The 'groupthink' contrarian


Janis’s use of the Orwellian connotation was intentional, because “groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment
The late Christopher Booker, a prolific British newspaper columnist and author, was a self-confessed challenger of prevailing orthodoxies and conventional wisdoms. He railed against the European Union, the belief that human activity causes global warming, the lengths that political correctness is being taken to in Western societies, and campaigns for the removal of “offensive” statues of historical figures across the world (such as the coloniser Cecil Rhodes in South Africa and Confederate notables in the American South). 

Booker, who died in July 2019 and did not live to see the publication of Groupthink (it was completed by Richard North, a collaborator on earlier books, on the basis of notes maintained by Booker’s son), was hugely influenced by the book The Victims of Groupthink, written in 1972 by Irving Janis, a professor of psychology at Yale University. Janis argued that when a group of people comes to be fixated on some belief or view of the world, they “are convinced that their opinion is so self-evidently right that no sensible person could disagree with it”. They are taken over by a “group mind” and become victims of groupthink, exhibiting herd behaviour and treating all those who differ from them with contempt and hostility. 

The term groupthink itself was inspired by such Orwellian words as newspeak and doublethink. Janis’s use of the Orwellian connotation was intentional, because “groupthink refers to a deterioration of mental efficiency, reality testing and moral judgment”, and Booker approves, considering groupthink “contagious, extremely powerful and increasingly showing itself to be potentially very dangerous”. 

GROUPTHINK: A Study in Self Delusion
Author: Christopher Booker
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 233
Price: Rs 550
He dismisses the threat to the planet from “human-induced climate change” as “an extraordinary flight from reality”, a hoax based on dodgy science, and a classic example of groupthink, on the ground that it cannot be definitively proved right or wrong. He favours the opposing view that global temperatures have failed to rise in accordance with the predictions of scientists’ computer models, and that any changes in the earth’s climate will result from “the complex interaction of natural factors, such as the shifting cycles in ocean currents and the activity of the sun”  —which scientists carried away by groupthink have ignored.

His real grouse seems to be that with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the developed countries agreed to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, while allowing developing countries to continue increasing them until their economies had caught up with the West. He ignores the inconvenient truth that the rich world had long suppressed the economies of the colonised countries, and denounces the Paris Accord as “one of the most damaging examples of groupthink the world has ever known”. He also denounces the trend towards “political correctness” in matters of gender and race, citing some examples from the year 2017 in Britain. Among them is the sacking of the Labour Party’s chief spokeswoman on women and equality issues, because she wrote a newspaper article about an incident that had come to light of Pakistani immigrants systematically raping and abusing several hundred under-age white girls in half a dozen towns. Leave alone the police, even feminists remained silent, Booker emphasises, for fear of a Muslim backlash. 

Political correctness, he points out, is often carried to ludicrous extremes. For example, police officers in Cardiff were ordered to walk around the streets in women’s high heels, to raise awareness of “domestic violence by men against women”. And Britain now has multiple police associations to reflect its diversity — a Gay Policy Association, a Black Police Association, a National Muslim Police Association, a Pagan Police Association, and even a National Trans Police Association. Booker laments that the word “mankind” has given way to “humankind”, “chairman” to “chair”, “spokesman” and “spokeswoman” to “spokesperson”.

In the obituary of Booker that appeared in The Guardian some of those who knew him were quoted as saying, only half in jest, that his association with the satirical magazine Private Eye (of which he was a founder, first editor and later a contributor) may have given him a jaundiced eye, and that he enjoyed being a contrarian. And if one man’s certitude is another’s groupthink, Booker can be accused of indulging in groupthink himself. 

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