It was peer pressure that compelled, allegedly, the UK Prime Minister to post his private sex-parcel through the letterbox of a dead pig’s mouth, in order, again allegedly, to gain approval from the 11 other members of an upper crust sex, drugs and fancy dress loving Oxford University society.
It was also peer pressure, by which I mean pressure from disgruntled billionaire peer Lord Ashcroft, that saw the allegation distributed throughout the media. It came via reporting of the rumours contained in the book he commissioned as revenge for not getting what he wanted from the Tory party after donating millions to them.
Social media users squealed gleefully at their latest sensation, left right and centre, we were – to put it frankly – happy as pigs in excrement. This was my first reaction:
— Mike Fredman (@michaelfredman) September 20, 2015
The thing is, there is as yet no real evidence for Cameron’s bacchanalia (baconalia?), someone says someone has a photo but it is all conjecture.
What there is evidence for is that we are doing the bidding of a billionaire with a grudge, but because we dislike Cameron, or just delight in the salacious nature of the allegations, or because they conform to the idea we have of the rituals of humiliation in which the rich indulge, we perpetuate the rumours.
Perhaps swept up in the reactive social media flow, enjoying the swell of shared derision, we relinquish our reason.
It has been demonstrated in psychological experiments that people believe things because they reinforce or confirm their prejudices. The phenomenon is known as confirmation bias [Confirmation bias – a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises (PDF) – opens in new window]. Once someone has taken a fixed position, their capacity for balanced reason is replaced by selective reinforcement of the position held. In short, the man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest [The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel – Youtube, opens in new window].
That fixed position can be induced by the society we live in,for instance we might live under a totalitarian ideology, such as that of Stalinist Communism or Authoritarian Theocracy, and then the state allows no other position to exist. Peer pressure then is a means of quelling dissent. People are punished, people are killed, for thought that contradicts the collective identity.
In Saudi Arabia, anyone who questions the religion that supposedly confers the right of the Saud family to own and govern the vast majority of the Arabian peninsula faces being tortured, imprisoned and killed. In Stalinist Russia purges of dissidents, the deaths of millions, were meant to protect the ideology, ‘the truth’, against those who might weaken it.
Weaken it how? By testing it with thought: Thought is questioning, questioning is treacherous. Traitors must be killed.
The fixed position, that authoritarianism, is not just implemented from without. We can impose it upon ourselves, adopting dogmatically an idea because it fits in with our idea of ourselves, or confers upon us an identity we wish to embody or simply quells the nagging existential uncertainty of living in a seemingly confused and chaotic universe.
This self imposed censorship creeps incrementally upon us, we choose our newspaper and thus our opinions, on social media we follow and like only that which we already agree with, we build an ideological fortress around us, into which dissent cannot enter.
It takes effort to entertain perspectives opposed to our own, to question not just that which you are opposed to, but that which you are drawn to, and why should we, when there is delight and relief in surrendering reason to the mob. The reason why is because such conformity echoes some of the worst moments of human history.
Genocides and purges required the complicity of people like me and you relinquishing their capacity to question for the sake of belonging, the sake of identity, among other motives no doubt, too, including the fear and consequent relief in being the perpetrator rather than the victim that bonds the mob together against another.
Conformity protects us from attack.
Jeremy Corbyn was lambasted by the more jingoistic elements of the press for not singing the national anthem at a memorial service, and has now appeared to bow to peer pressure, agreeing to sing it in future.
You might think this a pragmatic acceptance of the role of leader of the opposition in matters of state ceremony, or you might think it means that peer pressure has forced him to be hypocritical. Singing an anthem in honour of a god he does not believe in and a figurehead of a power and class structure he may well think responsible for causing the deaths the service commemorates.
I sympathise with him, or at least my 8 year old self does, because I was kicked out of the cubs for refusing to pledge allegiance to god or to the Queen.
My then best friend, Denis, wanted me to join him. We were to learn knots and do good deeds. I went for several weeks and all was fine. Until the evening of the initiation.
We all gathered in a circle around the leader and the new cubs, one by one, pledged allegiance to god and to the queen.
When it was my turn, in spite of Denis’s eager face, and the expectant glare of the leader, I said timidly that I didn’t want to say it because I did not think I believed in those things.
I was made to leave and walk home alone, pondering my atheist republicanism and coming to terms with a woggleless existence.
As a child, I was able to consider what I thought was right over what I knew was expected of me, and growing up I realised that when one thinks one knows what is right there is the possibility that one has become dogmatic and therefore possibly wrong, so I have always tried to be aware of whenever I have become complacent in my thoughts.
When I have accepted something as true – including my childish atheism and republicanism – I try to seek out the best arguments I can against those adopted positions to see if they withstand such tests. I do this not because I have some special capacity, but because I am just the same as everyone else, just as prone to self-deception and getting swept up with the mob and I hope somehow to counter the innate disposition we all apparently share.
I laughed and jeered over the pig’s head, but in the Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is placed on a stick, as a sacrifice to ‘the beast’ the dark, unseen, monstrosity that haunts the stranded boys. But the truth is that the beast is the darkness that lurks in the heart of them, of us all.