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Denny Wayman

Group Think and Film Criticism

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Since I am still relatively new to this whole experience of an online community, I am still trying to figure out how all of this impacts us. My professional/academic life is primarily in the field of psychology and counseling (with a seminary degree in the middle) and I could not help but think that this type of experience could easily become what social psychologists call GROUP THINK.

I found out years ago when we first started writing our column that I could not read other people reviews before I saw the film and wrote my own because I was too susceptible to their opinions. (Since we didn't have the internet to get names, I would read other reviews and get the spellings of names for our column, only to find that when I read their opinion I became "tilted" toward what they thought rather than thinking for myself.

I bring this up for discussion purposes so we can all be aware of the dynamics an online discussion group like this can have on our ability to give a review that is truly our own opinion and not the result of GROUP THINK. Here is a description of this phenomenon.

Eight Main Symptoms of Group Think

Illusion of Invulnerability: Members ignore obvious danger, take extreme risk, and are overly optimistic.

Collective Rationalization: Members discredit and explain away warning contrary to group thinking.

Illusion of Morality: Members believe their decisions are morally correct, ignoring the ethical consequences of their decisions.

Excessive Stereotyping: The group constructs negative stereotypes of rivals outside the group.

Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.

Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.

Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group's decision; silence is seen as consent.

Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

Avoiding Group Think

The group should be made aware of the causes and consequences of group think.

The leader should be neutral when assigning a decision-making task to a group, initially withholding all preferences and expectations. This practice will be especially effective if the leaders consistently encourages an atmosphere of open inquiry.

The leader should give high priority to airing objections and doubts, and be accepting of criticism.

Groups should always consider unpopular alternatives, assigning the role of devil's advocate to several strong members of the group.

Sometimes it is useful to divide the group into two separate deliberative bodies as feasibilities are evaluated.

Spend a sizable amount of time surveying all warning signals from rival group and organizations.

After reaching a prelimiary consensus on a decision, all residual doubts should be expressed and the matter reconsidered.

Outside experts should be included in vital decision making.

Tentative decisions should be discussed with trusted colleagues not in the decision-making group.

The organization should routinely follow the administrative practice of establishing several independent decision-making groups to work on the same critical issue or policy

Those of you who have been around longer know this better than I, but my experience is that we do good discussion about various films and allow ourselves to be individual in our opinion. However there are times when this doesn't occur and I'm not sure what changes in those moments.

I bring this up because I felt "put out of the group" when I didn't share the opinion that had formed around the insufficiency of the LWW. I didn't share that opinion and felt the wrath of what I would suggest is the defense of GROUP THINK. Rather than giving a larger voice to the dissent I felt shut down.

What does everyone think?

Denny


Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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Denny, is "group think" the problem when you felt shut out, or was it tone? Or something else?

I mention this because I've often felt shut out here by the way people come across, more than by what they actually say (write), or, more importantly, actually mean. This can be hashed out, worked through, and clarified only by continuing the discussion.

In the end, sometimes we come away feeling like we've lost an argument (I know I have, plenty of times), but that doesn't make me feel shut out. Rather, it encourages me to do a better job of thinking things through before I post again. Still, I never seem to learn. I have a tendency to post things that I quickly regret.

This isn't to say that your posts on LWW were inadequate. I, too, liked the movie more than some others on the board. But I valued their critiques, and agreed with much of what they had to say, even while holding to slightly higher view of the film than many of them do.

Same thing with the ending of A History of Violence. To me, it speaks eloquently of grace and acceptance. To most others, it's a cynical scene, or tentative at best. I don't want to say more, to avoid spoilers, but getting back to the point, my reaction, I realize, is ultimately highly subjective. It's how I experienced the movie. I don't think I need to give that up, regardless of evidence that might support a darker reading of that film. Maybe some day I will, but not yet.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Ken and Christian,

I appreciate your responses. To clarify where I am, this is not personal. I wasn't "hurt" - I did not feel in anyway disrespected by this community.

I am interested in this both from a social psych perspective as we apply this to an online community and then I am interested in this from being the best reviewers we can be. I think it weakens all of us if we begin to require conformity in thought in order to be included in the discussion.

My concerns were the last four of Janis' criteria:

Pressure for Conformity: Members pressure any in the group who express arguments against the group's stereotypes, illusions, or commitments, viewing such opposition as disloyalty.

Self-Censorship: Members withhold their dissenting views and counter-arguments.

Illusion of Unanimity: Members perceive falsely that everyone agrees with the group's decision; silence is seen as consent.

Mindguards: Some members appoint themselves to the role of protecting the group from adverse information that might threaten group complacency.

If we succumb to this then we will actually be harming our abilities to give true criticism. That is what I meant by the fact that I don't participate in the pre-viewing discussions that set my mind in a particular direction. I had not read the A&F criticisms and did not go into the viewing with them in mind. For me that predisposes me too much to give a true commentary from my experience.

I also think it is important to consider the order of priority in reviewing a film - are we first critics or are we first Christians. There are many things in life that my critical analysis could focus on. For example, Lewis, somewhere, says that most worship services are second-rate music with third-rate sermons - but then he says, God uses these musicians and pastors to transform eternal beings into His likeness - that's not a direct quote - but gets the gist (like a Matthew quote of the Old Testament!)

I think that when we stand before our Lord he is not going to ask whether we were good at critical analysis but whether we were good at bringing His Kingdom to earth.

Ken, I agree that the correction of this is difficult and I don't particularly find the suggestions that this website gave that workable. As a pastoral counselor I find catharsis/confession/owning-the-truth, the beginning of healing and that is what I am trying to accomplish.

Does that make sense?

Denny


Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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Denny, I'm not familiar with the references in this thread to previous conversations, so I apologize if my comments here don't directly address your concerns, but I do recognize the tendency to equate "true" criticism with "uninflected and individual" criticism, and I hope to caution you from placing too much value in that notion.

As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has put it:

"Whether acknowledged or not, virtually all critical discourse is part of a conversation that begins before the review starts and continues well after it's over; and the best critics allude in some fashion to this dialogue, however obliquely. The worst usually try to convince you that they're the only experts in sight."

Film criticism is truly an evolving conversation, and the less a critic participates in that conversation, the less pertinent his or her observations will be in general, even if they are sincere and individual. That would be true here if someone merely started and responded to their own threads as much as it's true for critics who have such a selective (or ignorant) readership that they're allowed to ignore larger critical/cultural concerns. Criticism shouldn't be reduced to random opinion, and virtues like tradition, knowledge, authority, and insight shouldn't be dismissed in lieu of self-promotion or grandstanding or intellectual narcissism. In other words, being a good critic has as much to do with listening and learning as it does proclaiming.

Also, I don't seen any tension between the "priorities" of a review in terms of its "Christian" versus "critic" component. I can't imagine an architect, for example, saying that God doesn't care whether or not he or she is a good architect but only cares whether or not he or she enlarges the Kingdom. Of course God cares whether or not they are a good architect. We have our vocations and we honor God by our creative, gifted, and potentially world-changing practices within them.

Again...not sure if this addresses the previous offence(s), but I wanted to emphasize that while "group think" may indeed be unfortunate (and history has shown that plenty of critics do practice this along with the ebbs and flows of popular tastes and fashions), good criticism is always done collectively.

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What Doug C said. (Group think!) :)

Actually, I was planning on writing something very similar, but I'm glad Doug did it first because [a] he said it better than I would have, now I don't have to do it, and [c] now I get to agree with Doug, and that's always nice. :)

I used to be hinky about reading other reviews or discussing movies too much with people before writing my reviews, until I noticed that [a] I had no problem reading up on older movies before writing about them, and my ability to intelligently discuss and debate a particular film invariably goes up, not down, with ongoing discussion. Often after discussing a film at length with other people, I go back to my early review and am struck at the lack of focus and precision, the missed points and observations.

It's also worth noting that I haven't discovered any marked tendency for discussion about a film to make me think just like other people. For every time I find myself persuaded to agree with someone else's observation or accomodate someone else's POV (and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; what if the other person is right?), I find there are also times where the conversation helps me to clarify and better understand and appreciate my own initial reaction to a film, and to go past that initial reaction into a more adequate engagement of the film that is still fundamentally mine and that is consonant with my original take.

Ditto the Christian/critic architect/kingdom stuff.


“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Doug,

Excellent points. I agree that criticism is enriched by conversation. That's why I decided to become a part of this community.

You would then also agree that the importance of such a conversation would include the views that are not in agreement with the majority? How do we do this without causing these group dynamics to (voluntarily at times) silence those who disagree and how do we keep/encourage involvement from all the various viewpoints?

On the pre-viewing side - do you think that discussing a film before we see it is helpful? How about those who have seen it first and put the first viewpoints up? The natural tendency to protect our view is difficult. And it is hard for us, especially when it is art, to not be influenced by the "critic" who puts their opinion up there before we


Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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Denny, I honestly don't see any "group think" in our discussion of the Narnia movie. I do see critics who share some of my concerns, which is nice, but I also see others who don't.

And even if we DID have a bit of "group think" going on, I think most of us here appreciate a good dose of maverick analysis around here.

As for critics posting thoughts on a film before it has been released, yeah, we've sort of been clamping down on that anyway, because the industry standard is to avoid posting opinions of a film until its release date.

But, speaking as a critic who, like SDG, enjoys the opportunity to discuss those opinions with other critics before signing off on my review, I think it would be good if A&F had a special critics-only forum -- which would therefore be private, not public, and would therefore allow for completely unbridled opinionation -- and then, when the movies in question actually come out, those threads could be moved out of the private forum into the public one.


