Against a Mob Mentality

One of my favorite movies is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Looking beyond the chilling plot of the movie—an elusive and deadly virus wipes out a large part of the world’s population—at its core is a kernel of truth that strikes much closer to home: sometimes, the virus of an idea can be more dangerous than a virus of the body.

While the government and world health organizations are working around the clock to find a cure and law enforcement and medical personnel are heroically doing their jobs when all seems lost—everyone who is “in the know” doing everything they can to save lives and keep the world together—there is one character spreading conspiracy theories and inciting a revolt. The government has a cure but they won’t share it with us. There is a cheap cure that the government is trying to coverup and refuses to test. I have been cured by this miraculous drug, so buy my product.

What ensues is mass chaos. Starting first with only those desperate and deranged enough to believe this man’s conspiracy theories (and unable to see how he is profiting greatly from it), some people take to the streets in fits of anger. If they’re not going to help me, I’m going to help myself. Stores are looted. Pharmacy workers are assaulted so they can get more of the “miracle drug.” Laws are disregarded. And while it started as only a few loud and violent people setting the example, their tearing at the fabric of society left the rest of the world with no choice: unless we also start looting, disregarding the law, fighting for our place, and standing up to the government, we won’t survive.

A mob mentality. Uninformed and seeing their peers acting a certain way, rational people find themselves guided by their anger and doing completely irrational things. Surrounded by so many others, they never question their motives, check their facts, search for alternatives, or know when to stop. Things just snowball out of control.

I present this rather dark picture as an extreme example of the tendency many of us have been prone to in recent years. While the increased political nature of our culture represents a people no longer willing to stand aside and be passive when their moral convictions are being challenged—undoubtedly a good thing—the critical thinking, respect for others, patience in due process, and willingness to respond constructively that needs to accompany political and social action has not increased as much. Conspiracy theories have become mainstream, vocal and violent minority groups scare the majority out of rational thinking, misinformation quickly circulates without question, and truth seems to have narrowed to but a singular expression, usually the one that I hold. Those people are wrong, we think. There is an emerging mob mentality in our world.

Oh, and yes, in our Church as well. This week showed us two prime examples.

The first is the case of Fr. James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large of America Magazine, acclaimed author, and consultor to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications. The recent author of a book about building bridges between the Church and the LGBT community, Martin says that he has faced unrelenting hate mail from some in the Church in recent months. Led by three minority but extremely vocal fringe groups in the Church, a campaign of voices directed this anger towards his venues in hopes of “getting him fired.” Despite his talks being about Jesus and not LGBT issues, despite being in good standing with the Church and being officially chosen by the Vatican for a special position, and despite his book in question having the imprimitur of the Jesuit provincial and approved by multiple cardinals of the Church… these venues cowered to the hate speech and cancelled his talks. Even publicly admitted that they did not disagree with what he was going to say, they simply feared the mob.

Another case, same situation. Enter Rebecca Bratten Weiss, college professor and founder of The New Pro Life Movement, an organization focused on integrating Cardinal Bernadine’s “seamless garment” and giving more attention to women’s rights within the “pro life” movement. The recent subject of an attack by one of the same fringe groups that attacked Martin, Weiss’ support of Cardinal Bernadine (yes, a cardinal of the Church), questioning of the mechanics of the current “pro life” movement to make it better, and even her personal life, were brutally chastised online, causing an outcry against the university. This week, Weiss was released from her position, and the president made an official statement to the website in question, assuring its followers that she had been released.

Two recent examples, but not the only ones. Lest what I’m trying to point out be misconstrued as a partisan statement (a criticism that might ironically serve to prove my point), this sort of mob mentality exists on the right and on the left, in the middle and in the apathetic: uninformed people going with the masses and using violence or the power of their voice rather than rational and respectful arguments, is not the exclusive domain of any one group. As we have seen in 2017 alone, mob mentality is everywhere.

And… while I know that this is going to be a longer post than normal, but short answers and loud voices won’t cut it in such a complex situation. I think that this is a critically important issue of our time that needs our attention, and I would like to offer a few suggestions that could help us, as Church, avoid this terrible trap.

There are more than two sides

In our American political system, there are really only two parties: Democrats and Republicans. While there are technically hundreds of parties, no one will ever get elected or do anything significant from outside of these two. Because of this, we are often faced with a false dichotomy: we are told that there are only two answers to a question and we have to choose one. “Which side are you on?” is a famous question to divide people.

The fact of the matter, though, is that every issue has multiple positions one could take, and often, we arbitrarily accept the opinion of a certain party even when it doesn’t fit our view 100%. In doing so, we not only cheapen our own perspective, but we make it easier to see the other as enemy: rather than realizing that there is a spectrum of perspectives and that most people don’t fit perfectly in the box but lean one way or another, we unfairly write people off as “those people” or from “that party” when their opinion might actually be fairly close to ours to begin with. When we realize that there are actually 10, 20, even 50 different ways of looking at things, we are much more likely to engage our neighbor and realize that we have something in common to build off of.

To combat a mob mentality, we need move away from broad categories of large groups and focus on individual people and ideas.

