By BARBARA EHRENREICH
The New York Times
July 15, 2004
Their faces long with disapproval, the anchors announced that the reason for the war had finally been uncovered by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and it was "groupthink," not to mention "collective groupthink." It sounds so kinky and un-American, like something that might go on in a North Korean stadium or in one of those sex clubs that Jack Ryan, the former Illinois Senate candidate, is accused of dragging his wife to. But supposedly intelligent, morally upstanding people had been indulging in it right in Langley, Va.
This is a surprise? Groupthink has become as American as apple pie and prisoner abuse; in fact, it's hard to find any thinking these days that doesn't qualify for the prefix "group." Our standardized-test-driven schools reward the right answer, not the unsettling question. Our corporate culture prides itself on individualism, but it's the "team player" with the fixed smile who gets to be employee of the month. In our political culture, the most crushing rebuke is to call someone "out of step with the American people." Zip your lips, is the universal message, and get with the program.
This summer's remake of the "Stepford Wives" doesn't have anything coherent to say about gender politics: Men are the oppressors? Women are the oppressors? Or maybe just Glenn Close? But it does play to the fantasy, more widespread than I'd realized, that if you were to rip off the face of the person sitting in the next cubicle, you'd find nothing but circuit boards underneath.
I trace the current outbreak of droidlike conformity to the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism, and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags. Bill Maher lost his job for pointing out that, whatever else they were, the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards, prompting Ari Fleischer to warn (though he has since backed down) that Americans "need to watch what they say." Never mind that Sun Tzu says, somewhere in his oeuvre, that while it's soothing to underestimate the enemy, it's often fatal, too.
And what was that group thinking in Abu Ghraib? Yes, the accused guards seem to have been encouraged to soften up their charges for interrogation, just as the operatives at Langley were pelted with White House demands for some plausible casus belli. But the alarming thing is how few soldiers demurred, and how many got caught up in the fun of it.
Societies throughout history have recognized the hazards of groupthink and made arrangements to guard against it. The shaman, the wise woman and similar figures all represent institutionalized outlets for alternative points of view. In the European carnival tradition, a "king of fools" was permitted to mock the authorities, at least for a day or two. In some cultures, people resorted to vision quests or hallucinogens anything to get out of the box. Because, while the capacity for groupthink is an endearing part of our legacy as social animals, it's also a common precondition for self-destruction. One thousand coalition soldiers have died because the C.I.A. was so eager to go along with the emperor's delusion that he was actually wearing clothes.
Instead of honoring groupthink resisters, we subject them to insult and abuse. Sgt. Samuel Provance III has been shunned by fellow soldiers since speaking out against the torture at Abu Ghraib, in addition to losing his security clearance and being faced with a possible court-martial. A fellow Abu Ghraib whistle-blower, Specialist Joseph Darby, was praised by the brass, but has had to move to an undisclosed location to avoid grass-roots retaliation.
The list goes on. Sibel Edmonds lost her job at the F.B.I. for complaining about mistranslations of terror-related documents from the Arabic. Jesselyn Radack was driven out of her post at the Justice Department for objecting to the treatment of John Walker Lindh, then harassed by John Ashcroft's enforcers at her next job. As Fred Alford, a political scientist who studies the fate of whistle-blowers, puts it: "We need to understand in this `land of the free and home of the brave' that most people are scared to death. About 50 percent of all whistle-blowers lose their jobs, about half of those lose their homes, and half of those people lose their families."
This nation was not founded by habitual groupthinkers. But it stands a fair chance of being destroyed by them.