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Stephen and Peter,

Good points both.

I also agree that it is good to have multiple people with whom to kick around a review. That's why our column has been a partnership from the beginning and we write/discuss/change/rearrange our review as we interact. My partner has not chosen to become a part of this on-line community primarily out of his work-load (he is Director of Public Affairs for Edison International), but I have. In part for this kind of interaction and honing of my thinking and understandings.

And I agree Peter that we usually have a good interchange, though at time that is not my experience. Perhaps so much is invested in certain films emotionally/professionally?

Doug and Stephen:

I disagree with the analogy of the architect. Yes, an architect has certain excellent skills that glorify God in good visual/engineering architecture whether or not they are a Christian. I see movies as a different form. The analogy I would use is that an architect can create a beautiful building and is structurally sound and use it then for immoral purposes. We would then, as Christian prioritize our criticism of the immoral purposes and comment on the architecture in a secondary vein. In the same way, an architect could do an adequate job on the creation of a church in which God's message is profoundly presented - we would then, as Christians, comment on the excellence of God's message being presented and only secondarily on the architecture.

Does that resonate?

Denny


Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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FWIW, Denny, your comments about architecture remind me of the discussions I've had with some of my fellow Orthodox regarding icons; some Orthodox will flat-out state "icons are NOT art", because the point of an icon is not the individual artist's technical excellence (though of course technical excellence is a good and worthwhile thing!) but the worshipful use to which those icons are put.

I, however, am something of a literalist still, and am inclined to say "icons are not JUST art", because clearly, in the broad sense at least, they ARE "art" (a word that, at its broadest, can include every possible form of human intervention in the world, from architecture to medical care, a la that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where Zoot says to the doctors, "Practise your art").

But that last paragraph is probably a tangent, or a tangent of a tangent. :)


"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Intriguing. I very much resonate with Denny's qualms about groupthink, but also really like what Doug, Peter and SDG value about conversation informing a review.

It's extremely important for me to be able to view a film with as few preconceptions in my head as possible. I fanatically avoid reading about a film before seeing it, even viewing too much of a trailer: I want to experience the film "on its own terms," to let the filmmaker do to me what he wants to do to me first time around. THEN I'm hungry to engage in conversation about it, to read all I can - but sometimes not until I've really sorted out my own raw, initial response.

Came into play in a complex way when I wrote up DEAR WENDY for CT Movies. Saw the film, really really enjoyed and appreciated it. Wrote up a first draft of the review, then decided to scan other critics. Saw how much they all (at that point) loathed it. Felt stupid and defensive, considered buying back some of my praise. Instead, rethought my reactions, strengthened the review by being more specific about what I appreciated and specifically why those elements were of value, and posted the darn thing, willing to look foolish praising something nobody else thought to be of value.

That very night, went over to the local bookshop and picked up my copy of Sight & Sound. Who raved the film. Made me feel like a million bucks. Proud of having stuck to my guns (as it were), avoided conforming my honest reaction to the thinking of the group. Yet relieved to find myself (after the fact) part of some group, even if it was only a group of two. And proud that the other half of my group was S&S, whose assessments (with occasional bizarre exceptions) I usually value a lot.

Edited by Ron

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Ron,

Greatly appreciate your post. Your comments and experiences are very helpful to me and speak to where I mostly am. They, along with everyone else, have helped me think through what I am evolving to understand in all of this. I have appreciated the feedback.

When you noted that you were able to stand strong on your review when you found another writer who agreed with you, Sight and Sound, it reminded me of the social/psych study by Solomon Asch's which found that one person standing up to the group feels intimidated and will actually say they agree with the group when they don't really. But if only one other person would stand with them, then they are able to stand up against the groupthink. (It was a study where two lines were compared and everyone else was in on the fact that they would say the longer line was actually the shortest. When the subject was alone without any support against the group they would say (almost always) the longer line was shortest. But with one supporter, they would fight for their perspective.)

I also wonder if the level of our need or ability to fit in with a group determines how much we can listen to what the group thinks before we see the film. Perhaps if we have a high ability to fit in and are greatly influenced by those we spend time with, then we have to "protect ourselves" more from the group in order to write a review? I find that I pick up group dynamics almost immediately, begin using words and expressions and think-along-with the group and so I am perhaps over-influenced by the group I'm with.

Perhaps that is why I seek out community. My wife thinks it

Edited by Denny Wayman

Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

Cinema In Focus Website

Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara Website

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And I agree Peter that we usually have a good interchange, though at time that is not my experience. Perhaps so much is invested in certain films emotionally/professionally?

That may be part of it, but the investment may be more in how readings of certain films validate the different styles of criticism that are held by different people on this board. What underlies many arguments here are broader theoretical concerns rather than just niggling differences in the reading of details. It is very easy to get emotionally and professionally attached to theoretical models, and often this leaks through in the context of discussing particular films.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Interesting thread.

 

Significant Group Think should be at least loosely possible in all group sizes, like among the entire population of internet critics with this forum being a Christian shifted microcosm of all internet critics. Anyway, I have all film critics in mind, this forum and beyond, technically that does not include myself so not to infinity and beyond.

Group Think existing today in film criticism:

Critics often discredit a film for not coinciding well enough with the book it is supposedly based on, perhaps it even shares the same title as the book. Similar, critics often discredit a film for not coinciding well enough with the full scope of actual history upon which it is obviously based. I don't see why this matters when a film is evaluated.

So I just looked Groupthink up and, even explained in Wikipedia's simplistic terms, it all sounds like babbling nonsense to me. Are the proponents of the idea of "Groupthink" trying to explain that there really is such a thing as pressure for conformity? That seems pretty dull. Socrates knew that back in the 400s BC. Besides, at least since Rousseau, rebelling against what moderns are calling "Groupthink" has been considered fashionable and cool. Is the idea of "Groupthink" supposed to teach us that when some people have some values that they share in common, that they might band together for the purpose of advancing those values? I don't understand how pointing something that obvious out accomplishes anything, thought-wise. Is the idea of "Groupthink" supposed to help us understand how a group might oppose (together and as a group, mind you) the contrary ideas of someone (outside the group)?

Why is this even a thing?

I feel a little bad responding to some of Mr. Wayman's thoughts now, when he may not be around to defend them any longer, but perhaps someone else will be able to explain what I'm not understanding.

My professional/academic life is primarily in the field of psychology and counseling (with a seminary degree in the middle) and I could not help but think that this type of experience could easily become what social psychologists call GROUP THINK.

I found out years ago when we first started writing our column that I could not read other people reviews before I saw the film and wrote my own because I was too susceptible to their opinions. (Since we didn't have the internet to get names, I would read other reviews and get the spellings of names for our column, only to find that when I read their opinion I became "tilted" toward what they thought rather than thinking for myself.

I bring this up for discussion purposes so we can all be aware of the dynamics an online discussion group like this can have on our ability to give a review that is truly our own opinion and not the result of GROUP THINK.

"And for sensibility wide and profound reading does not mean merely a more extended pasture. There is not merely an increase of understanding, leaving the original acute impression unchanged. The new impressions modify the impressions received from the objects already known. An impression needs to be constantly refreshed by new impressions in order that it may persist at all; it needs to take its place in a system of impressions. And this system tends to become articulate in a generalized statement of literary beauty."

- T.S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic,” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920, pg. 8

"In view, however, of the predominantly personal direction taken by literary criticism during the last few decades, it may be well to point out here that to start from personal experience does not necessarily mean to finish with it. One may start from direct, personal, aesthetic experience without prejudice to the possibility of arriving in the end at some objective standards of criticism - standards which a young critic might set before himself as an aid to the eliminations of just those personal affections and associations - the accidents rather than the substance of poetry - which are always at hand to distort his judgement."

- Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning, 1928, pg. 42

If we succumb to this then we will actually be harming our abilities to give true criticism. That is what I meant by the fact that I don't participate in the pre-viewing discussions that set my mind in a particular direction. I had not read the A&F criticisms and did not go into the viewing with them in mind. For me that predisposes me too much to give a true commentary from my experience.

I also think it is important to consider the order of priority in reviewing a film - are we first critics or are we first Christians. There are many things in life that my critical analysis could focus on. For example, Lewis, somewhere, says that most worship services are second-rate music with third-rate sermons - but then he says, God uses these musicians and pastors to transform eternal beings into His likeness - that's not a direct quote - but gets the gist (like a Matthew quote of the Old Testament!)

I think that when we stand before our Lord he is not going to ask whether we were good at critical analysis but whether we were good at bringing His Kingdom to earth.

If the definition of Groupthink is correct, then wouldn't the Kingdom of Heaven have it's own "Groupthink"?

 

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if the idea of "Groupthink" is falsely assuming some high value to a merely personal impression or experience, as if there were such a thing unaffected by the thoughts of others. Perhaps you can't give real criticism without being aware of the forms, traditions and conventions in which any work of art is set. In order to do that, there are quite a few prior works, ideas, arguments and conversations you would need to be aware of, and to intentionally remain unaware of them would be to give uninformed and rather dull criticism.

When Lewis said God could use the third-rate and the second-rate for good, Lewis wasn't arguing for the third-rate as opposed to the first-rate. Nor was he arguing that we shouldn't be able to distinguish between the two.

 

As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has put it:

"Whether acknowledged or not, virtually all critical discourse is part of a conversation that begins before the review starts and continues well after it's over; and the best critics allude in some fashion to this dialogue, however obliquely. The worst usually try to convince you that they're the only experts in sight."

