Comments: The True Believer (Hoffer)

"There's the abdication of personal responsibility so desired by the failures and the misfits. The role of boredom, the need for a purpose or a cause to draw people away from the barren trap they've made of their own lives."

It seems to me people also need an outlet for the agresssion they sometimes feel. I think most people have some latent agression in them, and they need avenues to express it. For intellectuals that channel might simply be engaging in debate with others, but for some it takes the form of belonging to a group and expressing aggression against anyone outside that group. A mass movement can offer people a healthy place to channel their agression, especially if its for a good cause (though a good cause is, of course, in the eye of the beholder). Even a non-violent movement like the one that Martin Luther King organized helps to channel aggression - what might otherwise come out as random violence instead comes out as something productive. I got mugged on Friday, two black guys beat the stuffing out of me, and I've spent the weekend on painkillers and, when not asleep, I've been thinking about this issue of agression. The cops who investigated the crime decided that robbery wasn't a motive, since the two guys who attacked me could have easily taken my laptop computer, my cell phone, or my wallet, but instead took nothing. One cop said the motive was probably a desire to "mess with whitey." The two men who attacked me are, of course, extreme cases, but I suspect that all of us have some aggression in us, and that aggression needs healthy channels to come out, or comes out in unhealthy ways.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 12:23 PM

Lawrence: Hope your recovery goes smoothly. I would suggest, however, that aggression is just one expression of a form of, for want of a good word "energy desiring to get something done" and that non-violent movements transform aggressive energy into productive moral force. Conservation of energy, but not form, if you will.

Anne: Actually, a superhero with real water-powers would have power over every living thing: we are mostly water, after all. Don't give up hope.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at August 15, 2004 02:38 PM

Jonathan: I think that is what I was saying, that non-violent movements transform aggression into something positive. Other forms of mass movements, nazism for instance, transform aggression into something much more lethal, much more focused, much more determined.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 02:42 PM

"an older African-American woman mourned that in gaining "equal rights," she felt that African-Americans had lost a valuable sense of community and identity"

I disagree with the connection she makes between equal rights and the loss of community. The argument she makes seems on par with the argument "feminism was bad for women because now men don't have to marry them" or whatever variation on that theme you want to follow. Mostly I disagree with the timing that is implied by her statement - that blacks got equal rights and then they lost their community. A careful reading of history will show that African-American communities were being destroyed in the late 50s, and that this to a large extent necessitated and made urgent the fight for equal rights. In the South, at least, African-American communities were mostly agricultural, at a time when the family farm was dying in America. Abernathy, Martin Luther King's right-hand man, once said "The civil rights movement is in a race with the tractors." Meaning that the mechanization of agriculture (tractors) was driving blacks off their land, and leaving them jobless, thus the cause of equal rights was made even more urgent by the need of blacks to find non-agricultural jobs.

Barbara Ehrenreich has made the same argument about the timing of feminism and male sexual freedom. Responding to the argument that feminism left men free to sleep around, Ehrenreich points out that the 50s were the time men started to break away from their traditional roles as breadwinners for a family, and stuff like Playboy and the Rat Pack were expressions of the new culture, and feminism was in some sense a needed response to that.

Posted by Lawrence Krubner at August 15, 2004 02:51 PM

Lawrence - I'm so sorry to hear about your experience. I hope you're feeling a lot better today.

As you and Jonathan are already discussing the incident in terms of "movements" let me add that I agree with both of you. Sort of.

Hoffer cites "frustration" as one of the primary impulses behind joining of a mass movement. Very "frustrated" people can be ripe to join a movement and (I suppose) a frustration that shows itself in anger is equally likely to lead someone to a movement.

You're right in that people sometimes need an outlet for aggression but there are different kinds of aggression. I'd suggest that frustration that's already transmuted into anger is close to being an end in itself and that the longer it exists, the less likely it is that any nondestructive action will satisfy it. (In other words, any "leader" coming along later and hoping to make use of that frustrated anger will have to provide a physical outlet for the anger. You can't "transform" an emotion when it's that fixed, you have to catch it before then if you want to transmute it.)

Actually, I find myself wondering if you could make any non-violent, non-destructive use of a group whose mass frustration has already jelled into years-long anger.

Posted by Anne at August 16, 2004 08:34 AM

And then, ten seconds later, it occurs to me that a "movement" with violence at its very heart has already solved that problem.

People who are angry and have long been so at what they perceive as personal injustices could be the types who join today's neo-Nazi movements or "survivalist" groups or "militia" organizations. They're channeling their anger both in action (I understand there's a lot of playing soldier in those groups) and in rhetoric, spewing hate against whatever group or organization they're focused on.

Posted by Anne at August 16, 2004 08:37 AM

Lawrence - You said:

I disagree with the connection she makes between equal rights and the loss of community.

You make some good points. I've been puzzling over what she said since I first heard it, thinking that surely the "loss of community" she was discussing wasn't an inevitable byproduct of the Civil Rights movement.

In fact, in broader terms, the explosion of the "youth culture" and the "car culture" into the 50s and 60s caused a lot of changes in our society. There's a community of family and location (small towns) as well as ethnicity, and a lot of those communities have suffered a kind of unraveling.

I've sometimes wondered if that particular woman wasn't framing the loss in terms of race because that's the way she's inclined to frame things, but that a broader look at society would prove that minority populations suffered no more from a loss in "community identify" than other communities. Or that, at least, it was not the minority cultures alone that suffered.

The fact that today's inner cities are largely composed of minority populations puzzles me as to whether or not it might be a lack of coping skills for those groups. Or, more likely, they have the same skills as any other group, but that a displaced and dispossessed white person can step into any city in this country and be likely to find people to bond with, while it's more difficult for a minority to do so?

Posted by Anne at August 16, 2004 08:45 AM

I think the equal rights/community thing is understandable, but short-sighted. The value of equal rights is that communities can be chosen freely, rather than forced upon people as the only option. Community of oppression is comforting, but limiting: I have a similar problem with Jews who center their identity on the Holocaust and continuing anti-semitism, rather than on several millenia of ethical and theological and cultural heritage.

Posted by Jonathan Dresner at August 16, 2004 08:22 PM

Also a good point, Jonathan, but I find myself increasingly concerned that communities be there for those who want them while not being a trap people can't get out of.

Not an easy line to walk.

Posted by Anne at August 16, 2004 08:53 PM