I recently heard someone make an assertion to the effect that “When something bad happens to us, we immediately look around for someone else to blame.” That was the final straw for me, and the impulse that drives this short self-indulgent rant – I mean, this concise assertion of my right to independence of thought.
I’ve been hearing people include me in their “we” for too long and too often. When someone confidently states “Anybody would feel that way,” “The whole world feels sad about…,” “Everybody gets mad when…,” “As we all know, …” they seem to think they are speaking for everyone. Maybe they just want to convince us, and themselves, that what they think is true.
Remember that “Don’t believe everything you think” bumper sticker? I agree with that, and so should you. Everybody knows that your mind is unreliable, and anybody with any brains knows…. Oops. Back to the main point…
Usually I just let these universal assertions go by, but sometimes I will (gently but clearly, I like to think) ask the person to speak for themselves, not for all of us and particularly not for me, because I don’t share the feeling or reaction they’re inviting/instructing me to participate in.
The underlying danger here is called the Abilene Paradox. The back story, written by one of the participants, tells of a group of people who drove for 2 ½ hours to Abilene on a hot Sunday, and back, for an ice cream cone. They made the journey because someone apparently said in a quiet moment after lunch, “Hey, we could…” and no one objected. Afterward, in the lesser glow of five hours of driving for a small treat, they discovered that none of them had truly wanted to do it, but they all went along with the idea rather than expressing their reluctance.
This is what happens when no one objects to something they disagree with, simply because nobody else speaks up. The proposed idea can quickly become a “common understanding” rather than one possibility among many, and the result is a situation that seems to be agreed to, but is not in fact accepted by more than a minority. One of the best illustrations of this kind of groupthink was captured in a question that as I recall was posed by Margaret Mead: “How is it that we as a group have created a society which we as individuals abhor?”
So I will continue, as a way of understanding myself as well as a means of keeping discussions open, gently to express my independence and disagreement when it feels important to do so, in order to help us avoid the superficial groupthink of the Abilene Paradox.