when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species came out, as well as Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.
Nietzsche had begun his studies at Schulpforta the year before and was
ready to make a splash. Kierkegaard had been dead for only four years,
and his ideas just started having an impact (The Point of View of My Work as an Author
was published in 1859, too). Dostoevsky had just been released from his
compulsory military service, which came with his prison sentence – his
brilliant literary career all ahead of him. If Mill’s intellectual
generation was in ‘danger’ for lack of eccentrics, ours must be beyond
redemption.

Our herding in matters of thinking, as in everything else, is so
pervasive, and our intellectual conformism so advanced, that we almost
don’t even see Mill’s problem. Thinking, which was supposed to give us
detachment from the working of the survival instinct, has now become
indistinguishable from herding itself. We pursue knowledge not to keep
our herding in check, but to better satisfy its demands. And to increase
our power over others. Indeed, since it is in the nature of academic
power to be maintained through a combination of ruthlessness and
moralisation, we engage in abject behaviour even as we preach virtue
with might and main. Bullying and grandstanding. We sign open letters
asking for the dismissal of some of our colleagues, conduct character
assassination campaigns on social media against others, and subject
still others to intense ‘struggle sessions’ – all in the name of some
superior morality and noble politics. The lower we go in our actions,
the higher in our preaching. We are not just any kind of mob. We are an
impossible thing: the scholarly mob.

We are seriously sick, and it is little consolation that the
condition from which we suffer (chronic gregaritis) seems to have become
the norm; a disease is no less serious just because almost everyone has
it. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
(1841), Charles Mackay observes that people ‘think in herds; it will be
seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses
slowly, and one by one.’ If we are ever to recover our wits, it is
crucial that we learn how to unherd. We may be hard-wired for herding,
and our survival may be due to it, but we can become spiritually whole
only away from the crowd. Biology and spirit belong to opposite realms.

Ironically, what we need most badly now is something that’s most
difficult to get in our age of compulsive conformism: an authentic
contrarian spirit. It is from contrarians and dissenters and other
pariahs that we can learn the craft of unherding, and yet they are few
and far between. And, if that was not bad enough, even if we managed to
get hold of them, their cure will be precarious, uncertain and
unlasting. For, again, in the grand scheme of things, it is the
establishment that prevails.

Which is all the more reason to go contrarian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s