You cannot speak falsely about a party or country simply because they are your rivals. I confess that I am stunned by the sudden resurrection of Cold War sentiments in the U.S. media. But much worse, is the U.S. government’s attempt to make a judgment that declares Russia’s wickedness to be the cause of the terrible Ukraine shoot-down of an airliner ,when it knows it lacks adequate information to make such a judgment stick. Our judgment that we are always right never leads to a genuine truth. That kind of predominating certainty flatters the national conceit, and national conceit is a hungry deity that soon casts about for victims. Nothing can be more ridiculous indeed than the way in which we exaggerate another’s vices and extenuate our own. The whole is an affair of prejudice on one side of the question, and of partiality on the other. The administration doesn’t act as if it’s judgments are merely hypotheses. No, instead, they desire to think in decrees.
So what you see happening today is the transformation of individual convictions that become overwhelming in force because they are repeated endlessly by those in authority. The cautious restrictions of what once was called, “Iron objectivity” had been discarded as too ineffectual and cumbersome. Few in the media have the intellectual or moral strength to resist what is told them by their leaders. The collectivities have the habit of drowning anything that is private and not collective.
To put it differently, the first causality of a crowd is the loss of its reason, the loss of its ability to weigh and estimate events. One of their greatest fears of a crowd, of people who think in unison, is to be seen as being moderate and sensible. It used to be that moral contagion acted slowly, moving cautiously, but now thanks to social media, the public’s worst instincts are not only let loose, they are praised and glorified. Today’s news cycle feeds the evil passions of the crowd with all of its gullibility, its brutal intolerance, its rigidity, its resistance to analysis, its jingoism, its violence and destructiveness, all of which have found an ally in social media that has loosed and pampered the crowd’s worst instincts. The collective mind is a very special sort of aggregate. The collective mind is endlessly credulous, that feeds on a diet of exaggeration. Russia is now depicted as a realm of ghoul and vampires.
“The exultation of acting as if you were all-knowing repudiates the norms of judgment and abandons the ethical elements in events,” said the great historian Jan Huizinga.
The unthinking reaction to Russia and its designs are unvarying hostile, and that mystifies me. Reporters now strive to become the tools of exaggerated and hyperbolic sentiments and they bridle at any challenge to their riffs and declarations. LeBon has explained the elements of persuasion, affirmation, repetition prestige and contagion that govern a crowd. He wrote “From the moment when Napoleon had crossed our frontiers, it was as though an electric spark had spread through all Russia’’; and if the immensity of the area had made t possible for the news to penetrate simultaneously to every corner of the Empire, a cry of indignation would have arisen to terrible that I believed it would resounded to the ends of the earth.”
We are prisoners of the same mood except the speed of contagion has increased beyond all expectation. The Obama administration, like the GOP, likes to dine off of mischaracterizations of groups they don’t like. You would think that in 2014, that we had moved beyond the very bad and reckless habit of classifying things in terms of friend-foe, weak-strong, allies and opponents, the correct and incorrect, the sane and the deluded, and the righteous and morally rotten. Unfortunately, life is not that clear cut. Any country that sees another country as the seat of all the evil in the world is a country that is in the grip of fear. The old restraints on public opinion have lost their hold. Caution no longer rules the public’s minds. Their conviction of always being right leads to the attitude that we should force our beliefs and creeds on others. There is to be no liberty of thought unless you think like the administrations and its friends. Any group soon arrogates to itself the power of always being right in its judgments and is therefore authorized to use any sort of ruthlessness to expand its sphere of domination. In the case of Russia, the scruples of the private conscience are hijacked by public aims of the administration.
It’s a commonplace of psychology that human beings need a minimum of complication in our mental life. The more our thoughts manifest intricacies, the more involved and convoluted are our formulations, the more we try to display thoughtful balance and proportion in them, the more the ordinary, hasty and prejudiced mind will flee from them the way an animal flees a forest fire. The bigot’s mental life is characterized by a frantic desire for simplicity. The simple drives out the subtle, the blunt the delicate, the bald and the more involved hammer flat the more deeply thought out. Prejudice involves a certain unbecoming embracing of one view and one view only.
The mental goals or aims of a bigot are entertained only so long as they are basic, quick and effortless. We are back to Occam’s razor. “It is vain to do with many. What can be done with fewer?” The ordinary mind always tries to get on as little as it can, and, unfortunately, all of our minds are ordinary at one point or another. We reflect, we think, in order that we may that we may obtain a full and adequate significance of what has happened to us. We think in order to grasp meanings better. But all judgments presuppose an absence of a full understanding, and that is why all of our judgments are provisional. We grope our way forward. We work in the dark. Our opinions are after all only hypothetical. We await further information. Bigots, on the other hand, see in an array of facts no mystery, no perplexity, and no baffling secrets. Their understanding is direct, prompt, immediate and overbearing. Yet we want to have that disposition that studies before it speaks. A fuller and ampler sense of judgment gives us a deeper sense of life and what it means.
“For large numbers, the idea of life-struggle has been transferred from the domain of the individual conscience to that of the public life of the community.” said the great historian Jan Huizinga. And unfortunately, he is right.