This country has not been so divided since the Civil War, and the seeds of that division still flourish. There have been many calls for the nation to pull together, bury the hatchet, move forward. None of these appeals have worked, in my view, because they ignore a basic fact of human behavior: change is real only when the individuals involved each decide to make it so.
Two quotations express my feelings about individual change. The first is from Polonius’ advice to his son, Laertes, in HAMLET; the second is my father’s advice to me and my siblings. “Be true to thy own self, and as night follows day, thou canst then not be false to any man,” Polonius said. My father told us that we could hold and express any opinion that had a rational foundation, was based on evidence that was recent, accurate, and as complete as possible, andappealed to reason, not emotion.
When I look back over the campaigns in the 2016 elections, I conclude that very few candidates had read Polonius’ advice and taken it to heart, nor had fathers like mine. To be true to oneself begins with knowing who one is, something this culture of group think and group behavior and group influence doesn’t encourage. No matter the size of a group, its purpose or the personalities of its members, group dynamics take over, One or two people become the decision makers, another few win the leaders’ approval easily. Some struggle to receive crumbs of approval, and some have no hope of even that. Still, they stay in the group as best they can, adopting the behavior, opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of the chosen few, because it is much easier than becoming an individual who may get left out in the cold.
Madison Avenue has been using knowledge of group dynamics since it first began gaining power over consumers in the early 20th century through the new national force of radio. Then came television, and social media, with the result that the opinions of non-professionals became as influential of those of professionals. “The Dumbing Down of America” was hastened when newscasters became less journalists and interpreters and more entertainers. In such an atmosphere, it was inevitable that personal bias, vulgarity, and hate became standard items on the daily news menu served to audiences who were mostly group thinkers with a small proportion who–what a concept–think for themselves.
These people, this “band of brothers, we happy few,” act as individuals, even when being members of groups. Their purchases are based, not on what’s “in”–and will quickly be “out”, so the sellers can use group think to convince consumers to replace perfectly good items with those that ubiquitous “everyone” is buying–but because the item fits their needs and possibly their wants and their budget allows it.
There are many dangerous results when group think is ranpant in a society, but one of the worst, I think, is that group thinkers are more likely to submit to emotional appeals and not ask for rational statements supported by solid evidence. When one of the emotions is hatred, the result is what we have been seeing throughout the campaigns. I grew up in Lafayette. In the fall of 1954, over one hundred black students enrolled at what was then SLI, and is now U of L at Lafayette. Not only was there not one incident, but the entering black women had white Big Sisters–mentors guiding new female students through the shoals of campus life–who were members of the Homecoming Court, cheerleaders, officers of every sorority–in a word, girls who believed acceptance and goodwill are better than predjudice and hate. To look down on anyone because of a physical characteristic over which they have no control, or belong to a religion one knows little about, but judges just the same, was a mortal sin in our family, and I feel that way to this day.
It will take millions of people who have the courage to determine if their thoughts, attitudes, and behavior are consistent with the values in which they believe, or are those they adopted because to be a group member, one had to pay that price. As to whether millions of people will find that courage depends on me, and you, and you.