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The herd in the head | Aeon

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

i

The herd in the head

It is enormously empowering – even intoxicating – to lose yourself to a crowd. That is why we need contrarians

by Costica Bradatan + BIO

Photo by Richard Kalvar/Magnum

‘Just look at academia, that vast herd of sheep-like individualists.’
– René Girard (1923-2015)

Have you noticed how, when crossing a busy road, you feel a sudden urge to speed up and melt into the crowd? Whether you are in Rio de Janeiro or Bangkok, New Delhi or New York City, your animal instinct tells you that it is safer to venture as part of a herd than on your own. Fear brings us closer together. The evidence is not just anecdotal. When we are herding, neuroimaging experiments show increased activation in the amygdala area of the brain, where fear and other negative emotions are processed. While you may feel vulnerable and exposed on your own, being part of the herd gives you a distinct sense of protection. You know in your guts that, in the midst of others, the risk of being hit by a car is lower because it is somehow distributed among the group’s members. The more of them, the lower the risk. There is safety in numbers. And so much more than mere safety.

Herding also comes with an intoxicating sense of power: as members of a crowd, we feel much stronger and braver than we are in fact. And sometimes we act accordingly. The same person who, on his own, wouldn’t ‘hurt a fly’ will not hesitate to set a government building on fire or rob a liquor store when part of an angry mass. The most mild-mannered of us can make the meanest comments as part of an online mob. A herd can do wonders of psychological transformation in its individual members; in no time, prudence turns into folly, caution into recklessness, decency into savagery. Once caught up in the maelstrom, it is extremely difficult to hold back: you see it as your duty to participate. Any act of lynching, ancient or modern, literal or on social media, displays this feature. ‘A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men,’ writes Elias Canetti in Crowds and Power (1960).

The herd can also give its members a disproportionate sense of personal worth. No matter how empty or miserable their individual existence may otherwise be, belonging to a certain group makes them feel accepted and recognised – even respected. There is no hole in one’s personal life, no matter how big, that one’s intense devotion to one’s tribe cannot fill, no trauma that it does not seem to heal. That’s why cults and gangs, fringe organisations or sects hold such an extraordinary appeal: to a disoriented soul, they can offer a sense of fulfilment and recognition that neither family nor friends nor profession can supply. A crowd can be therapeutic in the same way in which a highly toxic substance can have curative powers.

Herding, then, engenders a paradoxical form of identity: you are somebody not despite the fact that you’ve melted into the crowd, but because of it. You may be nobody on your own, and your life an empty shell, yet once you’ve managed to establish a meaningful connection with the herd, its volcanic, boundless life overflows into yours and more than fulfils it. You will not be able to find yourself in the crowd, but that’s the least of your worries: you are now part of something that feels so much grander and nobler than your poor self. Your connection with the life of the herd not only fills an inner vacuum but adds a sense of purpose to your disoriented existence. And the more individuals bring their disorientatedness to the party, the livelier it gets. And all the more dangerous.

These are all instinctive reactions. No matter how much rationalisation we do, they are the insidious working of biology in us. ‘We share with other animals a surprisingly wide range of similar instincts to herd in groups,’ observes the economist Michelle Baddeley in her book Copycats and Contrarians (2018). That’s how we’ve survived, after all. A long evolutionary history has conditioned us to herd, as a quick glance at our closest animal relatives can confirm. The primatologist Frans de Waal, who has studied the social and political behaviour of apes for decades, concludes in his book Mama’s Last Hug (2018) that primates are ‘made to be social’ – and ‘the same applies to us.’ Living in groups is ‘our main survival strategy’. We may not all be involved in cults, fringe organisations or populist politics, but we are all wired for herding. We herd all the time: when we make war as when we make peace, when we celebrate and when we mourn, we herd at work and on vacation. The herd is not out there somewhere, but we carry it within us. The herd is deeply seated in our mind.

As far as the practical conduct of our lives and our survival in the world are concerned, this is not a bad arrangement. Thanks to the herd in our minds, we find it easier to connect with others, to communicate and collaborate with them, and in general to live at ease with one another. Because of our herding behaviour, then, we stand a better chance to survive as members of a group than on our own. The trouble starts when we decide to use our mind against our biology. As when we employ our thinking not pragmatically, to make our existence in the world easier and more comfortable in some respect or another, but contemplatively, to see our situation in its naked condition, from the outside.

There is something bordering on the religious in the way a society relates to its established knowledge

In such a situation, if we are to make any progress, we need to pull the herd out of our mind and set it firmly aside, exceedingly difficult as the task may be. This kind of radical thinking can be done only in the absence of the herd’s influence in its many forms: societal pressure, political partisanship, ideological bias, religious indoctrination, media-induced fads and fashions, intellectual mimetism, or any other -isms, for that matter. Such extraneous factors tend to lead us astray, when not blinding us altogether. That’s why most of the time we don’t produce new, genuine knowledge, but only recycle the established (herd-sanctioned and herd-pleasing) knowledge on which our society relies.

