John Michael

Leaving the club: The case for abandoning groupthink

Groupthink is the cornerstone of our social education. We join the club because everyone else does. But can we rescind our membership?

 

 

I was figuring out my own way to do math in third grade and I remember feeling excited that I was getting the right answers. The teacher said “No,” and made me go back to using those coloured bar deals, I think they call them rods.

Children have all sorts of interesting ideas and thoughts that no one listens to. So, after a while, they just quit thinking for themselves and join the herd. I am prone to people-pleasing anyway, so I learned to give them (and by “them” I mean everybody I met) exactly what they wanted to hear. You listen to the teacher, listen to the inflection in their voice, learn how they think about something, then that is what you give them in the paper. This became so natural to me that I did not even realise that was what I was doing.

I had a couple of pretty good professors in college and I could tell they were frustrated with the modern student. “Yes, but what do you think about the theory?” they would ask. Us students would be like, “We think what you think, duh.”

 

I understand the desire to shut your mouth, the need to belong to a trusted group is, I imagine, deeply imprinted in our DNA.

 

I started thinking for myself in grad school again. During my first semester at Portland State, I got a C in a class. All my other professors marked me highly, so I thought she was the problem. I did not know anything about grade inflation back then. But once you hit grad school, you are in a club and, Hey, we are happy to have you in the club so we can indoctrinate our way of thinking of you and into the world. We will give you false grades so you can carry our banner forward.

My grad school training was in social work. I was going to have a word with that professor who gave me a C. But by the time the next semester started, I told her she was right and that I would do better. You have to write some long papers for those fake grades. When I started the semester again, I decided I was going to write what I thought and see how it went. Well, it went just fine grades-wise.

I was on lithium at that time which did not seem to affect my thinking; what it did was mute all the shame, rage, and depression I was packing around to the point that I did not even know it was there. I was also living alone, which gave me plenty of time to think. I was also meditating and doing yoga so my thinking was very clear.

 

There was a tremendous amount of social pressure to be like they were and to think like they thought.

 

In psychology and social work, you have a lot of very good theories and models of how to go about things, based on what others have thought and what seems to work in the present. Nothing wrong with that. Well, I started speaking up in class about what I thought of things, “I like this and I think this is wrong and you know what about this.”

Professors started getting anxious and upset, other students were giving me dirty looks. There was a tremendous amount of social pressure to be like they were and to think like they thought. I understand the desire to shut your mouth, the need to belong to a trusted group is, I imagine, deeply imprinted in our DNA.

The same thing happens on Facebook and in our lives every day. This is how us liberals, libertarians, conservatives, Catholics, Baptists, Unitarians, hipsters think. Want in the club? Please regurgitate what we are thinking or find yourself disbanded.

The trouble with that is that ideas which aren’t working or serving anymore get held onto for the sake of group cohesion. So, you end up with a couple of dictators and a ton of people-pleasers in whatever group situation you find yourself in. Nobody’s happy, but, Hey, we are unhappy together, which beats being alone, doesn’t it?

 

John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain't necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: "A man's pursuit is his kindness." I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however. When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: "For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." When I read that I thought, "Hell, I have got a fighting chance." I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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