Some sides are in fact wrong: Fact checking

In our post-modern, post-fact world, we have placed the individual above all. While there is definitely a sense in which one’s experience and way they understand the world is valid, as it is their experience, and should be cherished as such, just because something has personal meaning does not mean that it is universally or objectively factual. A good example is something I saw on the news last year. A politician said that his constituents did not feel as safe as they did twenty years ago, therefore, the world was not as safe. It may be true that they do not feel as safe, but statistically speaking, his constituents were drastically less likely to be murdered today. Personally true, factually false and part of a mob mentality when continued to be spread.

I can’t tell you how many times I open my Facebook and see well-intentioned, nice, non-crazy people posting things that are not factually accurate. Usually it’s not a complete lie or slander. No, what I’m talking about is the thing that “sounds” right, comes from a quasi-reputale source, and is about something they like… but is a bit fuzzy on the details. A growing example of this is climate change. Scientifically speaking, there’s no doubt that the earth is warming and that humans are the main cause. And yet, that doesn’t mean that everything weather-related can be used to prove the effects of climate change. A huge hurricane season could be climate change, but it could also be within the statistical probability of a normal climate. One data point does not prove the whole.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to be informed and think critically.

But many sides can be right at the same time: Pluralism is not relativism

On the other hand, just because there might be wrong answers does not mean that there is always only one right answer. Is there only one way to climb a mountain? Surely not. And even though two people may not go along the same path, they can absolutely get to the same place.

As Catholics, those who hold that there are absolute truths about the world, this may sound a lot like relativism, the idea that everything is just as right as another. That’s not what I’m saying. Pluralism, rather than relativism, recognizes that there are absolute truths or ends about the world, but there are also multiple ways of expressing and understanding that truth. Look at our liturgy. Even within the West, the Vatican has allowed the modified Latin rite of the mass to be celebrated along with the normal, preferred rite of Vatican II, as well as having recognized a number of Eastern rites and communions to maintain their own separate traditions. Each are fundamentally different in gesture, purpose, and even outcome, but they all point to the same absolute truth.

In our religious world especially, controversy tends to boil over because we are unable to accept that there might be a different perspective that also holds truth. When we see the way people approach Church, God, family, ministry, and the outside world, there is a temptation in our world to write people off as a false Church, as heretics, as not the true believers. This, I firmly believe, is the result of a lack of faith. Unable to see that God is complex and not capable of being boxed into our small brains, anything that differs from our understanding challenges the validity of our faith… and it has to be stopped. It is easier to call someone a heretic, to protest their talks, to get someone fired, to belittle them as stupid, to laugh at them, or to ignore them than it is to engage what they are saying, where they are coming from, and the ways in which they might be right.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to broaden our worldview and live in the complexity of God’s mystery.

The Church has survived worse

Finally, there is no doubt that our world is witnessing dangers and fears that many of us have never seen before. We are, in some ways, at a turning point in world history, at a fever pitch of tension.

And yet, there’s also a sense that there is nothing new under the sun. The Cold War was much more dangerous than our times. The 1960s and 70s experienced much more social upheaval than today. The 1940s produced more war and death. The 1930s saw a much greater collapse of our world economy. The early 1800s resulted in a much greater cataclysmic tear in the fabric of the religious world. The 1600s witnessed a world in which Protestants and Catholics were murdering each other for different beliefs. Between 800 and 1100 the Church had a pope that sold the papacy, priests becoming overwhelmingly wealthy for doing little work, Church wealth used for war and opulence, and the intellectual decline of our theology. And so on. The Church and world has seen some stuff.

And it has prevailed.

So often in our arguments, our intensity and passion is the result of a narrow perspective: deep down, I think believe that this issue is the most important of history. This issue, whatever one we’re fighting about, proves how terrible the world is, how far we’ve fallen, and that there’s no hope… we have to fight above all else to win it. Too often, we make the stakes too high on the issues, gives ourselves too much credit in being responsible for causing/solving them, and we go nuclear when things don’t go well, failing to live for tomorrow because we believe that everything comes down to this one thing or to us.

There are important issues in our day. Absolutely. And we should definitely be passionate and serious about the world. But we also need to remember that the Church has survived worse. It is not up to us to be its savior, nor is it up to us to employ any means necessary to win an argument—personal attacks, creating false dichotomies, acts of violence, hatred, moral decay—undermining our cause to uphold the kingdom of God by acting against it. We are called to remember that this is God’s institution, not ours, and God will ultimately hold it together, not us.

To combat a mob mentality, we need to take a deep breath and remember that it’s going to be okay. At least in the long run.

I think our world and Church desperately needs these things. To stand for justice and truth, as mobs believe that they are doing, but to do so free of broad, inflexible categories of right and wrong; without personally attacking those with whom we disagree but working to bring the fold together; in integrity for real truth, not just the truth that supports our claims; and with the humility to know that we work for this Church but we are ultimately not responsible for it.

When we do this, standing together for what we believe and engaging the world, we are not a mob… we are a Church.

