On Gender Groupthink, Solidarity, and Sustainability
As we approach the end of the year, the Christian season of Advent-Christmas provides an opportunity for all people of good will to reflect on the current situation of humanity, the prevalence of violence in human affairs, and the need for social and ecological justice. Beyond individual responsibility to foster peace and justice, there is the influence of cultural and group dynamics. A recent paper on the effect of groupthink in business and economics, by Professor Roland Bénabou (Princeton University), brought to mind the importance of culture and "groupthink" for the resolution of solidarity and sustainability issues.
Definition of "Groupthink"
The term "groupthink" was coined by William Whyte (1952) and further developed by Irving Janis (1971, 1972, 1982). Since then it has been extensively researched in various contexts of organizational and religious behavior. The following are some dictionary definitions of groupthink:
Merriam-Webster: "A pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics."
Wikipedia: "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. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences."
Psychologists for Social Responsibility: "Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making."
The intensity of groupthinking behavior varies very widely across and within communities. The resulting group dynamics range from very positive to very negative in terms on their impact on solidarity and sustainability.
Symptoms of Groupthink
Eight symptoms are listed in Groupthink Overview:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
- Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
- Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of "enemy" make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group's views.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
- Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
Sounds like some of the dysfunctional families/communities we are familiar with?
There is a more virulent, and socially and ecologically more harmful, patriarchal version of the eight symptoms:
- Illusion of invulnerability – Creates an absolute certainty that masculine hegemony is intrinsic to "divine law" (or "natural law") and will never be susceptible to cultural evolution in the future.
- Collective rationalization – People conditioned by patriarchy (both men and women) discount reason and warnings to the effect that the emergence of the women's movement is an irreversible sign of the times.
- Belief in inherent morality – Patriarchs believe in the rightness of their cause and presume that the patriarchal order of things is ethical and moral as it is based on God's plan for humanity.
- Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative or condescending views of feminism/femininity (and homosexuality) make effective responses to gender justice issues seem unnecessary.
- Direct pressure on dissenters – Members of patriarchal groups are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group's phallocentric views, especially when issues are raised by women.
- Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived (male) group consensus are not expressed, especially if they seek to recognize any insights from the other 50% of humanity.
- Illusion of unanimity – In matters of human sexuality and gender relations, the majority (patriarchal) view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous, and in extreme cases "unanimity" becomes a requirement for rigid uniformity.
- Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Committed members protect the group and the leading patriarch(s) from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group's cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.
Sounds like the phenomenon of machismo that still prevails in many communities worldwide, including most of the world religions?
Patriarchal Groupthink in Secular Affairs
In a recent article, Professor Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University) aptly summarizes our current predicament as follows:
"The interrelated crises of overpopulation, wasteful consumption, rapidly deteriorating life-support systems, growing economic inequity, widespread hunger and poverty, toxification of the planet, declining resources, an increasing threat of resource wars (especially over oil, gas, and fresh water), a worsening epidemiological environment that enhances the probability of unprecedented pandemics, and persistent racial, gender, and religious prejudices that make these problems more difficult to solve, represent the greatest challenge ever faced by Homo sapiens. The urgency of finding answers is signified by the view of many scientists that society may have only a decade to initiate drastic corrective action, that this complex of interrelated problems is unrecognized by the elites who run the world, and that it has not yet generated a global “issue public” around sustainability. Civilization is fiddling while its life-support systems burn." Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB), 19 November 2013
It would seem reasonable to suspect that the patriarchal ethos of control and domination has played a key role in bringing us to this situation; and the fact that we keep fiddling while the planet deteriorates sounds like we are all victims of patriarchal groupthink, are we not?
Patriarchal Groupthink in Religious Affairs
Patriarchal groupthink in religious institutions is tightly coupled to secular forms of patriarchy. All the major world religions were founded after male domination had become prevalent, and all were contaminated by the unnatural notion of male superiority. At least on the surface, patriarchy is normative in the Bible and other sacred scriptures. The resulting phallocentric indoctrination of religious traditions has, in turn, a reinforcing effect on the perpetuation of the patriarchal mindset in secular society. The suppression of feminine perspectives in religious texts has given way to more subtle and condescending practices, as in "men and women are equal in dignity, but the divine plan is for roles of religious authority to be reserved for men alone." However, with some notable exceptions, God is still generally considered to be male ("Father") and only men can preside in worship, which "naturally" follows from the fact that Jesus and all the other religious founders were men. Given the huge influence of religion in people's lives, it is hard to imagine that the human rights of 50% of humanity are not detrimentally affected by theologies that, anthropologically and psychologically, are on the same footing with pre-Copernican astronomy.
Obstacle to Solidarity and Sustainability
Problem is, excluding 50% of humanity from roles of authority (in the family, in society, in religion) is no longer a sensible proposition; and this not because it is unpopular, but because it is unnatural and, therefore, untenable. But just as fear of groupthinking made Copernicus hesitant to publish De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), so today the same kind of groupthink pressures make us all hesitant to face the impending demise of the patriarchal culture.
