The term “Community” has a broad definition and can cover a wide range of groups. It may incorporate people living in the same town or geographical area, those who share common interests or those who comprise a segment of society; the gay community, the black community, the Jewish community. Individuals may become a collective force by their nationality, colour, gender, or religion and classify themselves into groups that represent their interests or common ground.
Essentially, community is a collective of individuals who have come together with similar goals, interests or objectives. As a collective body, the community tends to define itself with parameters that may close its ranks to outsiders. It may be selective on who it chooses to admit to the circle, dependent on whether they meet the criteria of body of existing members.
Traditionally, “Community” has been regarded as a positive element of society. Individuals see it as a nurturing, encouraging climate that fosters safety and security for its members. This offers an environment where the individual is protected from external threats and has a sense of belonging.
Individuals have existed in community since civilisation began. Belonging to a herd or group protected early man from attacks from predators, be it hostile humans or wild beasts. (Brass, M. n.d.:25)
Additionally, as communication developed through language, man became a social being with a need to belong and a conscious awareness of his aloneness. (Fromm 1941:28-32)
The rewards for conforming to the social norms of groups are liking and social approval. Individuals who ignore the rules within community risk isolation or unpleasantness. (Saskatchewan Learning 2001:online)
However, there is an unwritten code of conduct in even the most informal of group structures; the individual is expected to advance the interests of the community as a whole, even suspending or sacrificing his own beliefs to align himself with the collective values.
As a single entity and body corporate of its members, community gains its strength and acquires great power. Most of the time, man gives up his individuality without any feelings of loss, because the benefits of community and the security it offers safety have outweighed the costs of loss of autonomy.
The individual has made a choice to relinquish responsibility and decision making to the stronger members of the collective. Whether it is an informal group, such as a group of friends with a self-appointed leader, or a more formal community such as a nation with a governing representative, the individual allows a leader or smaller subsection of the collective to make decisions on his behalf.
It is this sacrifice of self, and the assimilation of individuals into a single entity of community, where the collective gains a tremendous amount of power and becomes almost a living breathing force of it’s own and, with this power, the community is vulnerable to abuse of misuse by stronger individuals or leaders.
Yellowthunder (2002) relates an essay written shortly after World War I by a German Jewish writer Jacob Wassermann’s entitled “The Beast”. In it, Wasserman describes the evolution of a mob arising from the interaction of a critical mass of human beings. The “Beast” is the mob. It takes on an identity, life and will of its own.
Community and Socialisation in the Animal Kingdom
Bullying and violence cannot be blamed merely on poor character traits of human nature. There have been reports on the gang mentality of dolphins, (Our Ocean World 2002: Online), elephants (Bradshaw et al 2005:online) and chimpanzee society, (Peterson & Wrangham 1997) where animals seek to intimidate or dominate beyond mere survival necessity.
Therefore, this discussion assumes the hypotheses that it is more an inherent genetic characteristic in intelligent species rather than social learning that propels humans to behave with a pack mentality. In many ways, it is difficult without a conscientious assertive effort to restrain this impulse. One might argue that the human race has the additional benefit of complex language, intelligent thinking and communication abilities to help them overcome biological “pack” characteristics and behave better than animals. Yet it is this very need for communication that also gives man an intense desire for socialisation and to belong in community at any cost.
The Nature of Conflict
In the movie, Independence Day (1996), the world was under attack by aliens who were intent on destroying the human race. One of the interesting scenarios explored was the concept of an earth that had suspended its own conflicts to unite against an outside enemy. All energies were divested into the external threat. This premise is evident at many levels; siblings, while they have a tendency to bicker and conflict among each other, will quickly leap to the defence of family if threatened by an outsider. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 divided the world into Christians and Muslims, democracy and non-democratic states, us and them.
What happens to community when it has achieved its objective of protection from externalities? Can community either consciously or unconsciously drive its agenda based on a desire for greater power that serves to benefit only a minority within the entity?
From personal observation three scenarios seem to occur with community and it’s members:
Once the community gains its power as a collective, it may seek to attack those outside the unit. Those who do not belong within the community may begin to be portrayed as a threat to the values of the community despite the fact that they present no physical threat. It is not always the case that the community even wishes to convert the outsiders to the community, instead it may seek to dominate or oppress them in order to gain a greater distribution of wealth, access to resources or power for it’s own members. In a micro level context this is evident in schoolyard bullying - however in many cases, the perpetrators of bullying are dealing with their own internal family conflicts and externalising their rage to avoid it being directed within their own family system where they may be in a more powerless position. (Murray, R. 2001:7)
On a macro level, there is the example of the neo-conservative desire for global domination in order to access resources, wealth and power, often under the guise of capitalism or the spreading of democracy.
