Unanimity minus one

Why does no one step forward to defend the scapegoat victim? An obvious answer is that aligning with the victim risks the wrath of the mob falling on the defender too.

The other is social conformity. On the face of it, this smacks of something wormlike and intensely ignoble.

In a famous experiment, a large crowd of people agree to lie. They will say that line A is shorter than line B even though the reverse is true. Just one person is the experimental subject and this person does not know about the pact shared by the others. This person will deny the evidence of his senses and agree with the crowd. Pathetic!

But, try to think of a single thing you think is true with important ethical implications that no one else at all believes. Give up? If no support is forthcoming from anyone at all – not a friend or family member – how would this belief be maintained?

Everyone has had the experience of being wrong. It is hardly rare. So it would make sense to think that this is just one of those times.

Confronting the views of the unanimous lynch mob; of the unified crowd in the line experiment, the individual will question his senses and if the situation persists, his own sanity. Seeing or hearing things no one else can see is practically the definition of crazy. Likewise, “idiot” is related to idios, “own, private” – which indicates something significant about solitary opinions.

Most likely even the victim himself will come to share the despicable vision of himself presented by the crowd if he is ostracized rather than immolated. Ostracism instigates suicidal thoughts partly because of the pain of loneliness; partly because we come to share the opinion of the mob that we are scum.

There is a reason Jesus sought out his disciples. Arguably, divine intervention was necessary to instill courage in them due to the risk that they too would be crucified; but also to resist sharing the opinion of the mob.


41 thoughts on “Unanimity minus one

  1. Pingback: Unanimity minus one | Aus-Alt-Right

  2. In a famous experiment, a large crowd of people agree to lie. They will say that line A is shorter than line B even though the reverse is true. Just one person is the experimental subject and this person does not know about the pact shared by the others. This person will deny the evidence of his senses and agree with the crowd. Pathetic!

    But, there was nothing at stake … so, as far as the subject was concerned, it didn’t matter what he said. To put it another way, in this experiment, the subject more than likely decided that social harmony was more important that the truth since:
    1) no one was being attacked or being forced to state the untruth;
    2) he perceived the truth as unimportant;
    3) since everyone else was, so far as he knew, freely and independently agreeing, he may have begin to question his own perception.

    • @ Ilion – I do not find your analysis plausible. It’s interesting that your view is “more than likely” while mine gets a “may.” We don’t know how he perceived the truth – you state that as fact. When it is a situation of someone being attacked, we are even less likely to defend him. The key point from my point of view is the question – which of your beliefs do you alone in all the world hold? If none, then it is likely to be true for everyone else other than madmen.

      PS Addressing the argument is fine. Ad hominem isn’t relevant. The agon = mimetic rivalry, not philosophy.

    • Everything is always at stake, Ilion. The truth is always at stake. When we abandon the truth, it is Darkness at Noon. The experiment shows how close Darkness at Noon always is.

  3. Even the disciples merged with the crowd, just as Jesus predicted. (Think of Peter, warming his hands over the sacrificial fire with a group of strangers.) Their difference from everyone else is that they repented of their participation, but they could only repent because they participated.

  4. Pingback: Unanimity minus one | Reaction Times

  5. brucecharlton,

    I agree. I think a lot about “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” as a way to keep my head straight.

  6. So spake the Seraph Abdiel faithful found,
    Among the faithless, faithful only hee;
    Among innumerable false, unmov’d,
    Unshak’n, unseduc’d, unterrifi’d
    His Loyaltie he kept, his Love, his Zeale; 
    Nor number, nor example with him wrought
    To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind
    Though single. From amidst them forth he passd,
    Long way through hostile scorn, which he susteind
    Superior, nor of violence fear’d aught; 
    And with retorted scorn his back he turn’d
    On those proud Towrs to swift destruction doom’d.

    -Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 5

  7. As a young man I chose John as my confirmation name, precisely because John refers to himself in the Gospel as “the disciple Jesus loved.” John’s kind of discipleship is the root of all Christian faithfulness: “if you love me, keep my commandments.”

  8. Individuals differ in their tolerance for the social scorn that is occasioned by nonconformity. Some individuals actually relish it, which may bespeak a sort of pride. For this thought experiment to work, though, I think you must stipulate that (a) the delusion from which one dissents has (in one’s estimation) serious consequences, and (b) that dissent itself has serious consequences. With respect to (a), it is not spineless conformity to acquiesce in the face of harmless stupidity.

