Archive for the ‘#groupthink’ Tag

Interesting Take on Society   Leave a comment

Have you seen the latest Joker movie? I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. There’s the money – about $18 a ticket here in Fairbanks — but Brad convinced me to go since it isn’t yet cold enough to worry about needing to warm our car mid-movie. (Yes, Alaska – a very challenging place). Brad knows me, though. I love to analyze films, to figure out what they’re trying to say to their viewers. So Friday night date, movie. And while in the line to buy tickets, we ran into our son and his girlfriend who were going to see the same movie.

Image result for image of joker

The reviewers of the movie all seemed to cite it as “dangerous,” fearing it might inspire insurrection groups to identify the character as a hero and imitate him. Others condemned the film’s “willful unpleasantness” and “rare, numbing emptiness” (we call that nihilism). Still others draw a connection between Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of the character and the validation of “white male resentment” seen on the political right.

As an observer of social psychology, however, I saw Joker’s commentary on the phenomenon of collectivism (what another commentator called “de-individuation.”) The film’s true evil (the Big Bad, if you will) is a broken, frustrated society that latches onto random, almost purposeless acts of violence, imbues them with deeper meaning, and uses them as justification for mass violence and brutality. On the way to the car, Brad asked me “What was the political message?” and I didn’t find Joker to be a political movie. It’s a psychological one, showing the dangers of group action and the power of group narratives. Our son’s girlfriend was so impressed with my answer that the young folk asked the old folk to hang out and discuss it. This is a synopsis of about three hours of drinking coffee and three thinkers and a construction worker psycho-analyzing a fictional character.

In Joker, Gotham City is broken, but no one class or group shoulders the blame for the dysfunction. Arthur Fleck is failed by every level of society – mugged and beaten by a street gang, brutalized by rich young bankers, abandoned amid the de-funding of the public mental health care system, and permanently scarred by his own family. Lots of blame to go around. And yet, every class in Joker seeks to shift the blame for society’s woes. The rich denigrate the working class and the working class dehumanize the wealthy. A TV host (played by, ironically, Robert DeNiro) mercilessly teases Arthur, and all classes share the same glee at his televised failures.

In their desperate need to find someone else to blame, the masses of Gotham condemn “them” (I think they were “the one percent”). Society then elevates Arthur’s purposeless act of murder into kind of social rebellion. The populace knows zero significant details about the killing — no motive, circumstances or even the identity of the perpetrator — but imbues it with shared meaning. They’ve already constructed their narrative and will fit a random event to match it, and thus declare Joker a hero.

When Arthur’s identity is revealed in the movie’s climax, hordes of protesters are already ready to revolt. Another purposeless murder by Arthur sparks riots. On the brink of public suicide (akin to suicide by cop in mass shootings, perhaps), Arthur issues a rambling rant where he blames the elites for the state of Gotham, claims credit for the earlier killing, and decides to enjoy one last bit of senseless violence.

From a psychological perspective, Joker is an incredibly realistic and damning depiction of group dynamics. Unlike previous versions of the Joker by Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has no plans, no real motives, and no overarching point to make. He’s a victim of both circumstances and his own impotent rage. He doesn’t manipulate or use other people to achieve his ends, probably because he has no actual ends to achieve. In this version of Gotham, everyone is awful to everyone, and it is society that makes Joker what he is, not by their treatment of him, but through their mythologizing and romanticizing of his purposeless actions.

De-individuation is a phenomenon where crowds assume a collective identity and become willing to commit even the most heinous acts, as seen in the Stanford Prison Experiment, but also Nazi Germany, Communist China, the old Soviet Bloc states, and Southern slave plantations. De-individuation is seen when crowds assume a collective identity, diffuse individual responsibility among themselves, and become willing to commit mass riots and lynch mobs because they come to believe that simple numbers equate to moral action. The collective identities of de-individuated groups result in biased recollections and interpretations of events that devolve into horrifying violence.

This is exactly what happens in Joker. All Arthur Fleck does is commit relatively aimless murders and issue a relatively incoherent angry rant on television. The true villain of the movie is the broader society that latches onto these actions and words and imbues them with nonexistent meaning to justify their own crimes.

As a novelist, I recognize that fiction reflects reality. In the search for meaning amid an increasingly polarized and hostile political climate, groups come together and lionize monsters. While the mass murderers Che Guevara and Mao Zedong are praised by many on the political left, their self-aggrandizing brutality ignored in favor of the mythologized virtues of socialism and communism, the nationalist ideologies responsible for mass tragedy in the past are lauded by those on the political right. Feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment produce violent mobs on both ends of the political spectrum, hence Antifa and the Proud Boys.

Brad walked away from the film with a deep sense of discomfort. Call him “Everyman”. Like most American moviegoers, he prefers simple, somewhat cartoonish evil villains who he can assume are “the other” because they don’t prompt any self-reflection. None of us want to identify with the villain. We prefer to see a message against our ideological opponents rather than our own potential for immoral behavior. Brad served as our “normal” control as Keirnan, his girlfriend and I analyzed the movie at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant afterward.

We agreed that like the hordes of Gotham, we seek to villainize those who disagree with us while excusing the behavior of our in-groups. Such circumstances make instances of mass violence and de-individuation all the more likely.

Joker is not about Trump and the alt-right any more than it is about Antifa and the radical left. It is about the apolitical dangers of group de-individuation. We need such examples outside the psychology classroom because otherwise, the examples will be on the news. We’ve already seen it in the Antifa riots and Charlottesville. We need uncomfortable films like Joker to show us the dangers of grouping up and allowing apolitical psychological forces dictate our interactions with our fellow humans and, heaven forbid, our government policies.

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