Buzz Words and the Power of Mob-Think













FREEDOM! REVOLUTION! CHOICE! LIFE! JUSTICE! Words that reach deep into the American soul, the heart of the moral order, even when they are demanding liberation from that order. All express the feeling that something is wrong or has gone wrong with society and the frustration with a government that no longer can solve anything. Fair enough, and the right to protest is also deep in our souls. But protesters are also responsible for the consequences. Movements gain power through mob-think and the exultation of power for a cause—a social good beyond ourselves. The power of unity, of belonging. But they also carry us to extremes beyond reason and moral restraint.

In the past two years, we’ve seen the war cry of FREEDOM lead the far-right to attack the Capitol. We heard the exultation of the mob carrying out a REVOLUTION. And we watched the resulting destruction. Since then, declaring themselves free of Political Correctness, the far right has treated us all to burning mosques, hate crimes, and gun violence until we bury our heads in shame.

The same far right group uses JUSTICE to justify “cowboy justice” against “the enemies threatening the culture.” Worse, they have given Trump the right to execute justice without benefit of laws or courts. The institutions and laws of justice are corrupt, so Trump is the lone cowboy riding into town to fix everything. The soldiers of freedom have anointed a dictator.

On the left, we’ve seen Senator Sanders use the word REVOLUTION to cost the Democrats one election and fire up the youth to split the party. As destructive as revolutions are in fact, the word carries irresistible appeal for those who identify as “idealists,” as opposed to those who have dirtied themselves by participating in the political system. As one of the “dirtied” ones, I’ve been subjected to their self-congratulatory preening enough to know its destructiveness and felt the effect of silencing the moderates.

To those who question my inclusion of the word CHOICE above, I do so because its use as a buzzword has carried the issue of abortion beyond the serious thought it deserves. It is a soul-wrenching problem. To escape its seriousness by redefining the beginning of life is, I suspect, simply word-play and of little comfort to a sixteen-year-old facing pregnancy. The opponents’ use of LIFE is no better, and the locked-down war only assures it will never be addressed as the problem it is—including teaching that sixteen-year-old the seriousness of the act itself and the consequences of the wrong choice.

Quieter, but perhaps far more widespread buzz words drove the Reagan era of TAKE CARE OF NUMBER ONE! No protest marches were needed for this one. It simply called out the suspicion of government that seems built into the American psyche, and the world of business, where COMPETITION is the number one (or only) virtue. In teaching critical thinking, I’ve asked college freshmen to choose the most important values from Browne and Keeley’s values chart (Asking the Right Questions). Cooperation and Competition will divide students into conservatives and liberals almost without exception. Ask them whether as members of athletic teams they could identify those who played for themselves, and they could—unanimously and without hesitation. Though the phrase was used in the women’s movement to encourage women to stand up for themselves, its dominance in wider society has been a huge force in degenerating individualism into selfishness—as de Tocqueville predicted it would.

Thirty years of conservatism has done little to shrink government—its central goal—but a great deal to corrupt it. The belief that those who choose government service lack ambition, brains, strength, or have some other character defect is commonplace. The conservatives didn’t invent it—I remember such talk about doctors who chose Public Health Service from my childhood—but it has gained the strength of TRUTH. Teaching suffers the same devaluation in the colleges I’ve been a part of—those who teach do so because they can’t think of anything else to do, or “Those who can’t do, teach.” Thus do buzz words become beliefs and self-fulfilling prophesies. Think of the effect of that devaluation on education and on the quality of government.

Ironically, I seem to have discovered the value of emotion just in time for the world to show me what damage unrestrained passion can do. My parents’ fear of this led them to restrict expression of feeling too absolutely, and as a consequence, unable to deal with emotional crises. The power of creativity lies in that emotional domain and has been of too great a benefit to me—and to the world—to call it selfishness, though in the Midwestern Protestant ethic of my parents, any personal interest outside social roles falls into this category.

The extreme of the “work ethic” that outlaws all but breadwinning for the men and motherhood for the women invites revolt from both genders. The women have done so, and unfortunately their movement is now suffering from the extremes that revolt invites. Corporate America has both men and liberated women locked onto their cell phones twenty/four seven, an extreme that denies even the value of home and family. It makes one wonder whether extremes are somehow written into our DNA. But that is subject of another blog.

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