    With respect to (b), it is reasonable for a society to place a relatively high cost on nonconformity in an effort to weed out marginal non-conformists. This point was well made by James Fitzjames Stephen. By placing a cost on the production of dissent, a society ensures that it must answer only serious, high-quality dissent. This filters out the grumbling of malcontents and the carping of trivial men.

    • Re: JMSmith. If the world were as you imply, scapegoating would not exist. The more serious the consequences for all concerned, the more likely it would be that the victim would find a defender. This is not an accurate description of human psychology/mob behavior. We conform in both our trivial and our important opinions and when the stakes are raised, this puts even more pressure on us to conform. Since the scapegoat mechanism is the way all human societies have historically organized themselves the scenario you describe is strictly counter-factual. Our desires and our beliefs are mimetic phenomena. I can think of no exceptions. Again, which of your desires or beliefs are original to you? The “exception” you offer as a counter-example describes trolls. Trolling is a highly mimetic phenomenon hence the invention of the word – “trolling.” If it weren’t widespread, there would be no universal concept. No troll can claim to have originated it. Also, the mimetic phenomenon of trolling is only made possible by anonymity. This means there is almost no pressure to conform to social norms and the troll can engage in the cheap thrills of provocation. The troll only “enjoys social scorn” by hiding. The old-fashioned transvestite appeared in public and would have occasioned social scorn, but he tolerated this by belonging to a micro-community of fellow non-conformists. Transvestism was a mimetic phenomenon too – hence, again, why we have a word for it.

      Thanks to mimesis, there is no need to intentionally place a “high cost on the production of dissent.” This cost comes all by itself. Ostracism will be spontaneous and a person castigates himself with the possibility that he is crazy.

      • To respond to the bold-faced challenge of your original post, I do have some beliefs that are not shared by another human being, but these are also beliefs that no other human being would contradict. For instance, I believe I left a pipe wrench under the house the last time I crawled under it to fix a leak, and I also believe that the repair I made to the pipe was not so perfect as it might have been. Of course, in sharing this example, I have invalidated it, since I presume you have no reason to disbelieve, and therefore now also believe that there is a pipe wrench under my house, etc.

        But this is a trivial example. The real test is maintenance of a belief that my milieu actively and ardently disbelieves. For instance, I believe that the election of Donald Trump was, on the whole, the best outcome of last week’s election. As far as I can tell, every person over the age of 21 in the large building in which I am typing disagrees with this, many of them strongly. I maintain my belief in the face of this mimetic pressure with a “plausibility structure” that includes, among other things, the Orthosphere. I have fortified myself with beliefs that explain my minority position in terms highly advantageous to myself, and there is no question but that I depend on periodic succor from likeminded writers, none of whom I have met, and many of whom are dead.

        So I think we are in fundamental agreement, although I may be more optimistic about the possibility of surviving for long periods “behind enemy lines.” One peculiarity of the contemporary situation is that conservative intellectuals must exhibit recalcitrant individualism, and this sits rather uncomfortably with many of their other ideas about a well-ordered society.

      • One peculiarity of the contemporary situation is that conservative intellectuals must exhibit recalcitrant individualism, and this sits rather uncomfortably with many of their other ideas about a well-ordered society.

        I’ve long found this interesting. The leftism of the academy virtually ensures that right-wingers (and even right-liberals) within it are significantly brighter than average and also significantly more contrary than average.

  9. try to think of a single thing you think is true that no one else at all believes

    This is a strange test. Suppose we restrict attention to public facts/theories in order to avoid JMSmith’s point. The fact that there are so many human beings makes it highly unlikely that I believe something that literally nobody else believes, at least if we are assessing beliefs at some reasonable level of summary. The test asks for a shocking level of originality in one’s thinking.

    If we weaken “at all” to “that you know of,” then I have had at least one such belief. In the mid 90s I became acquainted with the mortgage market. I came to believe that it would someday explode in an orgy of moral hazard. Not only did I not know anyone else with this belief, but the many economists I communicated my belief to (including alleged experts) told me I was wrong and a bit silly. Today I believe, against the consensus of the economics profession (though not remotely alone since plenty of people outside that profession agree with me), that the unfortunate events of the mid aughts were an orgy of moral hazard and the consequences of same.

