The 90th Rationalization: #67 The Herd’s Excuse, Or “We’re All In This Together”


In Philip Zimbardo’s writings about avoiding corruption in organizations, he warns, “Be aware of the roots of compliance and persuasion: reciprocity, commitment, majority conduct, authority, liking, and perceived scarcity/need. Know why you are being persuaded.”  Rationalization #67 on the list, reaching the landmark of ninety rationalizations in total, addresses the commitment and majority conduct arguments for following the crowd even when the crowd is wrong.

The Herd’s Excuse is an inverted #1, “Everybody Does It.” That most popular of all rationalizations holds that what everyone does is ethical because “everyone” does it. The Herd’s Excuse argues that what would normally be wrong becomes right when the group endorses it uniformly. This is sinister.  A protesting group member gets extorted into following a group course of action that he or she had legitimately identified as wrong by being told that withholding participation, endorsement and approval is not only a betrayal, but conduct that sabotages what would become rightful as long as the group is united and of one mind.

The use of this peer pressure as emotional blackmail to keep followers in line is a weaponized tool of unscrupulous leaders, ethics corrupters, cultists and  authoritarians.  It is the false and sometimes deadly logic that has led to some of history’s worst disasters, closely related to magical thinking. If we all commit to this, we cannot fail. The group cannot be denied.

In such situations, it is essential that those who know that the planned or proposed action is wrong form a different group. Togetherness, in such situations, is no longer a virtue.

19 thoughts on “The 90th Rationalization: #67 The Herd’s Excuse, Or “We’re All In This Together”

    • Jack Marshall wrote, “Dean, Bing and Frank—we will never see their like again.”

      I may be shot down in the streets my the mob for saying this but I wasn’t a Frank fan at all, in fact I really don’t like him; however, I completely agree with you on the other two.

      There has been an interesting revival of the style from that era with Michael Bublé.

      • You won’t be shot down on that from ME–I never liked Frank. I appreciated him as a performer; I understand why he is admired; I get the phrasing accolades; I know he was a consummate professional, worked harder than most. He was, like Dean and Bing, able to tell a joke, do drama, dance with Gene Kelly (Frank was the best dancer of the three, Bing a hoofer, and Dino hardly danced at all) and do drama (Frank and Bing got Academy Awards).

        And sometimes, with all of that, he gets me. “Softly as I leave you” just kills me, for example. “There used to be a ballpark.”

        But he was mobbed up, a thug, and a creep by all accounts—my Dad poisoned me against him to some extent, but I was the opposite of a fan.

          • My theory about popular culture is that if it reaches the stage where it genuinely qualifies as near consensus that something or someone is wonderful, you have to concede that you’re missing something. This is a point critics have to accept. If you are the only one who hates Hamilton, or Pulp Fiction, or Casablanca, or The Beatles, or Fred Astaire, it’s your problem, and to some extent your opinion is irrelevant. You are welcome to it, but it’s like not liking ice cream or a good steak. I’ve listened to all the post-Bing crooners, and Frank had the worst voice of the lot, except for Vaughn Monroe. Tony Bennett, when he was young, could sing him through the wall. But the great ones had the X factor, and it’s a mystery. Frank had it, clearly. You and I just can’t receive the signals.

  1. Very timely Jack,

    I recently left a city sponsored neighborhood meeting in a huff because of this issue.

    I tried to explain to the group that a proposed measure by our city council in Hagerstown, MD would effectively allow the government to circumvent 4th amendment protections for renters that chose not to permit city officials, under the guise of protecting their health and safety, from entering their homes.

    I was told that “good landlords would have no problem with this law”. I immediately stood up an told them such rhetoric is designed to make people cower to the will of the unaffected and stormed out. I am really getting worried that events like these are affecting me to the point that I cannot civilly engage those who want government to absolve them of any personal responsibility for their own well being.

    Under the proposed ordinance the landlord would be required to obtain an administrative warrant to allow city personnel to gain access to an occupied home for the purpose of inspection. Failure to comply would result in the landlord being subject to a revocation of the rental license and a $500 reinstatement fee.

    Current law requires city inspectors to review the property during turnover but never more than once every 48 months. The new law would require inspections of occupied properties every 3 years.

