"There is the imitative tendency which shows itself in large masses of men, and produces panics, and orgies, and frenzies of violence, and which only the rarest individuals can actively withstand.”
The above is a line from psychologist William James, in a passage about the human instinct to imitate and to follow others. It follows a quote from the Roman Terence, a slave who became a playwright: “Humani nihil a me alienum puto”, which the poet Maya Angelou translates into: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”
It’s pure coincidence that I happened to be reading William James (a friend and I decided together to explore some volumes of ‘The Great Books of the Western World’) at the very time that Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial was taking place. It’s not so much of a coincidence that I’ve also been reading William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, because it’s the disease of Trumpism in America that drove me to study the rise of Nazism in the first place.
There was a time when Americans looked to Nazism and asked the following questions in total bewilderment: How could they? Can they really believe that? How can they follow him? Don’t they see what’s happening? How can they hate so much? How can they be so stupid, so gullible? If they do see what’s going on, why won’t they stand up to it, defy it? Now, we Americans – on both sides – look at each other with those same questions.
William James (1842-1910) did a deep study of human beings, how we are physically put together and how we work. A lot of his massive work, “Prinicples of Psychology” – at least the parts I’ve read so far – has to do with how we perceive, react, learn and form habits. And when I came to the sentence at the top, and researched Terence’s latin phrase (which James doesn’t bother to translate), I was stopped cold.
It was just two days ago that 43 Senators excused Trump’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection, after experiencing the assault themselves and after watching hours of evidence linking Trump directly to the attempted coup. Immediately after the acquittal, instead of cries of outrage against the 43, a flurry of attacks and censures was directed at the seven republican Senators who voted along with the democrats to hold Trump responsible. And all those “How could they?” questions are back, pounding in my brain again, as they have for going on five years.
But actually, it’s been a lifetime. A lifetime of wondering how others can see what I see and know what I know and yet hold such drastically different thoughts and feelings about it. How can racists really believe in their judgements? How can so many men believe that women are treated fairly? How is it that adults – who were once children – can accept the use and abuse of children?
The answer that I’ve usually (but not always) strained to reject is that those other people are fundamentally different. I’ve had to strain because this explanation is apparently true. Men and women; black and white; adult and child – all such obvious differences that the answer presents itself. Growing up, I heard this explanation a lot. The horror of racism was explained by, “White folks are different. They don’t think and feel the same. They don’t have souls. They are devils.” Luckily or unluckily, I was able to perceive, in my then mostly-black community, that there was a degree of devilment going on there, too. And there was plenty of conflict – some of it very passionate conflict – that grew out of people not thinking or feeling the same. There were even a few people who gave no evidence of having functioning souls. And so, while it was very obvious that people differed, in subtle and drastic ways, there wasn’t any obvious or simple way to explain those differences.
As I grew up, was able to travel, and began to know people whose lifestyles and backgrounds were very different than mine, alternative answers to the problem of differences began to suggest themselves. Maybe other people didn’t actually see what I see, or couldn’t know what I know. And maybe people’s personal experiences shaped them is such ways that the differences were inside of us rather than in the world.
Maybe one of the most useful experiences in my own life, so far as understanding our differences, was my gradual shift from one who couldn’t understand how people could reject a belief in God, to one who now often struggles to understand the things that people believe to be of God. I don’t struggle nearly so much now as I did before my shift because I still remember my fervent Christianity of before. Because this belief hasn’t totally vanished, but it has changed drastically. The belief system that resonates most for me these last many years is Buddhism. Though I doubt that I’ll ever call myself a Buddhist, I see in that practice the recognition of an essence of goodness in the basic fabric of the universe, in the mechanics of living – that lifts us when we surrender to it (and surrender is a very hard word for most of us these days. Other ways of expressing it are: fully accept, be in flow with, acknowledge as a fundamental principle that will not be evaded). And I experience my connection to a greater, transcendent whole to which I believe we each belong. These notions have totally replaced for me the idea of the egocentric, white, male humanoid whom I once prayed to fervently for my personal salvation. But I can still understand – even feel – the power of that belief. And it allows me to understand the power of belief, whether in Allah or in the hoax of MAGA or Q-Anon.
Access to any belief system requires a process of critical thinking at some point. But, as William James points out, our brains and nervous systems go through phases that predispose us to accepting or rejecting influences at particular times. So that we are influenced when young by trends and styles and revolutionary philosophies that can’t touch us when we are much older. It will continue to take generations for Americans – and, of course, humans all over the planet – to outgrow our traumatic comings-of-age. It had seemed to me forty years ago, that there were levels of healing going on that we’d never again regress from. Now, there are so many fresh, psychic wounds that all that progress seems as lost. Except that the good stuff burrows as deep in us as the ugly, and most of us will try and cling to it tighter.