    Now, by the late 90s I had given up telling people about my belief—what was the point? The only thing I accomplished was the social unpleasantness. This brings up a useful distinction I think is missing in the post. It is Timur Kuran’s distinction between public and private truths. This distinction parallels the guilt/shame distinction. Our private beliefs are the ones inside our heads. Our public beliefs are the ones we say. It is indeed hard to maintain public beliefs significantly in tension with our community’s (public) beliefs. But private beliefs? That’s much easier, at least for me—I do get the sense that it is more difficult for other people. How many dinner table conversations about work are there every night in America of the form “We all had to say X during the meeting, but everybody knows not-X.”

    Overall, though, I’m sympathetic to the theme of the post. Suppression of dissident ideas does have effect. If our private truths find no expression in the public truths of any institution, then it becomes difficult for us to organize to effect change, to defend ourselves, or even to remain hopeful. One’s natural, inborn desire to sacrifice for one’s community has no outlet if one has no visible community. In the contemporary US, what team do I join? I don’t see one.

    • Dear DrBill: It sounds like you found a unique belief held in the face of universal dismissal. In those situations I personally wonder if I am wrong or crazy. It’s interesting that you did not. I wonder if you also have little tendency towards mimetic rivalry? Most of us have to restrain ourselves from wanting to “win” arguments and the like. Right now, for instance, resisting the spirit of the agon, I have to make sure I don’t commit the self-sealing argument and say that you’ve stepped outside the human condition and are therefore not human, which would be truly ridiculous, not to mention tautological.

      Contra Kuran, I personally do not find it easy to maintain unvoiced beliefs if no one at all, living or dead, agrees with me. I suppose I am still going to maintain that at the very least most people find it difficult to deviate from total unanimity and the empirical supporting evidence is the phenomenon of scapegoating.

      • Indeed, after long effort, I have managed to get to the point where I almost don’t care whether I win arguments, whether people say true or false things, etc.

        What beliefs have you given up because no one at all, living or dead, agrees with them?

      • I think it may be easier to resist mimetic pressure when one is shielded by lofty academic credentials, since one has less fear of being written off as a nut or an ignoramus. This is very far from an invariable rule, since credentialed academics are among the world’s foremost conformists, but it is easier to laugh at the consensus when one has a few letters after one’s name. As you say, DrBill, there is also a certain recalcitrance that comes with age. I think some of this results from the knowledge that there’s nothing more to be gained from “fitting in” and being “one of the gang.”

        Of course none of this strong-mindedness brings us to the ultimate test of becoming a scapegoat, or of being one of the rats who defects from the scapegoat when it becomes clear he’s headed for a fall. No longer caring what the world thinks is partly a result of no loner being carried about by the world.

      • @ JMSmith: I’ve got the credentials, but I’ve always known that my every important impulse intellectually was “wrong.” Professional philosophers don’t cut you any slack just for having a Ph.D like them. I’ve never caved on those topics partly because my father introduced me to alternative philosophical views.

        I’ve known two men who got married and who completely adopted their wives’ very extreme liberal political beliefs. I couldn’t maintain a friendship with either of them.

      • @ DrBill – That sounds great. I can’t think of any beliefs I have renounced because no one agrees with them. My beliefs all conform to some known antecedent, I’m afraid. I’m more interested in being right than in being original. And true things concerning the human condition (my area of interest) that no one has ever thought of are pretty much nonexistent. My “original” beliefs have all been wrong. For instance, I thought that the word “grizzled” meant not just grey, but close cropped. As a teenager, I thought there was a difference between the written and spoken versions of “subtle.” A lot of the people around me used “subtle” sarcastically and I imagined it to be spelled differently. The written version seemed to be more nuanced and subtly different! All unique. All wrong.

      • This whole discussion strikes me as surreal. I’ve always had beliefs – sometimes voiced and sometimes not – which everyone around me thinks are crazy. I don’t even recognize this bizarre world of agreement that y’all seem to find as your normal state of affairs. Sure I share many beliefs with others but I can pretty much always and easily find some way to summon volleys of rocks and garbage from any group of people just by expressing something I really believe to be true.

      • @ Zippy – Interesting. I could do the same I suppose within my wider social crowd if I were silly enough to bother contradicting their every major belief – silly because pointless. If we include the living and the dead, I admit yet again I would wonder about the soundness of those beliefs and the evidence suggests I’m not alone.

  10. [T]ry to think of a single thing you think is true that no one else at all believes. — Richard Cocks

    That the true white Christian is a genuine white Supremacist and worshipper of The Perfect Man as empirical fact and revelation of their perfect God.