... Criticism shouldn't be reduced to random opinion, and virtues like tradition, knowledge, authority, and insight shouldn't be dismissed in lieu of self-promotion or grandstanding or intellectual narcissism. In other words, being a good critic has as much to do with listening and learning as it does proclaiming.

Precisely.

"It is part of the business of the critic to preserve tradition - where a good tradition exists. It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time; to see the best work of our time and the best work of twenty-five hundred years ago with the same eyes."

- T.S. Eliot, “Introduction,” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920, pgs. vi-vii

"Literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint. In so far as in any age there is common agreement on ethical and theological matters, so far can literary criticism be substantive. In ages like our own, in which there is no common agreement, it is the more necessary for Christian readers to scrutinize their reading, especially of works of imagination, with explicit ethical and theological standards."

- T.S. Eliot, “Religion and Literature,” 1935, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, pg. 97

 

It's also worth noting that I haven't discovered any marked tendency for discussion about a film to make me think just like other people. For every time I find myself persuaded to agree with someone else's observation or accomodate someone else's POV (and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that; what if the other person is right?), I find there are also times where the conversation helps me to clarify and better understand and appreciate my own initial reaction to a film, and to go past that initial reaction into a more adequate engagement of the film that is still fundamentally mine and that is consonant with my original take.

... but the investment may be more in how readings of certain films validate the different styles of criticism that are held by different people on this board. What underlies many arguments here are broader theoretical concerns rather than just niggling differences in the reading of details. It is very easy to get emotionally and professionally attached to theoretical models, and often this leaks through in the context of discussing particular films.

There are others who have been critical of what they would call the A&F sensibility and I notice this more whenever we discuss the makeup of one of our Top 25 lists. What is interesting to me is that the very idea of "Groupthink" seems to criticize any collective commitment or attachment to any "theoretical model" or tradition. But maybe some collective commitments are good? The Church and the authors of the early Christian creeds certainly thought so.

One of the reasons I have found A&F conversations about film and art so profitable is that they challenge some of my own personal limitations and confront me with outside knowledge, experience, education and tradition that is not my own. Better informed critics than I can see things that I cannot. For me to "feel" intimidated by that or to feel like I couldn't speak up and disagree would be to entirely miss the point. As far as I can tell, unless they are merely explaining what is absolutely blatantly obvious with a apparently cool new word like "Groupthink", the advocates of "Groupthink" seem to be missing the same point.

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Group Think might be a new way of describing an old idea. A group is good, Group Think is a group disease.

That would be the question. Is it really the same as the old idea of ... what? Of the virtues of moderation or temperance? Of the reasons why Aristotle criticized the constitution of Sparta?

 

I'll give an example:

For certain jobs in which this works, a competent group acts as a "team" and becomes more productive than a competing hierarchically organized group. However, there can be certain problems that erupt, unique to these groups-acting-as-teams. One such problem would be what we called Group Think. The group becomes so cohesive that new outside ideas are ignored. Or self-appointed mind gurus prevent unwelcome ideas from other group members within.

By what standard does the academic who is trying to explain "Groupthink" decide that new ideas are always good or should never be unwelcome? In some cases, their being new could be harmful rather than beneficial. The Christian church, for example, because they had some doctrines worth keeping the same, called those who wanted to tamper with those doctrines heretics. Obviously some new ideas can be good. But any group is going to need a higher standard to judge them by, and, in some cases by wielding that standard, outside ideas should be unwelcome. If it is ever true that there could ever be a group worth organizing around anything unchanging, then defining "Groupthink" as a disease would be false.

 

They are worse off than before they formed the group. It's counter productive to let Group Think run unchecked because it opposes the success that inspired the formation of the group from the beginning.

 

Why does this happen? Group members may lack both the self-discipline and responsibility now demanded by the group's success.

 

In my example the business groups using teamwork are small. But it seems the concept of Group Think can be stretched, you may find it in any sized cohesive group.

The history of Sparta seems a good illustration of a self-enclosed group that eventually destroyed itself by limiting the thinking of its members. But that is because of the specific content of the ideas they started out with. Lycurgus was not a broad-minded sort of fellow. Conversely, other groups have destroyed themselves by not limiting their ideas enough (see the Roman Republic, 18th century France or the John Birch Society).

My problem with the idea of "Groupthink" (and, yes, it is actually one word that someone just made up) is that it seems to be suggesting that a group holding to some unchanging ideas is somehow bad because ... well, because those ideas don't change. But that ignores the older view that there are some ideas (around which a group could organize) that perhaps ought not to change, or that might be worth protecting from any innovation. Change or no change does not determine or imply ought or ought not.

There is an older word for an intellectually closed all-knowing theoretical system, and that word is "ideology." But, if "Groupthink" does not necessarily imply something bad, then I don't see how creating the new word succeeded in helping us understand anything at all. I might as well create the word "Individualthink" to explain to everyone that there is such a thing as when one person thinks, and then write some academic paper on how bad "Individualthink" could be if it didn't interact with other "Individualthinks." That way I would be helping everyone else understand how some "Individualthinks" could have bad effects if practiced in the wrong way.

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When you say "new word" you mean "word that's been around since the fifties". I think a half a century should be enough time to give neologisms the benefit if the doubt. Clearly someone's found it useful.

 

My problem with the idea of "Groupthink" (and, yes, it is actually one word that someone just made up) is that it seems to be suggesting that a group holding to some unchanging ideas is somehow bad because ... well, because those ideas don't change.

 

 

If you'll forgive me, I think you might be porting in your own objections over what's actually implied by the phrase. To quote the wikipedia entry you're also citing:

 

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome

 

 

e.g. "I won't say anything about, say, racist comments because that would disturb the harmony of the group," or "gee, perhaps enslaving a whole race of people isn't such a great idea." The writer--one William Whyte--who coined the term (again, going from Wikipedia) says this:

 

Groupthink being a coinage — and, admittedly, a loaded one — a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctiveconformity — it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well

 

 

Here's the actual article.

 

Apparently he also wrote a book called The Organization Man.

 

Here's the bit Wikipedia leaves off:

 

Three mutually supporting ideas form the underpinning: (1) that moral values and ethics are relative; (2) that what is important is the kind of behavior and attitudes that makes for the harmonious functioning of the group; (3) that the best way to achieve this is through the application of "scientific" techniques.

 

 

I don't see anything there about suggesting that holding to fixed ideas is bad on the face of it; rather, he seems to be suggesting that going along with the group's ideas just because they're the group's ideas is a bad thing. Especially if the group is urging something that may be immoral. And, yeah, it kind of is a bad idea--as the history of, I dunno, the Southern U.S. (pretty much its whole history), colonial expansionism, or Nazism would seem to suggest.

 

--the mention of Nazis isn't Godwinning, btw; remember, the term was coined in 1952--not even a decade after the conclusion of WWII, in the midst of widespread concern about the possibilities of fascism at home and communism abroad. I suspect the author wasn't going from an idealization of the individual. Instead, he was reacting to a real-world, existential threat (at least, presumed existential threat). His touchpoints are Brave New World (1932) [released five years before the War] and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) [four years after the War]. And it's difficult to read this passage in any save the shadow of Nuremberg:

 

Obedience and discipline few could have caviled at. But would they have applauded the counseling of an obedience, so abject, so unquestioning, that we are asked, in effect, not only to put up with the evils of a system but to regard them as a right -- to reach out, as Norbert Weiner's phrase goes, and kiss the whip that lashes us?

 

 

And, again, speaking of the Group:

 

They offer us freedom from moral choice.

 

And his conclusion:

 

The answer is not a return to a "rugged individualism" that never was. Nor is it a slackened interest in social science and "human relations." We need, certainly, to fin ways of making this bewildering society of ours run more smoothly and we need all the illumination science can give us to do it. But we need something more. Lest man become an ethical eunuch, his autonomy sacrificed for the harmony of the group, a new respect for the individual must be kindled. A revival of the humanities, perhaps, a conscious, deliberate effort by the corporation not only to accommodate dissent but to encourage it -- possible approaches to a problem so fundamental cannot easily be spelled out.

Only individuals can do it.

 

 

This is all very much of its time, and my impression is that it's very much in line with the sorts of things thinkers on both the left and the right were saying. It's an important concept because it comes from the real problems of a real historical moment and is the result of intellectuals and writers grappling with a post-War, post-Hitler, post-Bomb world, a world in which the perils of conformity seemed closer than ever. This is the world--the year!--that gave us Ellison's Invisible Man. This is the world that would give birth to Eichmann in Jerusalem ten years later. And it was the one in which thinkers on the left and the right started to protest against "ideology" as a desirable category. Pooh-pooing the concept as a "made up word" that is too new to have anything to say is a bit ahistorical. Yes, it's a made up word. All words are. But it's a word that's made up of the concerns of its time, concerns that have tremendous impact in the following decades--both for good and for ill.

 

Here's a quote I just found--honestly, at random--while flipping through my newly-acquired copy of Chester Eisinger's Fiction of the Forties:

 

The war revealed, in the career of fascism, a capacity for evil in human beings that struck at certain optimistic psychological assumptions [read: Dewey] commonly made in our liberal democracy. It cast doubt upon the potential for survival that democratic culture had come to us from the humanistic Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It numbed the individual conscience, inducing nihilism and acquiescence in the loss of human identity. All these consequences of both the pact [between Nazi Germany and Russia] and the war were to have an effect upon the fiction of the forties.

 

 

Not just the fiction--the whole shape of the post-war West is determined by this realization. It seems to me that any attempt to engage with the concept of groupthink has to take these events into account. It didn't just pop up out of the void.

