Intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black

In 1949, George Orwell published his dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four. The book tells the story of a man named Winston Smith, a citizen of Airstrip One, and an employee of the Ministry of Truth, the organ of government in charge of an ever-changing historical narrative functional to the interests of the Party. The plot has Smith taken by an official named O’Brien to the Ministry of Love and rehabilitated for thought crimes. There, in Room 101, O’Brien explains to Smith that such truths as two and two makes four may be changed to fit the needs of the Party. Two and two may make five. Two and two may make three. Whatever the Party says. Of course, Smith knew this, as he was always changing history at the Ministry to Truth. But Smith became deviant because he failed at doublethink, the quality of mind that allows the subject to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously.

In the end, Smith learned to love Big Brother. But coercion is not the only way to align one’s thought with the interests of the Party. Italian communist Antonio Gramsci argues in his prison notebooks that the elite control the masses not only through violence and economic (or structural) coercion, but also through culture and political ideology. Elites establish a common sense in which its interests are presented as ordinary social logic. Thus citizens are conditioned to accept elite interests as their own interests. Those so conditioned not only do not require discipline and punishment, but they often serve as social controllers for the elite on their own volition. Sometimes, they take up the duty with zeal.

Gramsci’s theory is concerned with identifying those institutions that function to bring the masses under hegemonic control, primarily by constructing a consensus reality that conceals or distorts objective reality and dissimulates power. Hegemony recreates Plato’s Cave without the prisoners feeling the weight of their chains or the dimness of their confines. What is undeveloped in Gramsci’s work is the social psychology that facilitates the process of hegemony. Unfortunately, man’s evolutionary history prepares him for elite manipulation.

In the early 1950s, social psychologist Solomon Asch found that people deny, ignore, and lie about reality even when the truth is in right in front of them and people can know they are lying. Some do this to conform to group expectations because they fear loss of solidarity. But others do this because they become unsure that what appears to their senses is actually what they should know it to be. For them, Ashe’s experiments were experienced as a gaslighting exercise.

Here’s what Asch did. He recruited eight male college students to participate in a “perceptual task.” But he actually only recruited one student. The other seven were confederates instructed to lie about task. The task involved the presentation of two cards, one with a line on it and another with three lines on it, each associated with a letter: A, B, and C. One line on the second card matched the length of the line on the first card. The other two were unmistakably different lengths. As the research went around the table, leaving the experimental subject last to respond, the confederates were unanimous in selecting a line that did not match.

Although most subjects resisted agreeing with the manufactured consensus, more than a third consistently conformed with the consensus reality. That was scary enough. However, in multiple trials, three-fourths of experimental subjects agreed with the incorrect answer in at least one of the trials. In debriefing, many subjects who aligned their answer to the false consensus reported knowing the group was wrong but did not want to be the dissenting voice. Again, scary enough. Others doubted their own ability to correctly determine reality. I don’t know which effect is more terrifying—not standing up for the truth or losing confidence in your ability to know an obvious one. Either way, the results troubled Asch. “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern,” he writes.

Indeed. Conforming to the consensus reality leads to terrible consequences. Hannah Arendt in her 1977 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil describes the “banality of evil,” where mass murder in the twentieth century was not only a consequence of the dehumanizing effects of high modernity amid capitalist crisis, but also the result of the human tendency to go along with the herd. To obey the expectations of others. At the social psychological level, in a series of experiments performed a decade after those of Asch, Stanley Milgram confirmed Arendt’s assumptions by showing how ordinary people obey authority even when the task is unpleasant.

Add to the effects of peer pressure and obedience to authority to the deployment of coercion techniques. One need not turn to extremes of Winston Smith’s experience in Room 101. Consider what is nowadays being called “cancel culture.” In sociology, we have a term for this method of bringing about ideational and behavioral alignment in this way, namely social coercion. Bullying, gangstalking, gaslighting, mobbing—all of these are manifestations of social coercion tactics. Social coercion is mob action in which a false consensus about an issue is manufactured through intimidation, marginalization, ostracization, and even punishment. Those who are using social coercion tactics to control those around them often came willingly to false reality they play a role in manufacturing and perpetuating.

(See Witch Finder Boylan: Free Speech and Mass Hysteria; Living at the Borderline—You are Free to Repeat After Me; The New Left’s War on Imaginary Structures of Oppression in Order to Hide the Real Ones.)

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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