    In five years, I have found not a single white Christian or diverse non-Christian who would attest to the above.

    I must be a “madman.” Lol.

  11. I am simply not smart enough to form a belief that no one else has thought up before or doesn’t also believe. The closest so far is that Trump’s election is less bad than had Hillary been elected. Although possibly outnumbered by those in my circle who do not hold this belief, I am hardly alone. Perhaps the belief that diversity of ethnicity/race in and of itself is not a strength probably comes close, but again, not exactly alone in that.

  12. If no support is forthcoming from anyone at all – not a friend or family member – how would this belief be maintained?

    Why not? I really don’t see any problem here – but then again I’ve never been all that good at being a member of the pack/herd/whatever.

    • If no support is forthcoming from anyone at all – not a friend or family member – how would this belief be maintained?

      Everyone has had the experience of being wrong. It is hardly rare. So it would make sense to think that this is just one of those times.

      While in general having no support from people around behooves one to reexamine the belief in question, it would also ‘make sense’ to think that one might be right.

      And this is because of the double darkness of sin and ignorance, as well as the tendency of men to conform: we can therefore expect many true beliefs to be held by very very few individuals scattered across the world (if anyone does indeed hold them).

  13. Pride blinds us to the human reality that we are intensely mimetic creatures. You are the mob and I am alone in this context in acknowledging my mimetic nature as a human being. Each one of you has insisted on his uniqueness; one after the other. The ritual incantation is intoned – take a number, as they say.

    Mimesis is what permits a person to learn. It’s the source of our greatest strength as creatures and of all our conflicts since we imitate desires too. Just as a random example, “punks” adopted a different look from the “herd,” but only by imitating other punks. The “nonconformist” has plenty of mimetic models – in modern times, it is even something to aspire to. The desire to be original is itself mimetic and a relatively recent phenomenon – perhaps 200 years old. Prior to that only God was thought to be original and creative and the rest of us could commiserate in our fallen and dependent state.

    Thanks to the Romantic aspiration for originality, we regard being thought of as a copycat as humiliating, but that is how we learn to play a musical instrument, throw a football, do math.

    Originality is the fantasy of being godlike; creating desire from nothing. When a person notices that he is incapable of realizing the fantasy – and since the fantasy is so mimetically widespread – he imagines that the Other has achieved this illusion and desires the being of the Other – putting him in mimetic conflict with his fellow human. He alone is the one not invited to the party – the heaven of divine originality.

    A sister of mine rejected the notion of mimesis. She said, as a dentist, it is important for her NOT to imitate her patients. Instead, she consciously exudes an air of calm and confidence to calm her patients. We have free will and we don’t have to imitate those around us but this tends to work only in limited contexts. I as a professor can’t imitate the anger a student might suddenly exhibit. But in a nonprofessional context, I likely will.

    The thing is, my supposedly nonmimetic sister is relying on mimesis. She is consciously making of herself a mimetic model for her patients. She wants them to imitate her lack of anxiety. What she is doing makes no sense without the fact of mimesis – and her capacity for mimetic rivalry is unrivaled!

  14. JMSmith wrote: “To respond to the bold-faced challenge of your original post, I do have some beliefs that are not shared by another human being, but these are also beliefs that no other human being would contradict. For instance, I believe I left a pipe wrench under the house the last time I crawled under it to fix a leak, and I also believe that the repair I made to the pipe was not so perfect as it might have been.”

    Dear JM: It strikes me that these are not beliefs, strictly speaking, or in the way that Richard is using the term, but “epistemological leftovers,” insignificant details of your private life and household duties, with no intrinsic moral or ethical implications. The idea that “Trump is a Nazi,” however, is a belief, with moral and ethical implications, and shared by a large proportion of the voting minority this time around. Probably every single person who holds the “Trump is a Nazi” belief also holds the “I am unique” belief. Your partial memory of your pipe wrench, moreover, exerts on you no impulse to tweet murderous intentions about Trump (or anyone else) to hundreds or thousands of your “friends” via social media, an act of incitement that has undeniable moral and ethical implications. (It aims at assembling the actual mob.)

    We can certainly learn to sense mimetic pressure. Indeed, in growing older mentally healthy people will steadily acquire the knack of recognizing fads and avoiding them. On the other hand, it would be impossible for a person to become a person without acceding to the necessary mimetic influence of the fostering society or culture — as when, for example, we learn English, a language that none of us has invented, but which is passed along, generation to generation, precisely by imitation.