 

And, honestly--and I say this as someone who's skeptical of pretty much all the political thought that presupposes the Cold War as the be-and-end-all of international politics--I can't say that I find it all that objectionable. Yes, there's a danger from the group--any group--to enforce conformity. Yes, when that happens it can lead to horrific results. The fact that it's called "Groupthink" and not, say, "the tyranny of the majority" (to use another newfangled expression) doesn't strike me as a particularly material point; it gets the job done, and that's all we can really expect of mere words anyway.

 

All of which is to say, you should read the whole article. He takes a couple of swipes at Dewey, which should endear him a bit.

 

[Oh, and wrt A&F--I don't get the impression there's much groupthink going on. There's a group of people, yes. And they substantially agree, yes. But that's not really the same thing]

 

EDIT: One more thing [and, bah, sorry for the long post, but I think in sediments]: the opposition to groupthink (or whatever you want to call it) is foundational to any sort of enlightened discourse. Yes, every idea--even loony ones--should be welcome if only to demonstrate why they don't work. That's the marketplace of ideas. Which, yes, also sometimes goes horrifically wrong. But if my choice is between a groupthink-free world in which even Forteans get to suggest that, I dunno, the world is a cosmic playground for other-worldly aliens and a society that grimly clamps down on such speculation because its outside the bounds of their "standards"--then I'll take the aliens. Every time. If your principles are strong at all, they have to be strong enough to stand up to criticism, outside ideas, and outright rejection. If they aren't, they're not worth the breath it takes to enunciate them.

 

And that includes artistic standards. The idea that Transformers, for instance, is a worthwhile movie should be one that can be entertained even if the ultimate decision is against it. To say "No, we have Artistic Standards and they exclude the Wrong Sort of Movies" is to paint yourself into a corner defined by groupthink or ideology or whatever-properly-and-authentically-Greek-term-you-want-to-use. History shows us, time and again, that those sorts of artistic blinkers--while they do filter out a lot of trash--can too easily blind us to really-worthwhile stuff that gets neglected because it doesn't fit the group "standard."

 

tl;dr: arguing against a movie isn't an example of groupthink even if the group agrees; thinking that the group agreement means that the movie [or whatever] must be bad is an example of groupthink, and it can have negative consequences. Not genocide. But consequences, all the same.

Edited by NBooth

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You didn't offer much context with your ideas of moderation & temperance though I'd guess that meant if a group was alcoholic and its groupthink only praised the drink than an unorthodox messenger offering the idea of moderation & temperance could not save them because he could not get past a group stuck in groupthink. Did I read you right?

According to Wikipedia and to Mr. Whyte, it appears as if “groupthink” is always meant to be something negative. But to value group conformity is not, I think, always negative. I meant that to value group conformity in excess would be to violate both the virtues of temperance and moderation. The Greeks regularly struggled with the excesses of Democracy and because they thought and wrote extensively on this, I was questioning whether the word “groupthink” offered anything new to help us with.  Nathan has now explained how it does mean something much more than just “a group can be wrong.”

 

Some of the lower paid workers who are much more often "in the trenches" at the theater have ideas to improve their operations but the older more articulate team members, out of their arrogance, intimidate the others during open meetings and other times. And so nothing changes when it needed to change and movie night events get worse and they lose patronage. Soon the competition takes them over.

The fact that this might happen does not prove that it is wrong to affirm values because they are the values held collectively by a specific group. I doubt anyone is going to claim that a social group can never be wrong.

 

Welcoming an idea would not mean adopt an idea. You just give it an honest look. Recognize it. Many new ideas find the waste bin. How about all the ideas, or even just thoughts, that pop into our heads all day long that we never say. Ones we don't want to say even if encouraged. Four year olds and people with autism maybe say those things out loud. Those get filtered early on and rightly so. Although I don't doubt that a run-on-mouthed four year old gave a genius an idea or two in the past. Dreams out of our reptilian brain ... likely worthless too. Though rarely they can "click" for us. However we might have many eligible thoughts as we sit or stroll or talk that can be fodder for the group floor if the group is open to it.

Sorry, I’m not following you here unless you are saying [a] that some thoughts are worth speaking out loud, and that some thoughts are not worth speaking out loud ... in which case, I agree with you.  Add to this the fact that some ideas, after they have been given "an honest look", can be rejected and would thus no longer be up for debate.

 

I would not say groupthink is totally incompatible with groups living by an ideology, even ideologies with perfection in mind. All groups still need to interact with a volatile unpredictable world and the groups own members are not perfect. Portions of such a large group have real world problems to solve.

Ideology is, of course, a word that was created in a different historical context (1700s France).  Arguably, there are ideologies that are anti-group, anti-social or against ordered society in general. Along with a specific tradition of, shall we say, "group thinking", I’d suggest that every ideology is always bad.

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When you say "new word" you mean "word that's been around since the fifties". I think a half a century should be enough time to give neologisms the benefit if the doubt. Clearly someone's found it useful.

Unless, over the last century, some philosophers, critics, academics and corporations have been creating new words that hinder and obstruct, rather than encourage, clear thinking.

See also: actionable, agreeance, anonymize, belongingness, blamestorming, connectivity, concretizing, constructivism, counter-hegemonic, counterpublic, delegitimize, enculturation, feministing, glocalization, heterodoxy, hyperreality, incentivise, incommensurability, interactionism, intertextual, metacritical, metafiction, multivocalities, mutuality, neoconceptualist, paradigm shifting, perspectivizing, phallogocentricism, prepreparation, problematization, retrocultural, socio-emotional, spatiality, subdialectic, unproblematize

These words, and hundreds like them, encourage ... unclarity of thought ideation.

 

 

Possibly. Throwing them in a long paragraph neither proves nor disproves such an assertion, since words only have meaning in context. Besides which, "groupthink" has existed as a valid category for scholarly work since the time of its coinage, more or less. And, of course--as the Wiki page points out--the concept has faced challenges from within the field which strike me as fairly good evidence of its robustness as a theoretical category.

 

Even simplifying the definition doesn’t help. I suppose my argument is even more basic. I think we have a serious problem whenever we start discussing something that we would use words to seriously describe as “incorrect decision-making outcomes.” For anyone to talk about “an incorrect decision-making outcome” with a straight face means that we’ve lost something.

 

 

Well, I suspect your problem is more with the fields that use the concept than anything else, then. "Incorrect decision-making outcome" strikes me as a pretty valid description of a wrong choice, if your intention is to describe society according to its structural components. And there's no "we" about it.  I've not lost anything because a social psychologist talks about society in terms of structure. talk about books in terms of structure, but that's my field. If someone else wants to talk about books in terms of, I dunno, transcendent experiences, it's no skin off my nose--though I might quietly roll my eyes before turning back to doing what I do. Multiple modes of discourse can exist in a single society, after all.

 

Whyte is describing what he is trying to explain as “rationalized conformity” that affirms group values simply because they are “group” values. Alexis de Tocqueville already wrote about this and published his work as Democracy in America.

 

 

See, I don't get this. Just because de Tocqueville said it doesn't mean Whyte can't say something similar in different words. That's how discourse works; Whyte's socio-historical situation makes what he has to say different from de Tocqueville because he's addressing a different world (and, yes, any world that can exist after Hiroshima and Auschwitz is different in key ways from the agrarian society de Tocqueville visited). Thinkers by definition have to address their own material-historical circumstances; anyone who just says "Well, read de Tocqueville" has already given up the right to be taken seriously as a thinker.

 
 
Sometimes the values of a group are good because they are the values of the group. It obviously depends on the group, and when this is the case, we still don’t have to take it to the intemperate extremes of Euthyphro or of divine command theory.

 

 

But in that case you're arguing something entirely different from what the concept of groupthink is meant to address. What you're saying--it seems--is that group consensus isn't always bad. To which Whyte--and, I'm betting, anyone who's given more than a second's thought to the concept of groupthink--would blink and say, "Well, of course. No one said otherwise." The question is what kind of group consensus? A group that agrees to hold democratic elections is fundamentally different from a group that refuses to. A group that agrees that certain members of the population are undesirable is fundamentally different from one that values human rights. The fact that sometimes group values are good is utterly immaterial. That's not what Whyte et al are trying to address.

 
Well, some principles could be absolutely true and still lose in a perfect “marketplace of ideas”, given that falsehoods don’t play fair, and the consumers are not always interested in being rational. What many seem to call “groupthink” could be the very thing that helps establish some standards, traditions or conventions for the restraining loony ideas. Sometimes loony ideas are not demonstrated to be wrong to a majority until after a ton of avoidable damage has already been done ... and then, sometimes after they have been demonstrated to be wrong, they are accepted again in spite of history.

 

 

Sure. Hence my comment about horrific things happening. But this "many" you're addressing smells faintly of straw; I've not seen anyone saying that. Not on Wikipedia. Not here. And I suspect not among the social psychologists who use the word as a professional term. But that would require an actual social psychologist to address.

“Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favours. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.”
- C.S. Lewis, “Democratic Education,” Time and Tide, April 29, 1944, pgs. 369-370

 

 

I'm not a world-renowned apologist or an expert on Medieval literature, but I'm pretty sure Lewis is wrong here because [a] he doesn't define democracy correctly (even as a political category it's nowhere so banal as "everyone's absolutely equal," and he thinks that beauty is some sort of Ideal Concept rather than a social construct (well, near as I can tell he does, but he conveniently doesn't define Beauty, Truth or Virtue; since he personifies them I'm guessing he's all about neoplatonizing them as well. Which makes sense, given his field. But it's fallacious). 