And what a splendid sight, this recycling! There is something bordering on the religious in the way a society relates to its established knowledge. Not only does it treasure it at its institutional core – textbooks, encyclopaedias, academies, archives, museums – thereby making sure it’s handled with utmost respect. It never stops glorifying and sanctifying it, to the point where it turns it into a religion. And for good reason: a society’s established knowledge is the glue that keeps it together. Indeed, this unique concoction – a combination of pious lies and convenient half-truths, useful prejudices and self-flattering banalities – is what gives that society its specific cultural physiognomy and, ultimately, its sense of identity. By celebrating its established knowledge, that community celebrates itself. Which, for the sociologist Émile Durkheim, is the very definition of religion.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith observes in The Affluent Society (1958) how the articulation of the mainstream knowledge (which he calls ‘conventional wisdom’) resembles ‘a religious rite’. This is, he writes, an ‘act of affirmation like reading aloud from the Scriptures or going to church.’ Since a society can’t live and function without rituals (sacred or profane, explicit or disguised), its established knowledge needs to be celebrated – ritualistically, loudly, and with all due reverence – in front of the gathered community. From this perspective, scholars don’t get together to share some new insights and groundbreaking theories, but to perform a Sunday service of sorts whereby they reassure their society, and themselves, that the societal glue is in good hands. They ‘gather in scholarly assemblages’, writes Galbraith, ‘to hear in elegant statement what all have heard before.’ The purpose of the ritual ‘is not to convey knowledge but to beatify learning and the learned.’ It is not surprising that, on such occasions, scholars – as befitting the priestly caste that they are – sport a special kind of dress, medieval regalia or some other wizard’s robes. Think only of the peculiar uniform (l’habit vert) and the little funny sword (l’épée d’académicien) that the members of the Institut de France wear when they gather for the public performance of their priesthood. Woe to those who dare make fun of the pompous affair.

I find it highly significant that Western philosophy was founded, as we usually like to think, by an eccentric and a contrarian – someone who made fun of the herd as a matter of both personal vocation and intellectual method. Equally significant, the herd put him to death for doing so. Socrates’ two-folded story illustrates, like few others, what radical thinking typically involves: eccentricity and defiance, courage and even arrogance, on the one hand, and suspicion and resistance, resentment and eventually revenge, on the other. A daring act of nonconformity to society’s demands, followed promptly by a bloody societal response – that’s how philosophising was born in the West. And this trauma of birth has never really left philosophy: any subsequent re-enactment of the Socratic daring would reactivate, to some extent or another, the societal hostility. The more defiant the philosopher’s nonconformity, the blunter the society’s response.

Speaking of literary artists, André Gide observed once that:

the real value of an author consists in his revolutionary force, or more exactly … in his quality of opposition. A great artist is of necessity a ‘nonconformist’ and he must swim against the current of his day.

What Gide says about the ‘great artist’ applies to the great philosopher, too. The ability to ‘swim against the current’ should be seen as an absolute prerequisite for the thinking profession. A thinker will make no difference unless she goes against what her society treasures and celebrates as established knowledge, and exposes the substantial herding involved, not only in its making, but also in the rituals of its preservation and sanctification. This usually means an open confrontation with the priestly caste in charge of preserving the established knowledge, followed by the thinker’s marginalisation, excommunication and ostracisation. To the extent that she manages to do all of this, she will have pulled the herd out of her mind and shrugged off the claims that her society, openly or more insidiously, places on her thinking. The philosopher may be utterly alone at this stage, scar-covered and almost defeated, yet her thinking is clearer and more profound than ever for it has freed itself from the herd’s bondage.

Since they have cut off their ties with their tribe, nothing prevents them from seeing things as they are

This is what has happened during some of the best moments in the history of thinking. Socrates’ contrarian baton was passed on to a series of philosophical mavericks, as colourful as they there were daring: from Diogenes the Cynic to Hypatia to Spinoza to Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil. In one way or another, openly or in a more guarded manner, they all went against the herd-thinking of their times, leaving a trail of intellectual heresy, bold insights, and often social scandal. Through what they did, such figures have kept the thinking alive in a world where everything, thinking included, tends to fall into patterns and routines, and eventually atrophy and die as a result. We are so made, apparently, that we need to have a thorn in the flesh to stay spiritually awake and intellectually alive. The contrarian thinkers gladly oblige to provide us the necessary discomfort.

In his book On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill comes at one point to praise eccentricity, of all things. It is the ‘eccentrics’, he suggests, who keep the world running through their generous supply of bold perspectives, fresh insights and new ideas. ‘Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric,’ he writes. The more eccentrics there are, the better the moral and intellectual state of the world: ‘Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.’

