The collective behavior of communities has long been a fascination to me. By communities, I understand this broadly. We belong to a wide range of different communities; workplace communities, worship communities, school communities, and of course, the communities where we live. Communities of any sort develop an identity or better, a personality that is uniquely different than the sum of the personalities of which it is comprised. In elementary scientific parlance the properties of communities may look something like a chemical reaction where substances are mixed creating an entirely new substance. Yet, unlike a chemical reaction, the compositional elements of communities can still be separated and exhibit very different properties from the composite.
But there’s no need to make this excessively complicated- groups of people often behave very differently than the individuals who make up this group might. It’s very simple to embrace the principle, but complicated and even treacherous to navigate the differing characteristics between the people you know and the communities to which they belong. Lots of people may barely recognize someone they regard as a friend in the context of what seems an incongruous allegiance to some community. Of course, LORD OF THE FLIES comes to mind. In this case, external existential pressures drive the establishment of communities, or tribes able to collectively act in ways that well-bred young British Prep School boys would never do individually. Ku Klux Klan members who hid beneath their costumes often lived surprisingly civil and agreeable lives.
How individuals behave and what they believe is often remarkably at odds with the communities they choose to align with. For some this means compartmentalizing to maintain conflicting beliefs. For others it may be simple hypocrisy they are content to live with. Two books and decades of experience working as part of, or leading communities have been especially useful in gaining insight on how communities and their constituent members can ascribe to contradictory beliefs. For many, they appear to be simply unaware that such contradictions could possibly be a part of their make up.
In Russell Banks, THE SWEET HEREAFTER, one snowy morning a school bus driver in upstate New York is routinely delivering a bus-full of children to school. On this day, she sees a dog cross into the path of her bus as it descends a hill. She brakes and the bus swerves out of control tumbling into an icy pond where fourteen of her young passengers drown. News of the tragedy ripples through the small town but the impact extends well beyond the immediate families of the dead children. The deaths create a kind of collective despair born of the helplessness everyone feels. The tragedy cannot be explained or understood apart from sympathetic but unsatisfying views that it was a “tragic accident”. And…what can be done beyond endless grieving when viewed as an accident; arbitrary and capricious. A New York City lawyer visits the small town explaining his role is “representing anger”. Even as the town is more despairing than angry, he finds one victim prepared to help the lawyer assign blame. And that is his aim to transform despair into anger by assigning blame. While the community at first resists the impulse to blame the bus driver, a long-time resident, and friend to many, they discover there is a growing sense of relief when blame can be assigned, as opposed to viewing it all as a terrible accident that was no one’s fault. Identifying a suitable blame object/subject enables us to better manage the unmanageable and move from “tragic accident” to fault. As the lawyer lures the community toward seeing the bus driver as the blame object, the community and, ironically, the bus driver herself begin to feel better.
Another critical book that helped define my thinking about community behaviors is GENERATION TO GENERATION by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. His observation about congregational behavior, to a large extent, informs his thinking about communal behavior. The book is essential reading for family systems therapists and organizational psychologists but offers valuable insights to all readers. In one case study he discusses the etiology of a young and very popular Rabbi’s fall from grace. It seems that when the Rabbi arrived to serve his new congregation, he young, charming, and recently married; anxious to make his mark as a leader. He always made himself available when needed for even small matters, he busied himself with all manner of congregational projects and community matters and became much loved by his congregants. When he and his wife have their first child, she asks him to rethink how he spends his time. His wife explains that she and their new child need more than he was offering. He understands and begins establishing boundaries around time for his family and time for his congregation. As the boundaries are consistently applied by the young Rabbi, many members of the congregation began to wonder why their Rabbi seemed less responsive to the needs of the community. The congregants complained to one another. They felt the quality of his sermons had diminished maybe because he just didn’t care as much. Honestly, the Rabbi seemed to many as if he had grown, I don’t know, indifferent to the needs of his people. You’ve heard people say, “I don’t know what it is, there’s just something about him that makes me uncomfortable now”. That supposedly vague and unsubstantiated ”feeling” is often the kiss of death for the newly anointed blame object. Heads nod in agreement but nobody knows what it is that causes this discomfort, least of all the blame object. But now everybody seems to share that feeling – a feeling that is hard to articulate but likely to be reliable nonetheless. In time the people became quite disillusioned with the young Rabbi who had shown such promise. The curious thing about the trajectory of his career was that his congregants interpreted the change in his behavior as distancing himself from them rather than making a greater effort to seek a healthier work-life balance. He becomes the blame object for those who feel uncared for, and the notion grows increasingly appealing. And all this evolves without anyone understanding their role in this unhappy undoing. It all amounts to an unconscious flurry of destructive activity that has nothing to do with what has really happened. The homeostatic balance established at the outset of the Rabbi’s ministry was upset and had to be righted. His congregants were unknowingly seeking to correct that balance much the way a thermostat is designed to raise or lower room temperature according to its setting.
I discussed blame objects with a friend recently. She commented, “You mean, scape goat, right?” Blame objects and scape goats are similar but not the same. Scape goats are the objects on which we project our deficiencies, our failures, our sins, as it were. Blame objects are created to help explain and assuage ambiguous discomfort. The roots of the term “scape goat” are tied to ancient ceremonies including that associated with the Jewish Day of Atonement. Two goats were chosen for the ceremony. One was offered as a sacrifice to God and the second became a kind of symbolic repository for the community’s sins. The goat’s task was to literally take away the sins of the community. The community unburdens themselves from their sins which are assigned to the goat. The goat, then is driven away from the community and over a cliff taking with him the sins of the community. And the Christian community adapted the same concept assigning the goat’s role to Jesus. The Lamb (goat) of God who takes away the sins of the world is sacrificed on the cross. There we go. Pure once again!
The Buddhist monk, Ticht Nacht Han wrote quite a bit about our need to blame. His “Don’t Blame the Lettuce” metaphor is well-known and worth sharing.
“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you
don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not
doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or
less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have
problems with our friends or family, we blame the other
person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will
grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive
effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason
and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no
reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you
understand, and you show that you understand, you can
love, and the situation will change”
Achieving a complete understanding of a disappointment, an accident, or even the war crimes in Ukraine takes an inordinate amount of time which leaves us all so unsettled while we search for a suitable blame object. The blame object helps expedite resolution allowing us to get on with things. Communities give us cover when the need to expedite resolution takes precedence over a need to understand. When the members of communities understand that together they run the risk of becoming an undifferentiated collective personality offering moral license to embrace conflicting ideals, perhaps the importance of remembering one’s own voice takes on a special sort of urgency. Of course, this puts one at risk of standing alone and outside the community but the longer and more arduous path to understanding leads to solutions not simply speedy resolutions.
A footnote on the featured image at the top of this blog: The painting is by the artist Carravagio and has to do with Jesus’ call for Matthew to become one of his disciples. Matthew sitting at the end of the table is focused on counting the money he has collected as a tax collector. The others at the table seem incredulous that Jesus would want a much-despised tax collector to be a follower. I love the painting and what it was intended to depict. But the simple truth is I selected it because, on the surface, with all the pointing going on, it captures something of the essence of an object/subject singled out for blame.