 

 
But there are some very different ways in which ideas can “be entertained.” One way is that they are allowed to be spoken. Another way is that time is invested in order to listen to them, let alone in order to seriously consider them. And yet another way is to allow any idea the ability to win in some sort of majority democratic process. Any group organized around ideas has to set some limits to what ideas can be entertained in particular ways.

 

 

I don't disagree. But I'd like to point out that this comment in no way cuts against the warning against groupthink. See below.
 
I don’t think any art or film critic would deny that artistic standards can be and have been abused. Yet, once again, abusus non tollit usum. After some thought, work and investment (precisely the sort of thing that often does happen deliberately in an organized “group”), it is perfectly healthy intellectually for some questions to eventually be closed.  And sometimes it will be "the group" that closes them.

 

 

I don't think you're addressing anything anyone actually says, though. The critique of groupthink isn't a condemnation of groups; it's a warning that groups can get too closed in and can consequently make bad decisions. It strikes me as a relatively uncontroversial thing to say, and the fact that it's couched in a newfangled terminology doesn't change that fact.
 
The truth is--all of our standards of judgement are systemic in nature, formed through the interaction of groups. Value, Truth, Beauty, are all given meaning as words within these systems. And that's neither bad nor good; it's just the way things are. Just as a private language is impossible, so is a private discourse (which is all criticism is, really)--it definitionally takes place in a group. Sometimes the group does things and makes decisions that help its members, and that's a good thing. Sometimes the group "decides" to exclude certain [objectively nonobjectionable] people or certain points of view [ditto] and the individuals within it don't have the guts to speak out and that's what gets called groupthink. And, yes, the principles of the group should always be open to questioning. Always. 
 
Arguing against the concept strikes me as akin to arguing that speeding isn't a problem because most people don't speed.
 
[Of course, I'm against all orthodoxies of an academic or aesthetic nature, be they New Historicist, queer theory, feminist theory, New Critical.... The minute you start mouthing the group's pieties without adding anything to it you've left conversation entirely and it becomes a kind of critical mutual admiration society. It doesn't matter, in the end, if what you say is "correct," so long as it's interesting and does interesting work. But that's me.]
 
[Regarding the question of whether groupthink occurs in critical circles broader than A&F--sure it does. We've all got personal favorite movies that we think the larger discourse overlooks. Look at how quickly a couple of tepid reviews turn a film after a few years into "that movie that sucked." I won't name films; we can all fill in a title that we think unfairly got the shaft]
 
EDIT: Cross-referencing our thread on ideology and our thread on "Objectivity."
Edited by NBooth

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Like some of our other discussions, this one is getting to the point where the conversation would go much better in person over a couple of beers.
 

Well, I suspect your problem is more with the fields that use the concept than anything else, then. "Incorrect decision-making outcome" strikes me as a pretty valid description of a wrong choice, if your intention is to describe society according to its structural components. And there's no "we" about it. I've not lost anything because a social psychologist talks about society in terms of structure. I talk about books in terms of structure, but that's my field. If someone else wants to talk about books in terms of, I dunno, transcendent experiences, it's no skin off my nose--though I might quietly roll my eyes before turning back to doing what I do. Multiple modes of discourse can exist in a single society, after all.

“A dialect of English is learned and used either because it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of a Group by which you wish (with some degree of plausibility) to be accepted. And although it is a major and vitally important one, SWE [standard Written English] is only one dialect. And it is never, or at least hardly ever, anybody’s only dialect."
- David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage, Harper’s, 1999, Consider the Lobster And Other Essays, 2005, pg. 102

“[but] Academic English [is] a verbal cancer that has metastasized now to afflict both scholarly writing and prose as mainstream as the Village Voice’s. Maybe it’s a combination of my SNOOTitude and the fact that I end up having to read a lot of it for my job, but I’m afraid I regard Academic English not as a dialectical variation but as a grotesque debasement of SWE, and loathe it even more than the stilted incoherences of Presidential English ... or the mangled pieties of BusinessSpeak ...; and in support of this total contempt and intolerance I cite not less an authority than Mr. G. Orwell, who 50 years ago had AE pegged as a ‘mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence’ in which ‘it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.’”
- pgs. 114-115

“This was in his 1946 ‘Politics and the English Language,’ an essay that despite its date (and the basic redundancy of its title) remains the definitive SNOOT statement on Academese. Orwell’s famous AE translation of the gorgeous ‘I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift’ part of Ecclesiastes as ‘Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account’ should be tattooed on the left wrist of every grad student in the anglophone world.”
- footnote 67
 

See, I don't get this. Just because de Tocqueville said it doesn't mean Whyte can't say something similar in different words. That's how discourse works; Whyte's socio-historical situation makes what he has to say different from de Tocqueville because he's addressing a different world (and, yes, any world that can exist after Hiroshima and Auschwitz is different in key ways from the agrarian society de Tocqueville visited). Thinkers by definition have to address their own material-historical circumstances; anyone who just says "Well, read de Tocqueville" has already given up the right to be taken seriously as a thinker.

Remember, I am questioning whether “groupthink” is sufficiently different from anything that we already didn’t know before. I readily acknowledge that there are ways of framing the same ideas and questions differently in different ages and cultural contexts. What is increasingly tiresome is hearing a less sophisticated but more modernized version of a concept that is explained as if it were in a vacuum. I think people should read a thinker whenever [a] they discuss something that thinker wrote about and it appears they have not even considered his main points.
 

But in that case you're arguing something entirely different from what the concept of groupthink is meant to address. What you're saying--it seems--is that group consensus isn't always bad. To which Whyte--and, I'm betting, anyone who's given more than a second's thought to the concept of groupthink--would blink and say, "Well, of course. No one said otherwise." The question is what kind of group consensus? A group that agrees to hold democratic elections is fundamentally different from a group that refuses to. A group that agrees that certain members of the population are undesirable is fundamentally different from one that values human rights. The fact that sometimes group values are good is utterly immaterial. That's not what Whyte et al are trying to address.

Well, what you quoted said: “Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome.” Is it wrong of me to translate that as “Groupthink is when the desire for harmony or conformity in a group results in a wrong decision”? The Whyte quote you cited went: “What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity — an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.” Is it wrong of me to translate that as “Groupthink is rationalized conformity that affirms that a group’s values are right because they are from the group”?

The explicators of the idea of “groupthink” seem to be asserting that it is always bad to hold to values because such values are those of a group. This seems like a fundamentally problematic attack. Instead of criticizing a conclusion because of its substance or reasoning, it criticizes a conclusion because it is the conclusion of the group.
 

I'm pretty sure Lewis is wrong here because [a] he doesn't define democracy correctly (even as a political category it's nowhere so banal as "everyone's absolutely equal," and he thinks that beauty is some sort of Ideal Concept rather than a social construct (well, near as I can tell he does, but he conveniently doesn't define Beauty, Truth or Virtue; since he personifies them I'm guessing he's all about neoplatonizing them as well. Which makes sense, given his field. But it's fallacious).

By democratic here, Lewis merely means popularly determined. Beauty, Truth and Virtue cannot be determined by vote. Their existence does not depend upon whether they are accepted or rejected by any majority, minority or group. Of course Lewis would absolutely reject that Beauty is a social construct. But that doesn’t demand that Beauty be a Platonic ideal either. This is getting a bit epistemological, but there is a middle point between Platonism and Nominalism, it’s called Realism, or, as Aristotle distinguished it from Plato, Moderate Realism. With Lewis, I reject the idea that if something is really true, then it will win out in “the marketplace of ideas.” It’s a common argument, and it underlies much of what is said about allowing complete academic freedom. But I think history has proved it to be false.
 

I don't think you're addressing anything anyone actually says, though. The critique of groupthink isn't a condemnation of groups; it's a warning that groups can get too closed in and can consequently make bad decisions. It strikes me as a relatively uncontroversial thing to say, and the fact that it's couched in a newfangled terminology doesn't change that fact.

Not only is it no longer uncontroversial to say, it is invariably the norm. I cannot count the number of times, in the army, in the office, in the church, at school and at college, where I have heard the benefits of thinking outside of the box extolled and lauded. Anti-conformity is now considered a virtue. Rebelling against old traditions and conventions has been fashionable since Rousseau, and it’s still talked about as if it were something new.

But, it is the presuppositions here that I am interested in. And I think the presuppositions behind the idea of condemning what they are calling “groupthink” are false. You are right that these presuppositions are not always actually said. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. For example: Presupposition: the individual is of greater value than the group. Presupposition: the individual’s opinion is just as valuable as the group’s opinion. Presupposition: It is wrong affirm a value because it is the value of a group. Presupposition: value derives from individual rights.
 

Sometimes the group "decides" to exclude certain [objectively nonobjectionable] people or certain points of view [ditto] ... and that's what gets called groupthink.

And sometimes there is a very good reason for the group to do so.
 

And, yes, the principles of the group should always be open to questioning. Always.

Matthew Lee Anderson recently wrote a little book that disagrees with you. I consider it the antithesis to David Dark’s The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Perhaps the only reason to question anything is because a time comes when some questions can be closed. At that time, everything ceases to be open to questioning. Questions, by their very nature, are not neutral, can be framed in many different ways and almost always assume givens that make the question itself possible in the first place. To assert that all principles are open to question is to take a specific epistemological position.
 

