‘Ohhh, Jeremy Corbyn’. The sun shone at Glastonbury, after last year’s Brexit thunderstorm. Music festivals have always been a forum for the like-minded, although most campers have come for the music, and don’t care much for the clarion call of ideologues. But this year was different. I heard the same chant at the failed Day of Rage at Westminster last week, when it was (said The Sun), ‘too hot to Trot’. At the next big demo on July 1st it will be the main story on the BBC: thousands in unison, calling for their Messiah.
Nothing wrong in the young getting involved in politics. But as many commentators have observed, British society is becoming polarised by age and educational attainment. On one side the young graduate class with their liberal views, now shifting further to the left. On the other is the ordinary folk beyond the metropolis; they are socially conservative and worried about the future of their country due to mass immigration, the growing influence of Islam, and the relentless advance of cultural Marxism and identity politics. The former group, after the recent election, has its tail up, despite falling short at the ballot box.
The Tories must be booted out by any means necessary, and Corbynites are skilled at using the internet to gather support, spread fake news and attack opponents. NHS psychiatrist Max Pemberton, in his weekly column for the Daily Mail, told of his barrage of abuse at the hands of Twitter trolls, after tweeting his sympathy for beleaguered Theresa May. ‘F’ and ‘c’ words proliferated, as his considerate comment was likened to collaboration with the Nazis. Pemberton saw this apparently coordinated onslaught as a display of deindividuation, a term coined in 1952 by social psychologist Leon Festinger.
Not a household name, Festinger (1919-1989) produced three important theories in psychology, all as relevant today as ever. Unlike the laboratory experiments of behaviourists such as BF Skinner, Festinger preferred to study real life. He introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance, the tension arising when a person maintains certain beliefs despite facing contrary evidence. Secondly, he devised social comparison theory. People evaluate themselves in relation to others, comparing downwards to affirm their self-worth and upwards for aspiration. This is useful in understanding behaviour on the internet, where status is marked by liberal attitudes and virtue-signalling.
The third of Festinger’s revelations is deindividuation theory. This is the loss of self-consciousness and control to group dynamics, where a normally civilised person can become uncharacteristically aggressive. In the theatre of marches and demonstrations, any act is part of the show, and the actor is following script. Deindividuation is the key to mob violence.
A famous study of deindividuation was the Stanford Prison Experiment, led by Philip Zimbardo. Under group pressure, educated and mentally stable volunteers acted so sadistically in their role as prison officers that the experiment was halted early. As Zimbardo described in The Lucifer Effect, the study showed our potential for abject cruelty resulting from a diffusion of responsibility and dehumanising of others. We are easily persuaded of a badness that must be eradicated without mercy. Indeed, violence and social breakdown is scarily proximate, and can happen quite unexpectedly, as in the London riots six years ago, and anarchic urges after the Grenfell Tower fire. Lord of the Flies was not a story about children.
Deinviduation is most likely to arise in a ‘them and us’ context. Academe is a breeding ground for self-righteous attitudes and hostility for the other half of society. Instead of providing polytechnics and apprenticeships leading to gainful employment, many of the 50 per cent of young people who go to university do courses of dubious value. Supposedly conservative politicians have fostered a vast graduate generation whose exposure to left-wing campus culture has filled their heads with subversive ideas. Most young people are not destructive, but given compelling group forces, the calmest person is susceptible to lynch mob mentality.
In a recent article I applied John Bowlby’s attachment theory to suggest the source of a rising tide of mental health problems in adolescence, speculating further on how middle-class toddlers separated from mothers and dispatched to impersonal nurseries grow to espouse ‘nanny state’ politics. This is a factor in the Corbyn cult, while deindividuation is a feature. Tellingly, studies show that people of above-average intelligence are most prone to this phenomenon. They intellectualise, which is a common means of emotional detachment in bright younger people yet to gain the confidence and competence to deal with the complexity of human relations.
For experimental purpose a Conservative Party recruitment stall should be set up at the next big festival, issuing dire warnings about the twin demons of socialism and ‘hippy crack’. Let’s see how long it survives! Joking apart, the aggression of Corbyn supporters is readily apparent, as in the vitriol for moderates (‘Blairites’) within the Labour Party. At Westminster last week I saw a middle-class woman with young daughter unfurling banners; one slogan claimed: ‘Theresa May kills babies’. May this little girl, in later years, rebel against this indoctrination of hate.
The internet is a Colosseum of anonymous savagery, and the Momentum gang make the Cybernats of the Scottish independence referendum seem mild-mannered. This is where the battle must be fought, but not with weapons. Whenever possible the dehumanised should bring their humanity to the fore. Remind aggressors of their agency and the Christian principle: treat others how you would like to be treated. Question the validity of extreme language: does your opponent really deserve being labelled ‘scum’ or ‘vile’? How should you practise your self-ascribed tolerance and kinder politics? After Jo Cox, is ‘burn the witch’ appropriate?
That’s a tall order for any target of relentless abuse. But there is another card to play. Give them enough rope, and your deindividuated attackers might hang themselves by libel or hate crime. As shown by Douglas Murray when the BBC allowed his defamation as a ‘hate preacher’ before apologising under threat of legal action, sometimes you have to fight back. Mobs are a bullying collective, who don’t like it up ‘em.
(Image: Kevin Walsh)