The myth of infinite growth in a finite planet is a case in point. Another obstacle is the myth of the patriarchal priesthood as an expression of divine will. In both cases, it is a matter of succumbing to the phallocentric syndrome. Men are not the center of the universe, with women and nature revolving around them. A new post-patriarchal era, with gender balance in all secular and religious roles of authority, is the next step forward in human/cultural evolution.
Patriarchy is the main obstacle. But the voice of God continues to resound in the events of history, and it is now increasingly clear that gender equality is a "sign of the times." The time is at hand when both secular and religious institutions must face the "inconvenient truth" that patriarchy is not "the natural order of things" but is, in fact, unnatural and harmful to integral human development.
Remedies for Patriarchal Groupthink
Basically, there are two remedies for patriarchal groupthink:
Political gender balance to improve ecological sustainability
Feminism is an irreversible "sign of the times." Fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, the patriarchal culture of male domination is collapsing. It is noteworthy that this is also happening some fifty years after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. The patriarchal family is no longer the model for families everywhere. There is increasingly wide recognition that the full participation of women in social and economic affairs is crucial for sustainable development. But the world of political institutions has yet to evolve toward gender balance. Even in the so-called "developed" nations, the feminine presence at high levels of governance is still very limited. Now that the human rights of women are widely accepted as "the natural order of things," it is time to foster gender balance at all levels of political participation. Politically, and practically, this would be the most effective way to foster fully alive, "non-silent" springs.
Religious gender balance to improve social solidarity
Professor Sidney Callahan (Emory University) has recently published a very insightful and refreshing analysis of Feminism at Fifty in a religious (specifically, Roman Catholic) context. She offers moving words of wisdom on human sexuality and family life, and shows that recent advances in psychology and reproductive health are not necessarily incompatible with religious traditions. At the same time, she sensitively suggests that those religious traditions encapsulate gems that have yet to be liberated from phallocentric patriarchal bias. But she refrains from touching the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood. Such caution is typical of scholars who profess religious beliefs and work within the context of religious institutions, where the subject of women in roles of religious authority has repeatedly been declared to be taboo. Understandable as such reticence is, it must be overcome and religious patriarchal taboos must be faced, challenged, and discarded; else, there is no way in the world that religious institutions can offer pro-life and pro-family -- and, therefore, pro-solidarity and pro-sustainability -- moral guidance for men and women in the post-patriarchal age.
Outlook & Summary
It is deplorable that some nations (including the United States of America) have yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine that such protracted resistance is due to political expedience alone. Secular politics are no longer the main obstacle, now that there is a worldwide consensus about the need for gender equality to foster sustainable development. The roots of the resistance go much deeper, down to the visceral level of the collective unconscious, because human cultures and religious traditions are tightly coupled and both are deeply contaminated by patriarchal gender groupthink.
A case in point is the recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium by Pope Francis, where he states: "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general." It is certainly true that priestly ministry is about service, not power; but it is ludicrous to keep insisting in a literalist, patriarchally conditioned interpretation of the bridegroom-bride allegory in Ephesians 5:21-33. The text makes clear (5:32) that the allegory, beautiful as it is, cannot possibly exhaust the mystery of Christ-Church unity; and yet, the obsolete patriarchal scaffolding that obscures the apostolicity of the church still "is not a question open to discussion." It is hereby suggested that reforming a patriarchal church, without removing the patriarchal scaffold, will not do in a post-patriarchal world.
At this time of the year, the nativity stories of the Christian gospels may well be the most precious source of reflection on gender groupthink, social solidarity, and ecological sustainability. In the midst of a radically patriarchal culture, these narratives include such "absurdities" as a virgin conceiving a child without human male intervention, in a family in which the husband is not the dominant figure, with "angels" telling him to unconditionally trust in his pregnant wife and take care of her; and not as his possession but as part of a divine plan that includes poverty, rejection, and exile yet transcends all realistic expectations of peace and joy for humanity. May all social and religious communities, Christian and otherwise, reflect on the wisdom of Christmas and the gift of human love in the divine plan.
Notes on Groupthink
Whyte, William H. Groupthink, Fortune Magazine, March 1952.
Janis, Irving L. Groupthink, Psychology Today, November 1971.
Janis, Irving L. Victims of Groupthink. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
Janis, Irving L. Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.
Turner, M. E., and Pratkanis, A. R. Twenty-five years of groupthink theory and research: lessons from the evaluation of a theory. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 73: 105–115, 1998.
Taylor, Kathleen. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dattner, Ben. Preventing "Groupthink." Psychology Today, April 2011.
Bénabou, Roland. Groupthink: Collective Delusions in Organizations and Markets, Review of Economic Studies, 2012.