May 1, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

If a contest were held to determine which word best describes the novel era in which we currently live, “uncertainty” might win the prize. About where we go from here and what to expect, there are numerous opinions. But the most honest prognosticators humbly admit that no one knows for certain. This pandemic territory is largely uncharted, and we’ll know what lies around the bend when we get there.

But we don’t like that.

As I’ve written before, it’s human nature to prefer certainty over ambiguity and tolerating the unknown is uncomfortable for most of us. Whenever such vacuums of vagueness arise, there will always be people willing to fill them in, offering the certainty we so greatly crave. It’s usually the case that their individual voices become amplified when part of a crowd.

Crowds aren’t inherently bad. I mean, most of us like the collective enthusiasm of sporting events, for instance. But it’s been my observation that crowds tend to devolve from good to bad, from noble to sinister. In these pandemic times, examples abound. A crowd may protest while toting weapons and tiki torches, or it may be a virtual crowd comprised of social media compatriots who vigorously reinforce each other’s opinions. A crowd offers the comfort of certainty when certainty is in short supply.

Here’s my way of describing how winsome assemblies morph into angry crowds.

Stage One

People start out forming coalitions of the like-minded. They’re individuals with shared commitments who find strength in numbers. They not only know what they believe but why they believe it. Consequently, members of the assembly tend to be people of individual conviction.

While they understand the reasons for their beliefs, they’re humble about. And their humility is apparent to those whom they attempt to persuade. They don’t come across as know-it-alls, and their meekness may soften the hearts of the skeptical. And they demonstrate a tolerance for disagreement.

Above all, they advocate for what’s true. Being accurate is more important than simply being right, and they’ll adjust their opinions if sufficiently convincing information comes along.

Their motivation stems more from what they know than what they feel. And the nobility of the group’s cause tends to make the individual group members better versions of themselves.

Stage Two

The group becomes an end unto itself. Members are motivated less by the original cause and more by maintaining the group’s existence. People still know what they believe but tend to forget why they started believing those things in the first place.

This is a tipping point in the assembly’s devolution.

Stage Three

Individual opinions give way to the collective opinions of the group. Subtly, the stance becomes, “If the group believes it, so do I.” The once deeply-held convictions morph into superficially-held beliefs.

Whereas Stage One assemblies are inspired, Stage Three crowds tend to be angry. They seem less interested in persuading outsiders and more invested in condemning those who disagree. And disagreers are made to pay a price for their dissent.

In this stage, group members are more likely to make decisions based on emotions than the intellect. Stage One members can keep their emotions in check. Stage Three members tend to let emotions run amok.

Crowd power at Stage Three is a destructive force. Impulses that are normally restrained are given implicit permission to be expressed. Your “better angels” are encouraged to fly in Stage One. Your road-rage self is given tracks to run on in Stage Three.

***

In summary, here’s how I would summarize the differences between winsome assemblies and angry crowds:

 

Winsome assembly: Humility

Angry crowd: Arrogance

 

Winsome assembly: Appealing

Angry crowd: Repulsive

 

Winsome assembly: Influences outsiders

Angry crowd: Preaches to its “choir”

 

Winsome assembly: The goal is to persuade skeptics

Angry crowd: The goal is to destroy opponents

 

Winsome assembly: Tolerant of diverse opinions

Angry crowd: Intolerant of contrary opinions

 

Winsome assembly: Individual thought is encouraged

Angry crowd: Only collective thought is permitted

 

Winsome assembly: Brings out your best

Angry crowd: Brings out your worst

 

Winsome assembly: Its influence endures

Angry crowd: Its influence is short-lived

 

Winsome assembly: Personal integrity is encouraged

Angry crowd: Personal hypocrisy is overlooked

 

Winsome assembly: Chief drive is the intellect

Angry crowd: Chief drive is the emotions

 

Winsome assembly: Self-awareness

Angry crowd: Blind to their own faults

 

Winsome assembly: Unity

Angry crowd: Uniformity

 

Winsome assembly: Allegiance to truth

Angry crowd: Allegiance to tribe

 

I recently read The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., a collection of King’s first-person writings compiled by Clayborne Carson. King led what was arguably the most influential social change movement in American history.

He was well-aware of the difficulties of keeping his movement focused on non-violent methods and avoiding the gravitational pull of angry crowd tendencies.

As the years went by and progress was uneven, he came under increasing pressure to alter his methods. In this context, he made a statement that expressed where he landed: “I would rather be a man of conviction than a man of conformity.”

King understood more than most that a winsome assembly is far more persuasive—and likely to bring about needed change—than an angry crowd.

Would that pandemic warriors apply that principle.

Till next week.

7 replies
  1. Jody
    Jody says:

    This group response to a human characteristic behavior of avoiding the underlying fear of uncertainty of the unknown, speaks to the heart of all groups. According to Robert Abray, Stimulation, identityy and security are the results of coping with internal unknowns within the collective unconscious. However, at this restrictive time, accepting the unknowns being present in the moment is not easy. So it’s a struggle between the addictive qualities of the ego and the letting go process into emptiness of the unknown. But perhaps its like freedom to explore our wisdom, our great potential, to conect with all beings, to love. So for now, I intend to live with in the world of accepting the unknowns, unless the ego takes over.
    Many thanks for expanding this human drama.

    Reply
  2. Kim Cissell
    Kim Cissell says:

    Alan, I’ve been reading The Drama Review for about three months. Thank you for your teaching, especially this week (May 1). I’ve been mulling over the rise of groups protesting issues related to CoVID-19 and have been so puzzled as to how average people become so rabid in a group. Your comments explain so much. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks for those comments, Kim. I think I’ve heard it referred to a “mob morality” where the morals of the mob override those held by individuals. It’s an old phenomenon but we’re witnessing a current example.

      Reply
  3. Adele
    Adele says:

    I encountered this personally recently. Unfortunately, their anger does not allow discussion or reasoning. They can not see it, are sure they are right, and can not listen. Very unreasonable people. It can get played out on any topic they can mount up a crusade for. It is an unfortunate state of affairs.

    Reply
  4. Richard Price
    Richard Price says:

    Pardon my musings (but it’s your fault, right?):

    Psalm 4 keeps coming to mind these days, “Who will show us any good?” Who can I trust to look out for my good amidst uncertainty. The psalmist provides his answer, “Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord.” There lies joy, peace and security.

    Don’t we all need a vital personal grounding of certainty, especially when we face the possibility of pain and loss? I find it difficult to be winsome when I’m fearful. If I, a contingent being, am at best dependent on the contingencies of life, then I’m vulnerable to the sales pitch of my fellow contingent beings. I sense that vulnerability and become fragile, constantly seeking reinforcement.

    I need a non-contingent grounding to stand on, an anchor for my soul, lest I be swept away.

    Of course, the story of God, resurrection and new creation, promises more than contingencies. “A lovely story,” skeptics say. “It may cohere but doesn’t correspond to reality.” But Tolkien asserts, “This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . this story is supreme. . . .” because it is objectively true.

    And, as MLK said, unjust suffering will be redeemed. Or, take Teresa of Avila, “. . . the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

    Reply

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