It is this redeeming ‘eccentricity’ that contrarians possess in abundance. The novelty and sharpness of their thinking come in large part from their determination to stay outside the circle that any group, explicitly or tacitly, draws in the sand to define itself. Left out as they are, contrarians are not only in a good position to observe how herding, marginalisation and exclusion work, but they no longer have anything to lose by articulating and broadcasting their heretical views. They are what ‘public intellectuals’ should ideally be – uncompromising ‘critics of society’ – and what, in practice, very few of them are. It’s the vigour of their dissent, the force of their language, and the seriousness of their commitment – their ‘quality of opposition’, in Gide’s words – that turn them into such formidable figures. That, incidentally, is also what distinguishes genuine contrarians from mere provocateurs, for whom challenging the establishment is not a matter of intellectual duty and inner conviction, but above all a form of attention-seeking and a histrionic compulsion to entertain.

The peculiar cut of the contrarians’ minds, their innate distrust of anything authoritative or established, their iconoclasm and radical separation from the society into which they were born, all conspires to give them access to a higher truth than their society can afford to hear. Contrarians don’t care for fads and fashions, authorities and hierarchies, and have little patience for the rituals of the establishment. Since they have cut off their ties with their tribe, nothing prevents them from seeing things as they are. Their dissent doesn’t only free them, it gives them new eyes. Outstandingly learned as he may have been already, Spinoza’s philosophical formation was complete only when he was formally expelled from his community. The unusually harsh herem (‘Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in…’) helped young Baruch become the Spinoza we know today. The violent expulsion from the safety of their community, and into an unknown and cold world, amounts to a new birth for the contrarians. Thanks to the traumatic act, they have now come into full existence.

We shouldn’t get too excited, though. That contrarians cut such a brave figure doesn’t mean they will prevail. For all their panache, courage and occasional success, contrarians are never winners. They may win a battle or two, but they can’t win the war. Since even our most lively and spontaneous acts sooner or later succumb to patterns and routine, it is the establishment that prevails in the long run, even if sometimes it has to make tactical retreats and adjustments in the process. As the embodiment of a community’s herd-sanctioned thinking, the intellectual establishment is victor by default. Its confrontation with the contrarians, though, is a sight to behold.

At first, the establishment will seek to crush and silence its contesters. Not that it cannot afford to tolerate dissent but, like any form of organised power, it needs to project self-assurance, steadfastness and invincibility. Indeed, the rituals of marginalisation, exclusion and scapegoating are meant to bring the community tighter together – and rally it around its centre of power. By violently expelling the undesirables, the group reassures itself both of its righteousness and of its strength. The leaders of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue who excommunicated Spinoza were harsh for a reason. If, for all their best efforts, the exclusion fails and the dissenters’ voices continue to be heard (from the neighbouring city, from abroad, or even from beyond the grave), the establishment will pretend to ignore them: that which hasn’t received our stamp of approval is of no real value. Finally, when it becomes clear that even that does not work, the establishment takes its most drastic measure, one that rarely fails: it embraces the contrarians’ discourse and renders them mainstream. If Kierkegaard proves to be too hard to get rid of or ignore, let’s terminate him by digesting his thinking in a textbook format, and then teaching it to bored undergraduates. No genuine thinking can stand that. If you can’t suppress Nietzsche, you can do something even more damaging to him: turn him into a field of academic study. What doesn’t kill me makes me more ridiculous. That Nietzsche himself anticipated the move does not make the blow any less lethal.

It is primarily through the work of jargon that the academic herd finally defeats the contrarians

You can’t miss the irony: contrarians define themselves against the establishment, mock it savagely, and do everything in their power to undermine it. And what does the establishment do? It turns them into an -ism. Rarely has revenge been sweeter. No sooner did Spinoza die than Spinozism was born. Should Nietzsche miraculously come back to life today, he would die again, of shame and embarrassment, to see how we ‘problematise’ his insights in our Nietzsche courses, seminars and conferences. Walter Benjamin’s habilitation thesis was deemed unsatisfactory by the University of Frankfurt, which denied him access to a teaching career. Today, there are few universities where Benjamin’s work – his habilitation thesis included – is not subjected to mind-numbing ‘problematisation’. While he was alive, Emil Cioran waged merciless war against universities. He thought them to be a public danger – ‘the death of the spirit’. Academics have just started ‘problematising’ him. The establishment always wins.

The end-result of this vindictive ‘problematisation’ is a highly processed product, as tasteless as it is unhealthy: canned thinking. Ideas that were once fresh and wild and pulsating with life have been thoroughly exsanguinated, cleansed and sterilised – and then drowned in a heavy sauce of impenetrable jargon, for conservation. Jargon is the key ingredient here, the transmutation agent. For it is primarily through the work of jargon that the academic herd finally defeats the contrarians. Nothing can stand its corrosion; nothing remains the same. Everything that used to be irreducibly personal, colourful and weird in the contrarians’ writings is now reduced to an impersonal common denominator. Jargon brings everyone in line, makes no discrimination, shows no favouritism – and no mercy. It’s equality gone crazy.