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8 Comments on “Against a Mob Mentality

  1. Oops! Very fine piece needs fact-checking re: Fr. Jim’s title at America.

  2. Well framed and thought out response to cyber-madness that is permeating the media. Bullies are like petulant children and in my opinion, these cyber-bullies fit into that category. As we grow up, we put away our childish ways and start acting like the adults we are. It is far more adult to sit down with whom we disagree and have constructive dialogue, rather than lob verbal bombs over the fence with whom we disagree. Open my mind that I may understand, open my eyes that I may see, open my ears that I may hear and open my heart that I may love like you Lord.

  3. The problem now seems to be no one knows the truth about what Fr Martin is saying, or if the other side is exaggerating. I’ve heard the Militants accusations but can’t get handle on if Martin denied or just “side-stepping” his reply.
    Can’t have civil discourse when civil discourse becomes the topic. The reason for the tiff initially doesn’t get solved/answered.

  4. Well written article on a complex topic To some degree it appears more and more the needs of a few outweigh the needs of the many. Thank you.

  5. Marshall McLuhan (a convert to Catholicism) famously argued that electricity caused a shift in collective consciousness within nation-state democracies from their post-Enlightenment standard of rational individualism to what he called tribalism. Hence his oft-quoted line, “The [electric] medium is the message.” I suspect that he would agree with much of the content of this article, notably its appeal for understanding, particularly among Catholics, but question its form, namely its online fabric, whose effect on consciousness is no inconsequential matter. Put bluntly, do actual experiences of reading this article off a digital screen align with the appeal for pluralism that it projects or are they formally no different from any other possible online experience, whatever one’s disposition to it, ranging from delusive expectations of anonymity to degrees of technological sophistication and/or sheer visionary intuition?

    While the article does not explicitly address my question at the level of content, it nonetheless raises it in effect, I submit. Consider, for instance, the following statement:

    “Lest what I’m trying to point out be misconstrued as a partisan statement (a criticism that might ironically serve to prove my point), this sort of mob mentality exists on the right and on the left, in the middle and in the apathetic: uninformed people going with the masses and using violence or the power of their voice rather than rational and respectful arguments, is not the exclusive domain of any one group.”

    On one level, this statement is likely to align any reader’s experience with the article’s pluralistic appeal. For example, those who are already in agreement may find appealing the rhetorical strategy of anticipating mob-like disagreement as a means of disrupting it (hopefully for the ultimate purpose of promoting the article’s concept of respectful disagreement), and those who are inclined to react unthinkingly to the article are at the very least in this instance compelled to think about the fact that their reaction has been to one degree or another anticipated (which may have the residual effect of persuading otherwise unthinking readers to take the article seriously, obviously in keeping with its pluralistic appeal).

    But on another level – specifically at the level of digital pixels, Big Brother apparatuses, and so on – the statement is, I think, effectively symptomatic of the mob-like mentality of the digitized atmosphere of our world’s falling state-capitalist scenery. Specifically, in gesturing (no doubt sincerely) toward familiar fixations with nominal non-partisanship (i.e., appearances of objectivity that are actually, in many cases, overly subjective, partisan, etc.) the statement risks feeding into such fixations, even as it may simultaneously promote genuine thoughtfulness. In other words, the statement, if is to be effective in the pluralistic sense intended, requires a certain kind of reader, either one who is already agreed or one who can find points of agreement within its overt framework; however, the actual form of its framework is the Internet itself, which to point out the obvious (as one might to a fish in water) allows for a much wider range of responses. As such, the article, contrary to its noble and not totally ineffective intentions, does not ultimately transcend the mess whose clean-up it seeks to help advance.

    To be honest, I don’t have a worked-out answer beyond the above observations. This concluding thought will have to do. Normal Mailer once pointed out in a conversation with McLuhan that the latter frustratingly never seems to take a moral stance on the “electric age” that he otherwise eruditely describes. Later on, in another context, Mailer opined that he’d lost the grandiosity of his youth in which he thought that novels could change the world for the better. Instead, he realized that the world could only be improved if everyone were a just a “little bit better” than they normally are (I quote from memory). I believe that the answer has much to do with the effective unity of (1) transcendental impulses (of which Catholic faith is one, in spite of the fact that I don’t literally share it), (2) impulses toward genuine objectivity like that of McLuhan (though I think he missed the mark in many ways, not just in the way that Mailer perceived), and (3) impulses toward authentic subjectivity (which, I think, can be found in literature, if not Mailer’s work per se, but more importantly in the creativity of any human being who refuses to conform to standards that are imposed, even if doing so makes one appear totally irrational).

    Best wishes.

  6. PS: Perhaps I could qualify a couple of my above phrases, which otherwise might come across as overly harsh.

    (1) The idea that the article is “symptomatic of the mob-like mentality” under consideration. I simply mean that it technically is, in part, a carrier for the problem that it seeks to solve. Analogously, a doctor can inadvertently become infected by and thereby spread an illness while simultaneously attending necessarily to the sick. As you similarly point out, “sometimes, the virus of an idea can be more dangerous than a virus of the body.”

    (2) The article doesn’t “transcend the mess that it whose clean-up it seeks to help advance.” This is basically a restatement of (1).

  7. Big “Amen”, Friar. Thank you for re-adjusting our thinking caps.

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