…the really big body counts in history pile up when a large number of people carry out a motive that transcends any one of them: an ideology. Like predatory or instrumental violence, ideological violence is a means to an end. But with an ideology, the end is idealistic: a conception of the greater good.”
In the first part of the post we described how ideas become more polarised and opinion groups have a tendency to become more extreme in their opinions over time. In the end a great many people may end up conforming with an unpopular view – even if it contradicts their own eyes.
But as the story of the emperor’s new clothes describes, sometimes it’s enough to have one skeptical voice to point out the obvious – and the collective delirium gets lifted.
Unless, of course, skeptical voices get intimidated, silenced and conformity enforced. And the enforcement is often done by non-believers – just for the sake to collect credits with the groups. A very dark phenomenon indeed.
The role of enforcement in the spread of unpopular ideologies and falsehoods
People not only embrace belief that they think everyone else believes, but they punish those who fail to embrace it. Most of the time it stems from the (often false) belief that others would want the belief enforced as well.
By enforcing a belief we do not embrace we hope for not just the improvement of our social standing and cookie points with the most hardcore followers of the ideology – but we may also try to prevent suspicion about the sincerity of our belief by preemptively outing real or imaginary non-believers.
False conformity and false enforcement thus complement each other and form a vicious spiral.
Why would someone punish a heretic who disavows a belief that the person himself or herself rejects? Macy et al. speculate that it’s to prove their sincerity—to show other enforcers that they are not endorsing a party line out of expedience but believe it in their hearts. That shields them from punishments by their fellows—who may, paradoxically, only be punishing heretics out of fear that they will be punished if they don’t.
There are countless historic examples supporting the suggestion that unsupportable ideologies can levitate in midair by vicious circles of punishment of those who fail to punish.
Pinker explicitly mentions witch hunts and purges, when people got caught up in cycles of preemptive denunciation. People are motivated to out a hidden heretic before the heretic outs them.
“Signs of heartfelt conviction become a precious commodity.”
In a particularly disturbing but all-too-familiar story to anyone who heard about the collective delirium of 20th century totalitarian ideologies Pinker describes a Soviet party conference:
Solzhenitsyn recounted a party conference in Moscow that ended with a tribute to Stalin. Everyone stood and clapped wildly for three minutes, then four, then five . . . and then no one dared to be the first to stop. After eleven minutes of increasingly stinging palms, a factory director on the platform finally sat down, followed by the rest of the grateful assembly. He was arrested that evening and sent to the gulag for ten years. People in totalitarian regimes have to cultivate thoroughgoing thought control lest their true feelings betray them.
Bubbles or even distribution?
Opinion bubbles have been all the rage in the media lately. Everyone tries to figure out how online opinion echo chambers could have contributed to the polarisation and then derailment of US politics.
But the opinion bubble effect also works offline. In fact, the phenomenon has been studied on historic examples as well as laboratory simulations. The results show that the best way to ensure that a fringe ideology spreads on the majority of the population is when such offline bubbles (such as neighbourhoods) are allowed to develop – and the above described mechanics of false enforcement take it up from there.
On the other hand, when unpopular ideologies are evenly spread in a population, everyone has access to a control group of non-believers that immunise them to the threat of catching the virus.
If the true believers are scattered throughout the population and everyone can interact with everyone else, the population is immune to being taken over by an unpopular belief. But if the true believers are clustered within a neighborhood, they can enforce the norm among their more skeptical neighbors, who, overestimating the degree of compliance around them and eager to prove that they do not deserve to be sanctioned, enforce the norm against each other and against their neighbors. This can set off cascades of false compliance and false enforcement that saturate the entire society.
James Payne documented a common sequence in the takeover of Germany, Italy, and Japan by fascist ideologies in the 20th century. In each case a small group of fanatics embraced a “naïve, vigorous ideology that justifies extreme measures, including violence,” recruited gangs of thugs willing to carry out the violence, and intimidated growing segments of the rest of the populations into acquiescence. But that doesn’t explain the aggression they commit on behalf of those beliefs they do not hold.
In order to these ideologies to turn into actual, violent actions, we need one more ingredient: the ability of the mind to explain it away. The topic of the next post.
* All quotes are from Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined – unless otherwise stated