While the costs of attack may be great, for example, the economic costs and human toll of the War in Iraq, it is easy to gain the complacency of the majority through fear by promoting some scenario of threat or harm; “they want to destroy us”, “they hate our freedom”, “they hate our wealth”, “Muslims want to dominate the world”. This rhetoric highlights the differences of the “enemy” and creates a divide between them and us, thereby enlisting support from the individuals who while they don’t stand to gain, are simply fearful and require protection that the collective can offer. This was ominously articulated to Gustave Gilbert by Marshall Goering in the Nuremberg Diary:
"Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." (Gilbert G. 1946:online)
Attack on its Own Members
If the group has little conflict to engage in externally it may have a tendency to attack the weakest of its own or those that do not hold enough “likeness” to the collective. In the two weeks following the September 11 attacks the crime rate in New York City dropped almost 30%, (De La Cruz 2001:Online) suggesting that the focus was outside of the group to the external enemy and that the community was united in it’s grief.
Additionally, from personal observation, divorce in long-term marriages is common even after couples have successfully navigated through periods of high financial stress, or overcome problems external to their marriage. Couples spend years in seemingly satisfying marriages, only to fall apart when children are grown, when they reach retirement, and at a time when their lives should be easier, not more difficult. Whether it is as simple as “We no longer have anything in common”, whether the problems have been masked due to the external focus, or whether there is a need to produce conflict when there is little outside of the unit is has not been extensively studied, however it does seem that concentration on external problems reduces the focus on internal conflict.
If the individual is unable to express feelings of conflict onto the community or to an external group, he may internalise his rage and harm or destroy himself. (Stone, G. 1999 Online:2)
During World War II, while conflict was external to the individual and the community, the male suicide rate reduced considerably compared to times of peace. (Hassan R. 1996 online:p3)
However, the theory of internalised rage, self harm and suicide is complex and goes beyond the scope or objectives of this paper. It is the purpose of this paper to focus on the first two examples.
Why Do Individuals get Caught into Pack Behavior?
There are a number of studies done on why people conform to group think and allow or participate in pack behaviour”. Saskatchewan (2001) analyses this from a psychological perspective:
Social approval and disapproval:
Groups in general are intolerant, and any individual who contradicts or ignores important social norms may experience unpleasantness. In addition, the group rewards the conformer with liking and social approval.
The need for information:
Being wrong can be uncomfortable, and being different is often perceived as being wrong. When there is no obvious right answer, we frequently turn to the judgment of the majority.
Dissenters also face the difficulty of questioning their own abilities. We have a basic drive to evaluate our abilities and opinions. The obvious way to do this is to make comparisons with other people.
One possibility in conforming is to decide that conformity was forced by the facts. Most conformers rewrite history (i.e., change the past events to justify their obedience)
Consequences of disobedience:
Most people follow orders because of the obvious consequences of disobedience. They can be suspended, fired or arrested.
They may also obey because of what they hope to gain.
Getting certain advantages or promotions from the authority or learning from the authority's greater knowledge or experience can be benefits from compliance.
Respect and value:
People obey because they are deeply convinced of the authority's legitimacy - that is, they obey not in hopes of gaining some tangible benefit, but because they like and respect the authority and value the relationship
Presence of others who disobey: This process is known as social facilitation, in other words, our behaviour is influenced just by the mere presence of others.
People high in authoritarianism are more likely to obey. The same tends to be true for people with an external locus of control, for such people believe that what happens to them is controlled by factors outside themselves (Saskatchewan 2001 online)
Society raises its children to be obedient to authority, and this follows the individual to adulthood. Individuals are either explicitly or implicitly threatened with punishment for disobedience.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing studies on submission to authority was Stanley Milgram’s 1963 Behavioral Study of Obedience. Milgram was seeking to explain why so many people were willing to commit atrocities against others during World War II. In the study, Milgram had subjects (“teachers”) administer electric shocks to other “participants” if the “learner” would make a mistake on correctly answering word pairs. Each time the learner would make a mistake the level of shock would increase by an additional 15 volts. At 135 volts the learner would plead agony and a wish to discontinue the experiment. The “teacher” subject would ask the experimenter whether the experiment should continue and would be told that the test should go on. In all cases, the participant would question the experiment, however the results were still very disturbing. While many participants were uncomfortable doing so, still 65 percent of them administered the experiment’s final 450-volt shock. In the initial tests conducted by Milgram, no participant stopped before the 300 volt level. This experiment has been performed around the world since and consistently yields similar results with between 61 – 66% of subjects willing to administer fatal levels of shocks if commanded to do so and even if it may conflict with their personal conscience. (Wikipedia 2005 online)
The Apathy of the Individual
One aspect of conformity not mentioned by Saskatchewan (2001 online) is the apathy of the individual in taking responsibility for decision making and making considered evaluations of the direction that the group is taking.
In modern western society, most individuals have satisfied the basic needs of shelter, food and protection. However, capitalistic society is driven by consumerism and man is propelled into the quest for accumulation of material wealth. It is in this pursuit that most individuals are bound up in work leaving little time for them to contemplate too deeply the workings of community and government or to question the policies of the collective body. Fromm (1941:p113-133)
In “The Deliberate Dumbing down of America” Iserbyt-Thomson (1999) questions whether this has been further manipulated by government to satisfy its objectives of moulding the people to become compliant citizens, obedient and not to question those in authority or rock the boat.
