Amid all the terrible carnage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one of the most chilling aspects is the vice-like grip that Putin has over the Russian media.
Hearing Russians who believe that this war is merely a defensive ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify’ and liberate Ukraine is almost as scary as anything else.
It makes me appreciate the freedom of expression that we have. The right to vote, to protest, to mock and criticise those in power, the fact that I can write whatever I want on this blog. These freedoms should not be taken for granted.
However, despite our relative freedoms, our culture is still afflicted by a growing tendency towards group-think and herd-mentality. We build our own prisons for our thinking. The internet should broaden perspectives but in reality it often makes us more shrill and tribal than ever.
I grew up in a family that liked to debate issues. And whether it was politics, theology or sport, my Dad often liked to provide ‘the other side’ of any argument and to challenge one-sided answers to complex issues. Whilst it could be frustrating to my younger self, it has had a big impact on me.
It has helped me be more robust to share what I think and less threatened when people disagree. It has also left an enduring dislike of political correctness, peer-pressure and herd-mentality. Whether at home, work or in churches or sports clubs, healthy disagreement and debate is vital.
Leaders are supposed to be in charge, taking the key decisions for where a movement, an organisation or a country goes. But often this is only partially true.
Like everyone, leaders are also often swept along by collective thinking, hemmed in by the tribe they depend on. When I first got a job leading an organisation, someone told me this story:
During the time of the French Revolution, there was an angry mob rampaging through the streets of Paris. As they went they smashed property, looted shops and threatened anyone who stood in their way. About 50 yards behind the main group, a man was following, struggling to keep up and looking tired and worn out.
As he stopped to catch his breath, a passer-by said ‘My friend, why do you run with the mob? Why try to keep up with them?’
The man replied ‘I have to. I’m their leader.’
I believe two key factors in developing immunity to herd-like thinking lies in courage and faith.
Firstly, we often need courage to prompt us to express the nagging concerns we have. Our fears can silence us and our thoughts are unarticulated. This means the situation does not benefit from the perspective we could have brought.
Courage is not just down to character or personality type, we can develop muscles which help us speak up. We may be nervous or anxious, but the more we practice, the better we get.
Just as fears close us down and limit what we think we can do, courage is a ‘gateway virtue’ which opens up many other possibilities. As Maya Angelou said:
“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”
Some may claim that religion is one of the biggest causes of herd-mentality. And too often, unthinking, tribal and ritualistic religion is.
But faith in God remains a key driver in shaping convictions powerful enough to motivate people to stand up for what they believe. At its best, spirituality is full of both humility and conviction. The prophet Micah gives us an integrated vision of justice, compassion and humility:
“What does the LORD require? That you act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’
Jesus offers a continual, unsettling challenge to both individuals and institutions. His group of disciples were no cosy-club, they were highly diverse and prone to being argumentative and judgemental. Jesus continually provokes, challenges and empowers them with his countercultural interpretation of what love of God, and love of neighbour, looks like.
A whole way of life
Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd who invites us to follow him on a different path.
We must free this good news from religious constraints or limitations. Following Jesus is not primarily a ‘church-thing’ but a whole way of life.
God’s grace can give us the courage and faith to express truth – and develop immunity to simply following the herd.