    Nothing stops a renter from inviting an inspector in now if they want the city to assist them correct code violations.

    When the issue was discussed at the council meeting this past Tuesday, a council member who is a local defense attorney and been on the council for 7 terms began with something to the effect that any warrants issued would need to be voted on by the council so that city personnel would not go willy- nilly seeking entry warrants. What an idiot. Not only did he not see the blatant 4th amendment abuse, he showed how he can politicize the enforcement of local ordinances.

    When it was my turn to speak, I regrettably lost my composure and lambasted the council for its ill conceived plans. I also told them that every measure up for proposal will drive quality people out of town. I am in the process of extricating myself from this town.

    Hagerstown MD will become the next Detroit if our city council continues its current path.

    Full disclosure: I own one rental four doors down from my own home. I purchased the property for less than the assessed land value due to the massive distress of the property. I used most of my retirement savings to completely renovate and enlarge the property to help increase the valuations in the neighborhood. After 15 months of sweat equity I got my occupancy permit but could not get a buyer so I became a landlord by default. Despite increasing county wide demand and rising prices for existing homes demand for city properties has not grown due to escalating tax rates, ineffective economic development programs and an almost a Seattle-like affinity to help the transients with their addictions and myriad other issues .

    They just raised real property rates 5 cents per hundred on rental properties and 3 cents/hundred on owner occupied homes. They also jacked up the business property tax 8 cents/hundred. It is not lost on me that 2 of the council member’s businesses are located in the county and not subject to the new taxes.

  2. When I was in grad school, my teacher was talking about a theory among scholars about ancient writing styles (pretty boring I know). We were required to do all the reading before class started so we could participate in a discussion. The teacher talked about it quite positively and passionately and all the other students agreed. I said nothing. I thought it was garbage and hard to be wrong, however since no one was saying anything negative about it, I started to think that I was wrong.

    Finally, the teacher concludes “I’m about 30% convinced this is a real thing.” All the students were were agreeing started to frown and got quiet. The next class, while discussing a similar topic at least 3 different students (in a class of 6) brought up the previous subject saying negative things about it.

    Three things I learned from this lesson:
    I was too chicken to stand up for what I believed was the right opinion because I was worried about what others thought of mine.

    The group was quick to accept the opinion as fact because the way it was presented to the teacher.

    There changed not because the evidence presented, but because of the opinion of the teacher.

    I’m not sure I could say one is better than the other but that they were all terrible. This is what groupthink does to people.

    Bill Mahar did something a while ago where invited 4 people (three Democrats and 1 Republican) to talk about a quote. He told them it was from a Republican, but then after they discussed it, he told them it was really from Michelle Obama. How quickly they all shifted. It shouldn’t have mattered who said it.

    An idea, fact, or thought, should stand on its own merit, not on who said it.

  3. There can be consequences for not going along in the name of unity. Stephen Jimenez learned the hard way as an author that writing a book questioning the narrative of Matthew Shepard as a hate crime rather than a drug related crime got him booted out of the “LGBT community” and his work has basically dried up since. A local bookstore shelves conservative black authors in the Fascism section confusing buyers by purposefully misrepresenting their stances against socialism. When my wife and I told a friend we didn’t vote for Hilary Clinton, she literally walked out on us.

    Telling the truth or at least exposing aspects of an event or situation previously undisclosed can be a lonely thing and worse can cost livelihood and relationships. It’s worse if there’s a perceived threat of such honesty causing disunity and “hurting” the group. Obedience to an ideology embraced by a mass or even just “your people” feels like safety and indeed it may sometimes be…until it isn’t.

    From Vaclav Havel’s Power of the Powerless:
    “The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals?”

    “That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.”

  4. I find it helps somewhat in resisting the effects of groupthink if one builds a self-image as a wet blanket. You can start by picturing yourself as a PhD listening to a student defend their thesis. “I am ruthless, I am a stickler for details, and the onus is on them to establish they know what they are talking about and to make what they’re saying make sense to me.” It’s a very important skill.

    The easiest way to break down a point of view is to learn as much as you can about it and ask people to explain the parts that you don’t understand. “Where’d You Get That Idea?” is a very important question. It takes some skill in spotting logical leaps, but if you can get people to look closely enough at the seams, they’ll spot the thread, and they will themselves be undone.

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