    • Thomas @ I’m quite happy to exclude my belief about the pipe wrench for the sake of this argument, for I see undisputed private beliefs as a distinct class of belief. But I can’t see this as an “epistemological leftover.” I believe there is a pipe wrench under my house, just as I believe there is a God in Heaven–and just as some people think Trump is a Nazi. The reason this example doesn’t contradict Richard’s thesis is that I occupy a unique epistemological position with respect to the pipe wrench, namely the position of having been under the house, up to my ears in mud, when the pipe wrench was last seen. I am quite sure that, had any other person been in that (unenviable) epistemological position, he would have formed the same belief. All of us have thousands of undisputed private beliefs of this sort.

      Richard’s point pertains to general philosophical propositions about the nature of the world, about which I agree it is very hard to be original. It cannot be impossible, since that would require all general philosophical propositions to have been present in Adam’s brain. I know the theory of human degeneration from perfect primordial knowledge, but find this hard to believe. I do think one can say that almost all general philosophical propositions were available two thousand years ago, and that everything since has been mimetic.

      The cases of originality that have been pointed out in this thread are really cases of local anomaly. Some people are able to resist local mimetic pressure, but this is always by constructing long-distance connections to congenial persons in other places and times. This is why reactionaries read old books!

      • A confession: I am unoriginal. Totally unoriginal. I have no original arguments. All my arguments are Jesus’s arguments, and Plato’s, and Boethius’s, and Rene Girard’s, and Eric Gans’s, and C. S. Lewis’s, and Eric Voegelin’s. Etcetera. I too own a pipe wrench, whose location I think I remember, but this knowledge (if it were knowledge) is different from the knowledge derived from my tuition under the proper names in the previous sentence. When I employ the word idea, I am unoriginal. To the extent that I have ideas, I only have them thanks to Plato, who discovered what an idea was. Ditto the conviction that I should never cast the first stone. I am a pupil, not a revelator.

        Also… You and I in the Venn Diagram are close to being one circle. Please don’t take me to be arguing with you, but only to be defending Richard’s thesis of our complete unoriginality.

      • Mr. Bertonneau…

        I would say that you are, in actuality, a singular phenomenon, i.e., very original.

        Thank you, Thordaddy. (TFB)

  15. Another belief I hold true that no one else has seemingly embraced is that Homosexuality is a sexual attraction to the Self where homo=same=exact same=Self…

  16. Why stop there…

    I also believe The First Law of Perfection is no redundancy.

    I’m sure someone else has embraced this one though with “special snowflakes” being all the “rage.”

  17. The impression I am getting from this ‘mimesis’ business is that it is one of those theories that is either uninteresting and true or interesting and false. As an authoritarian traditionalist I view the modern nonconformity/novelty idol – the insistence that everyone is a special snowflake – to be one of the central things wrong with the world.

    I’m not sure that insisting that everyone whose experience calls the theory into question is a modern snowflake enthralled by the snowflake meme really bolsters the case for the theory. To the contrary, it seems to just beg the question.

    • Richard did not write that everyone who doubts the mimesis theory is a snowflake. He wrote, following Girard (my teacher), that originality is the rarest of phenomena. As we can only express whatever insights we have, original or not, in the language that we learned by imitating our parents, who imitated their parents, who in turn imitated their parents, we should probably not insist too vehemently on our originality. In the cultural continuity (thank God) we are always-already assimilated. If not, we could not be genuine human beings.

      • Re: Zippy – Girard’s genius is in explicating and more fully understanding the ramifications of the crucifixion. Insightful? Yes. Original? Not exactly. In Deceit, Desire and the Novel, he saw himself as pointing out the insights of the great novelists into mimesis. Girard is probably unique in understanding the implications of the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism and of the related concept, mimesis and its role in the human life.

      • Do you think the Romans understood this? While teaching Catullus poems to an intermediate Latin class recently, I was trying to help the students understand that the Roman notion of artistic originality was to do something somewhat innovative within a well-established tradition that had fairly rigid conventions. Pure originality is not possible, since an artist’s weltanschauung has been formed by his predecessors, whether he is imitating them or rejecting them. I’m not sure if the students understand, but I keep tilting at this particular windmill (the windmill reference isn’t my own original idea, incidentally).


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