Groupthink and cancel culture vs. Loving others as you love yourself

Every human was created in G-d’s image. If G-d can’t be canceled, neither can His image.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow ,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Groupthink is the craze of our times. The airways and the streets are ablaze with political correctness and cancel culture. Now, this isn’t the first time that groupthink has taken hold. In my lifetime I watched it happen several times and the history books are replete with examples of it. My great grandfather’s memoirs were recently translated into English. Reading his account of the early days of the Soviet Union reminded me of the perils of groupthink.

When a small group succeeds in foisting its views on the majority, peer pressure and cultural stresses prevail over objective thought. Thinking for oneself becomes forbidden and those who do, pay a price. Every comment or post that even appears to disagree with groupthink is immediately condemned and punished.

The comment need not even disagree with the underlying values of groupthink. It only needs to appear to disagree with it. Suppose someone says that a black man attacked him on the street. This person may very well support black rights. He may simply have been telling the truth. Yet, the innocent comment is made to sound sinister, and the pressure begins to build.

Nature hath no greater fury than groupthink scorned.
Thousands of people examine every facet of his life and anything that seems remotely suspicious is piled on to the first comment. Before long, he is made to look like a bigot and a supremacist, and the consequences begin. Before long, he is fired from his job, which then comes full circle. People believe that if he was fired, he must be a bigot.

And yet, the poster said nothing wrong. He merely said something that someone found offensive. It’s even likely that no one was actually offended, but inasmuch as groupthink decided it was offensive, he must bear the consequences. Nature hath no greater fury than groupthink scorned.

When groupthink takes hold, there is no room for objective conversation, thoughtful discussion, rigorous debate, or honest disagreement. There is only room for obsequious acquiescence. Anything less, and you pay the price. Groupthink tells you how to talk, how to think, and how to behave. And beware lest you run afoul of groupthink.

Often, groupthink is led by just a few individuals. When the passions recede and cooler minds prevail, it is usually found that they got carried away by the eccentricities of the moment. But if someone tries to point that out while passions flare, they will be punished.

The worst part of it is that we live in an age of social media and so much of what we say and do is recorded. If groupthink wants to slay you, they have a lot of material to work with. Respectable people are denounced because people find decades-old comments or behaviors and parade them in the worst possible light. The person who said them can apologize over and over, but it is a lost cause. Once groupthink is out to get them, they will be gotten.

The Torah Way
The Torah enjoins us to love others as we love ourselves. Why? Firstly, because every human was created in G-d’s image. If G-d can’t be canceled, neither can His image. You can condemn something that G-d’s image does or says, but you can’t and shouldn’t cancel the image.

Secondly, because they are your fellow. You are in this together. Do you really think you are immune from the craze you created or are helping to perpetuate? Do you really think the mob won’t turn against you one day?

No one is immune to it. No matter how righteous you are, something you said or wrote can be twisted or turned into something you didn’t mean. And when that happens, you will go down too. You would not be the first groupthink organizer in history who has become a victim of the movements he or she spawned.

The great sage Hillel said, “What you don’t want done unto you, don’t do unto others.” One way of understanding this is that if you are caught doing something that looks suspicious and would want to be given the benefit of the doubt, give that benefit to others.

If you order an item online and stop by the store to pick it up, you don’t want other shoppers to suspect you of theft when they see you walk out without paying. If you are screaming and chasing your kids across the front lawn, you want a passerby to assume that you are playing a game. If you want that for yourself, pre-pay it to others. Give others the benefit of the doubt just as you would want them to give it to you. Don’t suspect them if you don’t want them to suspect you.

Cancel Culture
Sadly, cancel culture and groupthink are the very opposite of this. If you don’t condemn what groupthink condemns, you are accused of supporting it. If you say something that can possibly be made to sound bad, it will be. You can protest and deny all you want, and no one will believe you. The more you protest, the more they will suspect you, and mock you, and come after you.

Cancel culture may have been founded on pillars of justice and may still have shades of compassion, but it has long been stripped of righteousness. There is nothing righteous about tearing people down when you don’t agree with them. There is nothing just about shutting down objective thought and thoughtful discussion. It is cruel, demeaning, opportunistic, toxic, and sadistic. It isn’t just. It’s evil.

It is a cancer eating away at our society and must be excised. Not the people who practice it, mind you. If I advocated that, I would be betraying the very point I am trying to make. It is the mindset that must be excised.

We must return to honor and love. We must return to respect and circumspection. We must return to trust and bringing out the best in each other. Cancel culture and groupthink don’t bring out the best in us. They bring out the worst in us. And we must rid ourselves of this scourge.

Left unchecked, it will grow unabated. It will become a monster that will swallow us all. It will create chaos on the streets which can only result in tyranny, demagoguery, and despotism.

If a movement or a group doesn’t allow for objective thought and honest debate, don’t trust it no matter how noble its cause seems to be. If a movement is quick to tear others down and to impute motive cynically, stay away. This is not a healthy mindset. This is not a righteous mindset. This is not a holy mindset.

These people are tearing down someone who was made in G-d’s image. And tomorrow, that person may be you.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.