It would be wrong to say that jargon is just an ‘academic style’. Jargon is not a style – it is the death of style. It is slow assassination. Drowned in jargon and subjected to its corrosive work, the stylistic richness of the contrarians doesn’t stand a chance. You take this canned version of their thinking into your mouth to taste, and you feel nothing. No matter how savoury and flavourful and wholesome the contrarians are in themselves, and how different from each other, they now taste more or less the same – the unfailing sameness of processed thought. You look for some traces of their unique spirit in what’s been written about them – peer-reviewed articles, conference proceedings, doctoral dissertations, college textbooks and whatnot – but you look in vain: all you can find is blandness.

The system has swallowed them up, masticated them thoroughly, and then spat them out. The contrarians are now safe for public consumption. And utterly defeated.

Have you noticed how, in today’s academia, we feel an urge to speed up and flock toward the centre of the herd? Afraid to be left out, exposed and vulnerable, we would do anything to be where the pack is most dense. Whether we are in London or Los Angeles, in Paris or Beijing, we always seek to melt into the academic herd – as if this were the most natural thing for a scholar to do. Our survival instinct tells us that it is safer to go with the herd, and not against it – indeed, to be at the centre of it, rather than at its margins. We use a fancy term for it, ‘networking’, though that will fool no one: it’s an instinctive reaction, the barely disguised expression of the drive to survive.

To inhabit the centre, where most of the resources seem to be concentrated, we will do anything: work on whatever topic happens to be trendy, whether we have something to say on it or not; blindly imitate those in positions of power and influence; adopt the phraseology à la mode and the latest jargon, no matter how tasteless or silly; avoid taking risks in any serious matters, and in general refrain from anything that would make us stand out and jeopardise our safety. In our heart of hearts, we know that, for anyone who aspires to genuine knowledge – to see things as they are – this political game is a recipe to failure, but that does not worry us too much. ‘Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally,’ observed John Maynard Keynes about a century ago. When your main aspiration is to stay at the herd’s centre, you do whatever the herd’s conventions tell you to do – reputation or no reputation.

We pursue knowledge not to keep our herding in check, but to better satisfy its demands

In his eccentric hymn to eccentricity, John Stuart Mill said this about his age: ‘That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.’ In retrospect, though, Mill’s time looks like the most contrarian of ages. The year 1859, when On Liberty was published, was also when Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species came out, as well as Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Nietzsche had begun his studies at Schulpforta the year before and was ready to make a splash. Kierkegaard had been dead for only four years, and his ideas just started having an impact (The Point of View of My Work as an Author was published in 1859, too). Dostoevsky had just been released from his compulsory military service, which came with his prison sentence – his brilliant literary career all ahead of him. If Mill’s intellectual generation was in ‘danger’ for lack of eccentrics, ours must be beyond redemption.

Our herding in matters of thinking, as in everything else, is so pervasive, and our intellectual conformism so advanced, that we almost don’t even see Mill’s problem. Thinking, which was supposed to give us detachment from the working of the survival instinct, has now become indistinguishable from herding itself. We pursue knowledge not to keep our herding in check, but to better satisfy its demands. And to increase our power over others. Indeed, since it is in the nature of academic power to be maintained through a combination of ruthlessness and moralisation, we engage in abject behaviour even as we preach virtue with might and main. Bullying and grandstanding. We sign open letters asking for the dismissal of some of our colleagues, conduct character assassination campaigns on social media against others, and subject still others to intense ‘struggle sessions’ – all in the name of some superior morality and noble politics. The lower we go in our actions, the higher in our preaching. We are not just any kind of mob. We are an impossible thing: the scholarly mob.

We are seriously sick, and it is little consolation that the condition from which we suffer (chronic gregaritis) seems to have become the norm; a disease is no less serious just because almost everyone has it. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), Charles Mackay observes that people ‘think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.’ If we are ever to recover our wits, it is crucial that we learn how to unherd. We may be hard-wired for herding, and our survival may be due to it, but we can become spiritually whole only away from the crowd. Biology and spirit belong to opposite realms.

Ironically, what we need most badly now is something that’s most difficult to get in our age of compulsive conformism: an authentic contrarian spirit. It is from contrarians and dissenters and other pariahs that we can learn the craft of unherding, and yet they are few and far between. And, if that was not bad enough, even if we managed to get hold of them, their cure will be precarious, uncertain and unlasting. For, again, in the grand scheme of things, it is the establishment that prevails.

Which is all the more reason to go contrarian.

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