Of course, I'm against all orthodoxies of an academic or aesthetic nature, be they New Historicist, queer theory, feminist theory, New Critical.... The minute you start mouthing the group's pieties without adding anything to it you've left conversation entirely and it becomes a kind of critical mutual admiration society. It doesn't matter, in the end, if what you say is "correct," so long as it's interesting and does interesting work. But that's me.

In order to do that, don’t you have to assume that the academic and aesthetic spheres are somehow dualistically separate from the moral, religious or spiritual spheres? Orthodoxy, of any shape or form, has been given a bad rap for a long time now, but there might be a good reason why there are some who consider it valuable. I’d respectfully submit that there are good and bad reasons for mouthing old pieties. Every mutual admiration society is quite dull. And it is certainly possible to make the good and the true boring and uninteresting. But, at other times, a group’s old pieties may be so unfashionable, neglected and unread that repeating them again could just be the spark to begins something again that is quite interesting indeed.

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Yeah, I think this is a beer-and-pretzels discussion. I'll try to keep this post short. First, then--I think you're making an unsubstantiated leap at some point here. This:

"Groupthink is rationalized conformity that affirms that a group’s values are right because they are from the group”?

 

Does not lead to this:

The explicators of the idea of “groupthink” seem to be asserting that it is always bad to hold to values because such values are those of a group.

 

 

--particularly since none of the quotes I posted actually said that. I'm a little baffled as to how you get from "there is a social phenomenon in which groups can behave badly because no one wants to rock the boat" to "all groups are bad." Describing a tendency is not the same thing as issuing a blanket condemnation. Observation is not judgement. Again, it's like objecting to "some college kids get drunk when they're at parties" by saying "Not all parties encourage teen drinking! Not even most of them."

 

Here's where groupthink seems different from de T, by the way: it's specifically tailored to describe the ways in which people behave in corporate environments (or, y'know, Nazi Germany). Think of it as de T updated for an industrialized age.

 

Ok, a couple more: 

To assert that all principles are open to question is to take a specific epistemological position.

 

 

Yep, a basically Enlightenment position. I'm a partisan of the Enlightenment. I like autonomous thinkers (though as a chastened modernist, I realize that there's no such thing as pure autonomy). I believe that if ideas are worth having, they're worth questioning--and, conversely, if they're not worth questioning, then they aren't worth having because all the interesting stuff happens in the process of answering the question. That probably puts me on the wrong side of a bunch of Medieval scholars and a couple of Greek dudes. I don't have a problem with that.

 

By democratic here, Lewis merely means popularly determined. Beauty, Truth and Virtue cannot be determined by vote. Their existence does not depend upon whether they are accepted or rejected by any majority, minority or group. Of course Lewis would absolutely reject that Beauty is a social construct. But that doesn’t demand that Beauty be a Platonic ideal either. This is getting a bit epistemological, but there is a middle point between Platonism and Nominalism, it’s called Realism, or, as Aristotle distinguished it from Plato, Moderate Realism. With Lewis, I reject the idea that if something is really true, then it will win out in “the marketplace of ideas.” It’s a common argument, and it underlies much of what is said about allowing complete academic freedom. But I think history has proved it to be false.

 

 

Oh, I did my time in a philosophy department. I know from realism; I was specifically tying Lewis to neoplatonism because that's the sort of thing that shows up in The Last Battle, and it's the sort of waters he swam in as a medievalist. My point is, there's nothing Real about "beauty." Or, rather--if we want to scrape in a little Lacan--beauty is part of the Real, but the Real is an absence, not a presence. We could go around the block pointing out how standards of beauty are socially constructed, how aesthetics are socially constructed, etc etc etc. The only thing "real" about beauty is that throbbing in the chest, and it can be aroused by radically different things. But we've done that in one of the other threads. Saying that there is a Beauty outside of the pile of things we describe as beautiful is woefully inadequate, besides being unprovable.

 

When you say "By democratic here, Lewis merely means popularly determined," you're basically repeating Whyte's objection to groupthink. Whyte isn't actually saying anything with which I would ever expect you to disagree, given our previous conversations, so seeing you come down so hard on him is an odd sensation. By rights, I should be the one lambasting Whyte because he's getting all misty-eyed over "humanist education". Then again, I'm a partisan of humanist education. But seriously--Lewis is saying "we can't let groups decide what's right" and that's exactly what Whyte is saying. So I'm not sure what the issue is (though you seem to have a dim view of sociologists and psychologists in general, no? So perhaps that's part of it?)

 

Don't touch my academic freedom, by the way. I'll fight you for it. Tooth and nail. And I think history has shown that, in the long run, the correct ideas do generally win out. Racial equality eventually won out over the groupthink of segregation. Women fought for their place in society in the marketplace of ideas and they won--though there's still much to be done. We got rid of heliocentrism. And Platonism. And we trust scientists rather than alchemists. The marketplace of ideas ain't perfect, and sometimes terrible stuff happens, but on the whole I think we're far better off for having let it do its thing.

 

But even if the marketplace of ideas weren't so staggeringly effective at freeing oppressed people, spreading literacy and scientific knowledge, and generally making the world a slightly less crappy place, I'll say this: I'd rather live in an uncertain world where the wrong ideas might win than in a comfortable one where the proper authorities have closed the questions down. Because I abhor authoritarianism. And that ain't too strong a word, either.

 

By the way, Wallace was brilliant, but he wasn't an academic sociologist. He simply doesn't get to say what constitutes a proper use of language in a discipline of which he's not a part (--and how's that for groupthink?)

 

EDIT: I should address this:

 

In order to do that, don’t you have to assume that the academic and aesthetic spheres are somehow dualistically separate from the moral, religious or spiritual spheres? Orthodoxy, of any shape or form, has been given a bad rap for a long time now, but there might be a good reason why there are some who consider it valuable. I’d respectfully submit that there are good and bad reasons for mouthing old pieties. Every mutual admiration society is quite dull. And it is certainly possible to make the good and the true boring and uninteresting. But, at other times, a group’s old pieties may be so unfashionable, neglected and unread that repeating them again could just be the spark to begins something again that is quite interesting indeed.

 

 

I've read my Chesterton, so I'm down with the good sides of orthodoxy. And I'm all about resurrecting old pieties and seeing what happens. But just because a piety is old doesn't mean it's worth anything if it fails to do interesting work. That's the key thing, and I think it might be one of the places where we part company, because I'm interested in throwing things together, bashing them against each other, and seeing what happens. I honestly grow weary whenever the results grow too predictable. It's my beef with [badly done] post-colonialist theory, [badly-done] feminist theory, and [badly done] New Criticism, or badly done anything else. The moral element? Sure, there's a moral element to art. And a moral element to academics. But that morality isn't nearly so bright and shiny as saying "Oh, here is a good, true, and beautiful work." More often, it's grubby stuff like "I wonder if Joyce ever read Sterne" [he did] or "I'll bet pulp fiction published during WWII could tell us interesting stuff about how popular artists imagined society then" [we'll see]. For me--and for most of the lit people I know--academics isn't about hoisting aloft the flag of Beauty; it's about digging around and seeing what pokes its head out. That's a fundamentally different sort of thing.

 

But all that's to the side and, as I've said, it's about something that's only tangentially related to the concept of groupthink. Groupthink is simply the tendency in groups for individuals to not speak out in the face of obviously wrong-headed decisions in order to preserve harmony. Surely we can agree that such a condition is not ideal, and that if an individual believes they're witnessing a wrong being done they should speak out rather than keep silent? That's the question. Gussy it up with de Tocqueville or Plato or whomever you like, but in the end the question is simply this: should individuals speak out against what they believe is wrong or not? And, more to the point, can critics foster a group-think mentality? Should people who disagree that, say, Pixar is the apex of family entertainment feel comfortable saying so? It strikes me as ludicrous to assert on that level that [a] groupthink can never occur, or that people who just don't like Pixar [or whatever; I'm trying to pick a low-stakes example, here] should be silent before the knowledgeable majority that does like Pixar. [Conversely, I like John Carter. I think it's a woefully underrated movie. I think the group is wrong not to like John Carter. Not a moral wrong, just simple wrong-headedness. I don't think disliking John Carter is an example of groupthink on A&F, because we have a fairly vibrant community that isn't afraid to disagree--look at the thread on Philomena. But I've seen enough dismissive comments from people who haven't even seen John Carter to know that critical groupthink does function in the wider discourse; people either assume it's bad because the group says so or else they enjoy it and aren't willing to pipe up and defend it. It's not a high-stakes example. No one's going to die or miss out on the meaning of life because they yield to the group's decision. But that's the real problem with porting the concept of groupthink into critical discussion; nine times out of ten, the stakes are so low that the person calling groupthink winds up looking a little silly. Example: Star Wars nerds back in 2001 angrily calling the group of folks who liked AotC (and there were a few) "sheeple." At the end of the day, some things--like corporate fraud--are important, while others--like whether I'm in-step or out-of-step with the group in my opinion of Pixar or John Carter--simply don't matter at all.]

Edited by NBooth

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I think you're making an unsubstantiated leap at some point here. This:

Groupthink is rationalized conformity that affirms that a group’s values are right because they are from the group”?

Does not lead to this:

The explicators of the idea of “groupthink” seem to be asserting that it is always bad to hold to values because such values are those of a group.

--particularly since none of the quotes I posted actually said that.

Right, see, I can't even imagine how there is any question that the first proposition leads to the second. It seems simple because the “rationalized conformity” is so obviously being looked down upon here. When you explained it as:

... he seems to be suggesting that going along with the group's ideas just because they're the group's ideas is a bad thing.

- that seemed both evident and reasonable, given what advocates of the idea are saying. None of them are saying that “groupthink” is good. All of them are saying that “groupthink” is bad.

