Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism (update)

John Dos Passos was an American writer.  In his younger years, he was a man of the Left, and, like many leftists and some others he was very involved with the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

But he was more than a little disturbed by some of those that shared his viewpoint.  Describing one protest he had attended, he wrote:

From sometime during this spring of 1926 of from the winter before a recollection keeps rising to the surface. The protest meeting is over and I’m standing on a set of steps looking into the faces of the people coming out of the hall. I’m frightened by the tense righteousness of the faces. Eyes like a row of rifles aimed by a firing squad. Chins thrust forward into the icy night. It’s almost in marching step that they stride out into the street. It’s the women I remember most, their eyes searching out evil through narrowed lids. There’s something threatening about this unanimity of protest. They are so sure they are right.

I agree with their protest:  I too was horrified by this outrage.  I’m not one either to stand by and see injustice done.  But do I agree enough?  A chill goes down my spine..Whenever I remember the little scene I tend to turn it over in my mind.  Why did my hackles rise at the sight of the faces of these good people coming out of the hall? 

Was it a glimpse of the forming of a new class conformity that like all class conformities was bent on riding the rest of us?

Quoting Dos Passos and connecting his observations to our own time, Jay Nordlinger wrote:

I know these people. I saw them in Ann Arbor. I saw them in many other places afterward.  Today, you can see them on campuses as “SJWs”: “social-justice warriors.” You can see them wherever there is arrogant, intolerant extremism (no matter which direction it’s coming from).

The thing that frightened Dos Passos in the attitude of these protestors–who were, remember, his allies–is in my opinion quite similar to the thing that is so disturbing about so many of today’s “progressive” protestors.  Dos (as he was called) was entirely correct to be disturbed by what he saw, but I don’t think he diagnosed it quite correctly.  Though he refers to the protestors he observed as “those good people,” quite likely many of them weren’t good people at all–even if they were right about their cause–but were rather engaging in the not-good-at-all pleasure of conformity and the enforcement thereof, and would given half a chance have gone all the way to the even-worse pleasure of bullying.

I recently posted Koestler on Closed Systems, which discusses the nature of intellectually closed systems–which can include political ideologies–and the characteristics of those who are attracted to such systems and allow themselves to be dominated by them.  The phenomenon discussed about–the unwholesome pleasure of behaving with cruelty while simultaneously feeling virtuous–is another factor which often drives political belief and, especially, political activism. We have seen a lot of that behavior in the abuse, intimidation, and sometimes outright violence that we have seen directed at Jewish college students in recent months.

Whether or not Dos’s view of the motivations of the Sacco & Vanzetti protestors he saw is a fair one–and I am simply layering the explanation that seems to make sense to me on top of Dos’s description of his own subjective reactions–the spirt of conformity certainly drives a great deal of political and other wickedness.  I remember a German man who was interviewed near the beginning of the TV series The World at War.  Although he was anti-Nazi, he described the emotional pull he felt when viewing Party rallies–a strong desire to be part of such a cohesive and committed group.

Here’s a related post: A desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.

Although most assume that an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want, I think the inverse is often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.

One feature common among today’s ‘progressives’…and maybe among those of Dos Passos’s time too…is coupling the feeling of courage that they get from believing that they are defying law and convention with the feeling of security they get from conforming to an in-group.

See also C S Lewis on The Inner Ring.  Speaking at King’s College in 1944, Lewis said:

And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”

And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.

Closely related to the Pleasures of Conformity are the Pleasures of Bullying.  See this post on that subject, and in particular on the persecution of a professor at Florida Atlantic University for the “crime” of accepting grant money from the Koch Brothers.

Professor DeRosa’s picture has been plastered on the walls of college buildings by supposedly concerned students with demeaning messages that he’s a “white supremacist” and that his presence on campus is an outrage “demanding action.”  In my opinion, it’s ridiculous to describe those engaged in these defamatory actions, as some commentators do, as “snowflakes.”  They are dangerous thought police, who in this case have targeted a thoroughly decent teacher.

I have no doubt that many of these ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are people who, had they lived in earlier times, would have eagerly participated in the burning of witches, the accusation of innocent people as Communists, or the mocking and humiliation of any woman who dared deviate from her prescribed gender roles.  For a lot of people, the ability to combine submission (to the group) with aggression (toward the designated targets of the group) is very attractive.  There is often also an element of fear–a person who feels threatened may want to join what seems to them to be the largest, strongest, and most aggressive pack around.  (See comment by Katherine O’Connor at this Story Rules Project post)

I’m again reminded of a passage in Goethe’s Faust.  Gretchen, after finding that she is pregnant by Faust, is talking with her awful friend Lieschen, who (still unaware of Gretchen’s situation) is licking her chops about the prospect of humiliating another girl (Barbara) who has also become pregnant outside of marriage. Here’s Gretchen, reflecting on her own past complicity in such viciousness:

How readily I used to blame
Some poor young soul that came to shame!
Never found sharp enough words like pins
To stick into other people’s sins
Black as it seemed, I tarred it to boot
And never black enough to suit
Would cross myself, exclaim and preen–
Now I myself am bared to sin!

There’s a lot of this…“sharp enough words like pins to stick in other people’s sins”, combined with the pleasure of preening, going on today.  And many if not most practitioners thereof will, unlike Gretchen, likely never repent.

An earlier version of this post is here.


6 thoughts on “Conformity, Cruelty, and Political Activism (update)”

  1. The curious thing as regards the Sacco/Vanzetti case is that when considered calmly and long after all passions cooled – it is that likely that Sacco was guilty, and the trial was quite fair. But the progs will have their chosen martyrs…

  2. At the risk of sounding weird: I believe Dos Passos is a unit, not two separate names. (Even if he followed the Spanish custom of going by the mother’s name.) You see, it exists in Portuguese too. It means “Of the steps” and probably refers to Christ’s passion. (The stations of the cross are often referred to as “steps.”)
    I could be wrong, as I don’t know if HE chose to go by Dos. But that hit me as profoundly wrong, so I thought I’d ask.
    As for the rest, you are right of course. And Celia is right. It was another made up case of martyrdom.

  3. Oh on the name thing, My maiden name is de Almeida, not de or Almeida. I was Miss de Almeida. (Though nowadays Portuguese are dropping particles.)

  4. Well not exactly. As early as 1935 the Sacco and Vanzetti trial was literally a text book example of railroading – admissible evidence and chain of custody and treatment of objections and commentary – most visibly by the presiding Judge.

    I suspect that there was inadmissible evidence such as confession under duress that led the Court to be complicit in railroading.

    No way the trial can be described as fair.

    Buckley long afterward argued that the unfair trial did not change who did the deed and so guilt. I suspect others say Dershowitz – no idea what his actual opinion might be – would say if the defendants did not get a fair trial then the defendants are entitled to a directed verdict of not guilty. I incline to the latter view myself.

  5. the pleasure of preening
    It’s self-righteousness. Being better than others. It’s powerful, and ultimately tied to the first sin: Pride. It removes the humility of being less than others by placing others even further down the hill. It’s why castes and aristocracy exist. It’s why “works righteousness” is such a pernicious problem in the Christian church.

    And it is truly ugly when un-moored from any sort of thing like Christian mortification. Humility is something you will never find in Progressivism and its kin.

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