Failure to Report: Why Leadership is Rare and Groupthink is Real

The nature of evil sounds weighty.  So let’s talk about the “failure to protect”–not in the sense of the absence of collective action on major conflicts or wars–but in the case of abuse.  We have witnessed an unfolding tragedy that has villains (Penn State’s outgoing assistant coach) and heroes (the brave victims who spoke out).  But why don’t more people stand up for what is clearly the right thing to do?

David Brooks probes the psychology of collective inaction in his Tuesday column.  True to form, he finds the problem in something that is part of our own thinking–a type of bias–that keeps us from doing the ‘right’ thing that we all think we would do in the moment:

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

via Let’s All Feel Superior – NYTimes.com.

But even with large-scale atrocities such as the Holocaust, its not clear that “just following orders” or groupthink can explain away individual responsibility.  An upcoming tv program makes the case:

The program aggressively challenges the “just following orders” defense and the notion that “ordinary” Germans were not at fault in the Holocaust.

“After the Jews were sent off, people moved into their homes, took over their businesses,” says Michael Berenbaum of American Jewish University. “So on some level the local populations understood these people were not coming back.”

The program also conveys that the effort to exterminate Jews was an evolving phenomenon that required people — not all of them Nazis — to design and build the infrastructure of trains, gas chambers and ovens to do the deed. The Nazis and their enablers tackled the Holocaust with a problem-solving ethos not unlike what we associate with the Manhattan Project or the lunar landing.

“There are those who believe that the Holocaust was born whole,” Dr. Berenbaum says. “I’m not of that school. I see an awful lot of improvisation. I see an awful lot of experimentation.”

via ‘Engineering Evil’ on History Channel – Review – NYTimes.com.

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4 thoughts on “Failure to Report: Why Leadership is Rare and Groupthink is Real

  1. emearnshaw says:

    This reminds me of a poem written about the holocaust:

    First they came for the communists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me.

    I like that someone is saying that you cannot explain away the entirety of these world tragedies by groupthink. I agree with the school of thought given in the upcoming program that there is more to it than that. I think part of it has to go back to the incredible ability of human beings to rationalize and distance themselves. After watching something like Hotel Rwanda it is impossible to believe how the world could have watched that devastation on the news and do nothing. Yet, every day 10,000 children die in Africa, many from malnutrition, and despite the fact that our parents tell us to eat our vegetables because there are starving children in africa, we continue to spend our allowance on new clothes or cool gadgets. The world continues to turn a blind eye to the tragedies that go on around us. Recently, I listened to a stake president address the issue and claim it was a result of the desensitization of the media. We are so accustomed to violence, tragedy, death in our video games, tv shows, and movies, that when we see it on the news it is not significant because its not anything worse than they’ve already seen in their virtual reality.

    more on media and desensitization to violence: http://www.manilastandardtoday.com/insideOpinion.htm?f=2011/october/29/elizabethangsioco.isx&d=2011/october/29

  2. jordanmckee says:

    This article was really interesting and I think presents a fair argument. I know that I have been in discussions about the Penn State Scandal with those same questions spoken about, “how could they have let this happen?” and “Why did they not do more?” As all of the allegations continued to come out in this story I could not help but think about when a similar surprise hit the world about Tiger Woods. It seemed that a figurative flood of information followed so many years of apparently squeaky clean silence.
    This relates to diplomacy and MUN because we must be willing to make our voice heard! There will be statements and issues that are contrary to the view of the countries that we represent, and many other countries, and we must be the member states that start the following flood. I feel that the world has plenty of great people who are leaders, but don’t understand that it is there duty to lead. If we all expected, and knew that people depended on us to lead, than we would be more likely to step up. It is this expectation that we must bring to the MUN.
    Here is another article about the bystander effect.
    http://articles.cnn.com/2009-10-28/justice/california.gang.rape.bystander_1_bystander-crime-prevention-kitty-genovese?_s=PM:CRIME

  3. twrhodes says:

    I think the example of the Holocaust, contrasted with the fresh Penn State scandal, is a perfect illustration of this issue.
    To people not involved in these issues, it appears so very black and white, with right and wrong being very clear and separable. And the truth of the matter, is that these issues really are black and white. It is easy to see what “should” have been done. However, in every case of this type, it seems like the “grey area” has claimed the thinking of those guilty of not doing what they should have.
    When analyzed at a closer level, it seems that this grey area arises from the overpowering human instinct of self-preservation. When it comes down to it, people will do anything to preserve that which they have come to value the most: for some it is a reputation, others its their God, for others its their country, and for a few it is their coaching job. Self-preservation is so powerful that it distorts even the most basic of realities.

    http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Rivers/chap7.htm

  4. almaseo says:

    I think it’s difficult for the people in these situations to do more. During the Holocaust, people that had clues about what was happening knew it was wrong but the only other option was to go against Hitler which would result in death. So I believe that it’s fear that suppress people from taking action against the oposing force especially when you feel that you are alone. Also when Stalin killed and emprisoned everyone that got in his way, did those around him know that it was wrong? Probably, but what power did they have to act against it. And if they did rebel against it, they didn’t have much to gain. So I think leadership is rare in the fact that people are not altruistic. They aren’t willing to sacrifice for others. They don’t want to bring more trouble to themselves.

    http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/leader/leadchr.html

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