 

Yes, there's a danger from the group--any group--to enforce conformity. Yes, when that happens it can lead to horrific results ... the opposition to groupthink (or whatever you want to call it) is foundational to any sort of enlightened discourse. Yes, every idea--even loony ones--should be welcome if only to demonstrate why they don't work. That's the marketplace of ideas.

My position does not view “enforced conformity” itself is necessarily bad. Neither is opposing what is being labeled as “groupthink” foundational to enlightened discourse, truth, knowledge, etc. On the contrary, cultural or community or institutional standards are often what enable, rather than restrict, creative and critical thought.  Conformity to form is often what makes enlightened discourse and challenging questioning possible.  And the form is almost always established or mandated by some kind of authoritative group.

 

I'm a little baffled as to how you get from "there is a social phenomenon in which groups can behave badly because no one wants to rock the boat" to "all groups are bad." Describing a tendency is not the same thing as issuing a blanket condemnation. Observation is not judgement. Again, it's like objecting to "some college kids get drunk when they're at parties" by saying "Not all parties encourage teen drinking! Not even most of them."

Perhaps I haven’t explained this successfully, but I have been trying to avoid semantic arguments such as whether “groupthink” is an idea that allows for erroneous community thought or “groupthink” is the error itself that can occur in community thought. I thought it was being used to mean the latter, but that’s not important because there is still an idea here that I find wrong-headed. Is there any question that “groupthink,” whether it is an observation or a tendency or whatever, is viewed as undesirable? “Groupthink” is something that, according to those who created the idea, we want to avoid. Looking at your analogy, the “getting drunk” could be the “enforced conformity” or the “affirming of a value only because it was a value affirmed by the group.” In which case, according to your analogy, I’m not challenging whether the drinking occurs in the group. Instead I’m questioning the assumption that the “getting drunk” itself is necessarily bad.

 

I'm a partisan of the Enlightenment. I like autonomous thinkers (though as a chastened modernist, I realize that there's no such thing as pure autonomy). I believe that if ideas are worth having, they're worth questioning--and, conversely, if they're not worth questioning, then they aren't worth having because all the interesting stuff happens in the process of answering the question. That probably puts me on the wrong side of a bunch of Medieval scholars and a couple of Greek dudes. I don't have a problem with that.

Let's try not to take the simplistic view that opposes Greek & Mediaeval philosophy against the Enlightenment.  And I wouldn't claim that the more reasonable view is one that takes the side of the Greeks & Mediaevals against the Enlightenment.  The other view is that the Greeks & Mediaevals are the ones who made the Enlightenment possible. The Enlightenment happened because of a rediscovery of both Greek and Mediaeval thought.

To assert that an idea is always worth questioning is to stop short of the entire process. There has to be a good reason for questioning. One good reason for asking a question is in order to answer it. All the questioning in the world can be encouraged coincident with the belief that answers are possible too. And it is not far from asserting that some questions can have answers to asserting that some answers can be final. When a question is asked and given a final answer, there are reasonable objections to asking the same question again.

 

But seriously--Lewis is saying "we can't let groups decide what's right" and that's exactly what Whyte is saying. So I'm not sure what the issue is (though you seem to have a dim view of sociologists and psychologists in general, no? So perhaps that's part of it?)

But there are radically different ways of allowing groups to decide what is right. Democracy is merely one. Community is another. Tradition, convention, prescription, constitutions, institutions and culture are others, not all of which are necessarily all that democratic. Objecting that there are spheres where the democratic process cannot, by its very nature, determine right is not the same as objecting to “going along with the group’s ideas just because they're the group’s ideas.”

 

Groupthink is simply the tendency in groups for individuals to not speak out in the face of obviously wrong-headed decisions in order to preserve harmony. Surely we can agree that such a condition is not ideal, and that if an individual believes they're witnessing a wrong being done they should speak out rather than keep silent? That's the question. Gussy it up with de Tocqueville or Plato or whomever you like, but in the end the question is simply this: should individuals speak out against what they believe is wrong or not?

If that were all it was, then we wouldn’t even have had this conversation. But that can’t be all it is. It can’t even be the most important part. How does being intimated into silence even come into it? This whole time, I have not been considering people too cowardly to speak up when they should speak up. That assumes they believe something is wrong. I’ve been thinking about their believing it, whatever it is, to be right. You brought up Eichmann as an example. Eichmann wasn’t intimidated by higher powers into doing what he thought was wrong. Eichmann wasn’t prevented from speaking out. (If he had tried to speak out, he probably, like Sophie Scholl, would not have lasted long. But that is just it, Eichmann was not just a cowardly Sophie Scholl.) If that is the most important thing you’ve been trying to defend, then we’ve had this conversation by mistake.

But I don’t think so. I think there is a real disagreement somewhere here, and I suspect it has to do with when a person decides that something is right or wrong because of the group that they are in. It wouldn’t be that they were intimidated into not speaking up against what they thought was wrong. It would be that they thought that it was right. Remember the phrase “rationalized conformity,” something, in other words, that, in my opinion can be greatly abused in order to perpetuate great evil. But I don’t think it is, in and of itself, an evil. In fact, I think it could be rather good.

 

But that's the real problem with porting the concept of groupthink into critical discussion; nine times out of ten, the stakes are so low that the person calling groupthink winds up looking a little silly. Example: Star Wars nerds back in 2001 angrily calling the group of folks who liked AotC (and there were a few) "sheeple." At the end of the day, some things--like corporate fraud--are important, while others--like whether I'm in-step or out-of-step with the group in my opinion of Pixar or John Carter--simply don't matter at all.]

But it is the habit of thought (or of non-thought) that matters. Any bad habit of not thinking could be applied to many trivial circumstances. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a real and moral objection to the habit of thinking itself. In both film and literature criticism, I regularly see habits of thought critiqued on grounds that have very deep and profound implications.

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Oh, I'm mixing two or three discussions here at this point. Let's back up and break down "rationalized conformity to group standards because they're the group standards."

 

"Rationalized" means that things that don't make sense are re-read in such a way that they do. This can be conscious (the people who don't have the guts) or unconscious (people who "know" on some level that the group is wrong, but stamp down that knowledge). It's pretending that the group's standards have a basis in something outside the group--metaphysics, social-historical inevitability, etc.

 

"Conformity"--in the sense of not wanting to rock the boat.

 

"to group standards"--or practices--"because they're group standards"--that is, independently of any real-world or moral or practical application. Doing things because we've always done them, and ignoring the fact that they're stupid or contra-indicated or just plain wrong out of an interest in maintaining group harmony or cohesion. It's the sort of thinking that motivated Buckley in opposing desegregation. You want groupthink, that's it right there: someone rationalizing the bad choices of the larger group in order to maintain harmony. Now, Buckley might have been thinking he had other fish to fry; he might have been too cowardly to speak out; he might just not have thought very deeply about the matter at all (likely). In any event, what you have here is an example-in-miniature of how segregation was allowed to flourish in the United States in spite of our stated principles. 

 

Applying this to criticism, it might go something like this: "Well, I know [on some level, conscious or not] that Gone with the Wind is essentially a glorified bodice ripper, but most critics say it's one of the greatest movies ever made, so I will agree with them." Or, worse yet, "Everyone knows that GwtW is a great movie, so I won't even question it."

 

Perhaps I haven’t explained this successfully, but I have been trying to avoid semantic arguments such as whether “groupthink” is an idea that allows for erroneous community thought or “groupthink” is the error itself that can occur in community thought. I thought it was being used to mean the latter, but that’s not important because there is still an idea here that I find wrong-headed. Is there any question that “groupthink,” whether it is an observation or a tendency or whatever, is viewed as undesirable? “Groupthink” is something that, according to those who created the idea, we want to avoid. Looking at your analogy, the “getting drunk” could be the “enforced conformity” or the “affirming of a value only because it was a value affirmed by the group.” In which case, according to your analogy, I’m not challenging whether the drinking occurs in the group. Instead I’m questioning the assumption that the “getting drunk” itself is necessarily bad.

 

 

Since semantic arguments are the only ones that exist anyway, I think we should parse this out. "Groupthink" is not "an idea that allows for erroneous community thought," it's a term [based in a specific discipline] that describes certain errors of community thought. The difference is not immaterial. It's a specific term applied to a specific kind of event; the fact that "some people" try to apply it more broadly to any consensus is irrelevant. We want to avoid certain kinds of group behavior, even if in other areas we strive for broad conformity/cohesion. You can't divorce the term from its intended context.

 

This is a real-world tendency that exists. It's been witnessed by sociologists and psychologists since the term was invented. Observing its existence is neither calling for the destruction of all standards nor is it deriding all group conformity as equally undesirable. Indeed, I doubt that any sociologists would say that group conformity is always wrong; we want people to conform to certain things (traffic laws or regulations forbidding murder). But we don't want people to conform in other ways (teens getting drunk because of peer pressure, companies cutting employee benefits because no one "at the top" can see/cares to point out the damage it would do, mob violence, etc). If you try to generalize the idea, you're making a category error. (And, incidentally, by saying that "proponents of groupthink" are wrong, you're implicitly accusing them of groupthink, which means that you have to use the concept in order to attack the concept).

 

My position does not view “enforced conformity” itself is necessarily bad.

 

 

 

I'm no sociologist, but as far as I can tell, people who use the phrase "group think" wouldn't disagree with you. Some conformity needs enforcement. Some is just stupid. And the stupid conformity--conformity for the sake of conformity--is groupthink. (Another example: I have no problem agreeing that Citizen Kane is a great movie. But I'll be hanged if I think someone should agree with that call just because everyone else does. We have reasons we value the movie, and those reasons should be the basis of any conformity--not mere banal group consensus).