The analysis of right and wrong in a community environment requires the individual to invest energy and time to consider alternative viewpoints and ideas. While bound together in the collective body, the community does not need a large number of leaders or directors to function; it is not even necessary for the majority to have input to ensure it’s strength. Consequently, non-response is viewed as consensus. (North Western Research Institute 1997 online:3)
Even when an issue reaches debate, the non-active member may engage with limited knowledge, relying on the information that he has been fed by the community leaders he trusts, or even media. At this point, the individual risks becoming part of the pack mentality based on his limited knowledge and a high degree of influence from a smaller number of players.
This type of groupthink behaviour occurs when a group seeks a solution to a problem without fully considering all the possible alternatives. (Alcock etc al., 1998, p.164) (Saskatchewan 2001 online)
The Individual’s Dilemma
Then there is the individual who sees an inequity and is then faced with the dilemma of how to deal with it. At this stage, he is faced with the choices of remaining silent, for fear of alienation, or challenging the community. As discussed, the costs of dissent, often outweighing the benefits of a clear conscience mean that many opt to remain silent. For those that feel compelled to speak out, they risk a number of consequences. Some of these are discussed below:
Singling out of the dissenter
The dissenter becomes targeted by the community and portrayed in a negative context. The act of bringing the dissenter to the spotlight in itself separates him from the group and he is no longer part of the machine.
During the first rumblings of dissension, the individual may be met with resistance or even ridicule for challenging the community. Attempts may be made to discredit the individual and the “mob” may resort to teasing, humiliation, or personal attacks on the dissenter.
Distortion of Facts
Information and facts may be distorted or falsified to less informed or inactive members of the group so that any truth or logic behind the dissent is discredited. The leaders of the group focus on any weaknesses with the dissenters’ argument and highlight errors or weakest part of the argument.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933-1945 stated, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” (Middle East Facts 2005 online)
Leaders may pressure dissenters to remain quiet or to go along with the group. For example, in the workplace, potential whistleblowers are pressured to remain silent or lose their jobs and professional reputation.
The Lone Dissident
Perhaps the most interesting character is the lone dissident. What propels the first voice to have the courage to stand up and say enough? Is their fear of aloneness less than the majority? Do they have contempt for authority? Or do they have a higher regard for rightness and wrongness. Many may be viewed as social misfits or fringe dwellers of the community, never quite accepted to begin with and therefore with little to lose.
A Gathering of the Crowd
After the first dissenter speaks out, others may recognise merit in their argument and begin to lend support. Once the issues have gained attention, there is a possibility of polarisation by two opposing sides. At this stage the masses are still likely to be swayed by the numbers game. A few more probing group members may start to consider the dissenters’ perspective. While some may remain dogmatic in their viewpoint, others may admit concessions and acknowledge merit in the issues, still others begin to take up the cause and fight for the transgression – particularly if they recognise they have been affected by the same inequities.
While the new, smaller band of dissenters may be initially met with resistance, an underlying dissatisfaction with the community agenda may become evident. At this stage the community weakens, and may fracture, or even split in two with each side now pursuing their own agenda. Or it is possible that the community may begin to discuss the discord and seek solutions in order to maintain unity.
There is also the possibility that the new faction will acquire enough numbers to gain even greater power than the original community. This strength may be gained because the non-active members of the group may be persuaded by numbers to side with whichever faction appears the most powerful.
Positive Aspects of Conflict
It is these paradigm shifts that have helped civilisation to move forward and brought equity to many minority groups within society; the Civil Rights movement, The Feminist movement, the Gay Rights movement and Indigenous rights are a few examples of successful positive conflict. Each of these movements required conflict to move the community out of its pococurantism and forward into recognising and rectifying inequity and unjust treatment.
Conflict begins after one side has felt an injustice. Rather than occurring after one or two isolated events, it usually evolves from a series of injustices. In fact, the oppressed party may have been in an abusive situation for many years, perhaps not even recognising the abuse – as that is the way it has always been. The moment of awakening or awareness may take place slowly over a period of years or very quickly.
Without conflict marginalised groups would continue to be denied rights and treated by the community unfairly. While conflict tends to raise the awareness of oppression, for the oppressor and the oppressed, it should be viewed positively as an advocate for change. Once conflict is evident, the dissenting group may become more encouraged to fight for their rights, persuade and lobby others by disseminating information and seek to gain numbers and bolster support.
The assumption that conflict holds negative connotations ignores the positive revolutions that conflict can bring about. Whether it is labelled Positive Conflict or a more benign term of Constructive Dissent, conflict should be viewed as “the medium by which problems are recognised and solved”, (Tjosvold n.d. online:1)
Conflict should also be recognised as a necessary combatant to averting the dangers of group think or community risks becoming staid and dysfunctional, suppressing the rights of its members for the benefits of a few stronger personalities within society. This is particularly pertinent with the increasing influence of corporatised media on the masses and the gradual erosion of civil rights by government in the current generation of suspicion and terrorism.
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