Mindguards

Perhaps the concept of Groupthink strikes you as an absurd example of New Age psychobabble. It shouldn’t. The ideas underlying Groupthink aren’t New Age. They aren’t even new. You’ve almost certainly heard of phrases like “human herd instinct”, “hive mind”, “mob mentality”, “mob rule”, “pack journalism”, “conformism.” Those are just a few of the expressions that have arisen over the years to describe human social tendencies to initiate and enforce group behavior.

Psychologist Irving Janis developed the concept of Groupthink to describe the collective behavior of groups and institutions like military, industry, and government. But his ideas easily stretched to form an accurate description of entire societies. His choice of the word “groupthink” was intended to draw a deliberate intellectual connection with the words “doublethink” and “newspeak” coined by George Orwell in his novel 1984. It is clear from reading the work of Janis along side the work of Orwell that Janis was influenced by Orwell’s writings.

You will remember from Orwell’s novel that thought not consistent with accepted political and social norms was called “crimethink.” To root out “crimethinkers” the political and social institutions of Orwell’s fictional world maintained a formal police force known as the thought police, “Thinkpol.” In the real world of group dynamics defined by Janis, the function of Thinkpol is performed informally by the self-appointed thought police he calls “Mindguards”.

Janis asserts in his study of group dynamics that, as a group begins to evolve a consensus, certain individuals of a certain personality type automatically and voluntarily assume the role of Mindguard. According to his research, the Mindguard is the group’s first line of defense against non-conforming thought. He is the enforcer, the informal Thinkpol.

You will recognize the Mindguard in your committee as the member who issues a sharp rebuke from across the table at anyone who expresses an opinion that appears in any way inconsistent with the group’s consensus.

Orwell’s Thinkpol and Janis’ Mindguards are not likely to defend the consensus directly. Since their behavior and their thinking are usually limited to conformity with and support of Groupthink, their understanding of the issues is typically limited to the subset of facts accepted by the group as a whole. As a result, they do not usually have effective arguments to support their position beyond those agreed upon collectively by the group. Therefore their self-appointed role is primarily that of group defense.

Rather than defending the consensus with cogent debate, they generally limit their actions to rhetorical and sometimes physical suppression of non-conforming opinions. In open discussion they prefer to shout down opponents. If the Mindguard addresses the facts of the issue at all it is usually done with sophistry – arguments that sound thoughtful at first blush, but prove meaningless on closer examination. The notorious “suck it up” letter in support of PAYT last summer and the more recent letter by Greg Bemis criticizing Raymond’s 2 moderators are classic examples of Mindguard sophistry. Both letters were long of verbiage but short of meaning.

Raymond has a few particularly aggressive Mindguards patrolling the boundaries of acceptable political and social thought. The activities of a few have made interesting reading in the newspapers and police reports. I’ll have more on those when I have more time.

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