 

As far as group standards go, perhaps this would all be simpler if you said whom you think should be the "authoritative group" and why their authority should be accepted without criticism by the individuals within it. Seems to me like you're pushing pretty far in the direction of recommending that enlightened philosopher kings (or critics) could call the shots on what counts as "good" in a given medium. Someone has to, after all, unless you want it to be a democracy of the critics--in which case, the threat of groupthink is actually reinforced.

 

More later, perhaps.

Edited by NBooth

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And I think history has shown that, in the long run, the correct ideas do generally win out. Racial equality eventually won out over the groupthink of segregation. Women fought for their place in society in the marketplace of ideas and they won--though there's still much to be done. We got rid of heliocentrism. And Platonism. And we trust scientists rather than alchemists. The marketplace of ideas ain't perfect, and sometimes terrible stuff happens, but on the whole I think we're far better off for having let it do its thing ... I'd rather live in an uncertain world where the wrong ideas might win than in a comfortable one where the proper authorities have closed the questions down. Because I abhor authoritarianism. And that ain't too strong a word, either.

I suppose “the marketplace of ideas” is another phrase that seems nonsensical to me. First of all, does it include action or the use of force? Does one idea “win” in the marketplace of ideas when someone uses an army or a ballistic missile to drive a point home with something other than words? Does an idea “win” in the marketplace of ideas when it wins a majority vote? History does not show any sort of overall progress in mankind’s ability to accept difficult truths. If you just pick a single idea, sure, you can show how a larger number of people accept it than they did before. But you can show the opposite with other ideas. Wouldn’t attempting to find some sort of aggregate progress in quantity of ideas be the sort of thing that leads to madness? Falsehoods have been rejected. So have truths. To say that more falsehoods have been rejected over time than truths have been rejected is to ignore that, by their nature, there have to be more falsehoods than there are truths.

 

By the way, Wallace was brilliant, but he wasn't an academic sociologist. He simply doesn't get to say what constitutes a proper use of language in a discipline of which he's not a part (--and how's that for groupthink?)

Well, he studied English, philosophy and modal logic in college. He studied lexicography and linguistics on his own. Usage and style lexicographer, Bryan A. Garner, thought Wallace’s position on the proper use of language was worth documenting. If there is such a thing as a proper use of language, then how could it not apply to every single academic discipline that ... well, uses language? Is one of the problems of education in our age that academic disciplines are now so separate and fragmented from each other that “English” or “Literature” are really considered inapplicable to things like Sociology, History, Philosophy or Political Science?

The group that constitutes English speakers have a sort of “enforced conformity” on what constitutes the proper use of the English language. These rules can, obviously, be broken in creative and even beautiful ways. But just because they can occasionally be broken doesn’t mean that the rules, or the “enforced conformity” in this case, are not a good thing. The rightness of the rule against misplaced modifiers is a group value that is good because it is a group value. It makes possible a clarity of thought that otherwise would not be possible.

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 Falsehoods have been rejected. So have truths. To say that more falsehoods have been rejected over time than truths have been rejected is to ignore that, by their nature, there have to be more falsehoods than there are truths.

 

Questionable. It could be that there are four categories: "truths," "falsehoods," "conveniences," and "inconveniences." The latter two categories far outstrip the first two, and that's where most of the marketplace-action is seen. But, no, we're better off now than we were before the Enlightenment, en masse (though Global Capitalism brings its own problems, of course). By contrast, whatever "truths" have been rejected have been so because they turn out not to be truths (i.e. they're conveniences, like the Divine Right of Kings, or falsehoods, like the heliocentric model). Racking my brain, I can't think of any "truths" that have lost out in general discourse. Not in any serious way. (Of course, again, if you argue that these self-evident truths have been rejected, then you're talking groupthink, even if you hate the phrase).

 

 

By the way, Wallace was brilliant, but he wasn't an academic sociologist. He simply doesn't get to say what constitutes a proper use of language in a discipline of which he's not a part (--and how's that for groupthink?)

Well, he studied English, philosophy and modal logic in college. He studied lexicography and linguistics on his own. Usage and style lexicographer, Bryan A. Garner, thought Wallace’s position on the proper use of language was worth documenting. If there is such a thing as a proper use of language, then how could it not apply to every single academic discipline that ... well, uses language? Is one of the problems of education in our age that academic disciplines are now so separate and fragmented from each other that “English” or “Literature” are really considered inapplicable to things like Sociology, History, Philosophy or Political Science?

 

It could not apply to every single discipline because, shockingly enough, disciplines talk about different things. I've griped about specialized vocabulary, but sometimes that vocabulary does specific work for people in the field, and it would be as silly to object to that fact as it would be to argue that physical scientists can't use specialized scientific terminology. Lawyers don't observe the same kind of vocabulary as laymen, do they? Then why should academics--particularly academics in such a specialized field as sociology.

 

[i'm a fan of the separation of disciplines, just as I'm a fan of their cross-pollination. Each one does valuable work in a limited field, and those discrete investigations contribute a net good. It's not a problem that these disciplines are separated--it's just a side-effect of the fact that knowledge and inquiry is much more detailed now than it was a hundred years ago]

 

I specifically said Wallace was brilliant. I never denied that. And I broadly agree with him on lots of things--though with a caveat, noted below. In fact, it's precisely because he's so brilliant that I push back against him being invoked as an Authority. It's easy to forget that he had a particular project in mind, and everything he wrote, as far as I can tell, feeds into that project--which means that taking his words out of the context of that project strikes me as a dangerous course. See my caveat below. But here's the thing--the terms of a discourse are defined by the people within that discourse. The fact that Wallace doesn't find some things convenient for himself isn't an argument against them, however much work he did with linguistics or modal logic. Temperamentally he was ill-suited to academia, as he himself recognized (at least, if my reading of Max's biography is correct). Him complaining about academic language is a bit like me complaining because creative writers are such flakes. My opinion doesn't matter a fig to a person actually producing creative work. And this cuts both ways. Separate fields of production require separate vocabularies.

 

Here's the caveat: you can't separate Wallace from his self-conscious performativity as an anti-ironist. He's playing a role here, and taking him at face value is the last thing one should do. I've not read everything he's written, but it seems fairly evident to me that his work is defined by the central tension between a hatred of performance as a performance. He's watching himself watching himself watching himself. Or, more properly, he's watching himself watch us watching him watching himself. As a result, it's precisely when he's at his most sincere that the reader should be most on guard, because--and he's keenly aware of this--that sincerity is itself a performance. I would even argue that reading him without taking that central tension into account--the fact that he's ironically anti-ironic--is to misread him rather badly.

 

[That said, thanks for linking the book. I'm adding it to my wish list because I am interested in what Wallace has to say. I'm just opposed to an uncomplicated reading of him]

 
 
The group that constitutes English speakers have a sort of “enforced conformity” on what constitutes the proper use of the English language. These rules can, obviously, be broken in creative and even beautiful ways. But just because they can occasionally be broken doesn’t mean that the rules, or the “enforced conformity” in this case, are not a good thing. The rightness of the rule against misplaced modifiers is a group value that is good because it is a group value. It makes possible a clarity of thought that otherwise would not be possible.

 

 

I agree with you, actually. But--equally so--each discipline has its own refined mode of expression that assists in particular kinds of clarity that are valued by that discipline. Think of it as smaller language-groups within the larger one.

 

---

 

Getting back to groupthink and group standards, I think it could be argued that group principles can be divided into two groups: convenient principles and realist principles. Convenient principles are not falsifiable because they operate by fiat. The "rules" of English are by and large rules of convenience. Most of the time, these principles are basically neutral; a few people may not like the strong prejudice against splitting infinitives, but it's something no one would object strongly to. Realist principles are falsifiable, like the "principle" that the sun goes around the earth (false) or that washing your hands after going to the toilet helps prevent disease (true). 

 

The danger occurs when principles of convenience are confused with [true] realist principles. Thus, the "principle" that you should never split an infinitive (an ad hoc designation created, if I recall, in the 19th C by a bunch of academics trying to make English more like Latin) can become confused with the idea that it's the fixed order of things that infinitives should not be split.

 

Or, to take a better example: poetry was for a long time defined, by a principle of convenience, as a special mode of writing that required meter. By this definition, free verse could not be poetry. But there's nothing in the nature of things that demands that poetry have meter because--for one thing--poetry isn't a thing that occurs in nature. It's mistaking convenience for realism to say that free verse "isn't" poetry.

 

One more example: segregation, again. Here's a principle of convenience that isn't neutral. It was determined at some point that it is more convenient to keep the races separated than to attempt integration. Over time, this decision was rationalized so that it came to seem like a realist, or natural, distinction. By my understanding, this move from "convenience" to "realist" would be something like what sociologists mean by groupthink--taking an ad hoc decision and maintaining it simply because it seems natural or would be more convenient to pretend it's real or whatever.

 

tl;dr: it's fine to have group standards, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that group standards have a basis in anything outside the consent of the group--or that these group standards can never be misguided, contra-indicated, or evil.

Edited by NBooth

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I'll respond to this once I have the time to think through it more than I have already.  In the meantime, I just discovered that the book, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes by Irving L. Janis is probably required reading before I take this conversation too much further.  (It appears Janis is using Pearl Harbor, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis as illustrative examples.)

 

Also:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah5lBPr_iAY

 

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