In My Own Words: Collective illusions and society

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I recently read an interesting book on the sociology of social theory called “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions” by Todd Rose. I found the book fascinating, especially when it exposed my biases and my inability to see through some societal illusions. Rose’s work is an attempt to help readers understand these “collective illusions” that prevent clear thinking, which are based mostly on faulty ideas or the lack of accurate information in order to make well-informed decisions. This column is too short to go into all his ideas – his book is excellent so I recommend reading it – but when thinking about it, I ended up questioning whether collective illusions could sometimes actually benefit our society. 

Rose calls all collective illusions wrong and, at first, I agreed. We were both thinking about conspiracy theories that make no sense if one were to think rationally about them. The problems of social media are clearly in his mind, especially the way distorted and incorrect information manages to spread far faster than reasoned thought. He notes that people are sometimes afraid to call out wrong ideas because they are afraid they are the only ones to think that way. I can understand that: I sometimes shy away from challenging people on Facebook because I don’t want to start a fight or get called names. (That did happen once when I mentioned that I have a friend who voted for former President Trump in the first election: people were making unfair and wrong assumptions about her based on that vote and I have since been more cautious.)

However, when thinking about all the antisemitism and racism that is currently being expressed, I had a different thought. In the past 10 years, the amount of antisemitism and racism seems to have increased at an enormous speed. Barely a day goes by when Jews aren’t accused of controlling the world or performing horrible actions. Racism now seems acceptable to many people who act as if Blacks are trying to overthrow law and order, and destroy whites and American culture. Liberals have been accused of being part of international pedofile rings that traffic in young children. Congressional representatives spout these same statements and get more publicity than they could ever afford to pay for. Even when they are trashed on social media by those who despise those statements, they are rewarded by even more followers, those who believe someone is finally brave enough to tell what they think is the truth hidden by the liberal media.

Rose and I see this as a bad thing, but is it possible that, in the past, collective illusions were what kept people from expressing those thoughts? Antisemitism and racism didn’t magically appear. People felt this way, but they didn’t feel free to express those thoughts. What changed? They were given permission to publicly admit their biases by people in powerful political positions, who either said something similar or who refused to condemn their comments. Before that, they may have been afraid of repercussions if they said something racist or antisemitic – being ostracized or losing their jobs – while now they are applauded and cheered on by social media and politicians/celebrities who feel the same. Their fears were based on the collective illusion that others didn’t support those ideas; now, they realize others feel the same.

So, are collective illusions always a bad thing? They may not be when they keep society civil. They may not be if they prevent people from expressing hateful and dangerous thoughts. But even better would be to find a way for everyone to understand the truth, or, at least, accept that most people want the same things they do: to not live in poverty, to not live in fear and to find meaning in their life. It would also help if each side of the political and cultural spectrum would give the other the benefit of the doubt, rather than immediately seeing them as enemies to be defeated. Yet, I doubt this is going to happen in our current climate. Too may people on both sides of the issues are talking only to themselves, rather than working for the common good. Writing that phrase – the common good – makes me feel like a broken record. It’s one I’ve used over and over, and will continue to use until people finally understand it. Neither side can create a just and thriving society without the other. Please, we need to work together before our democracy disappears and our society lies in shambles.