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The Regulating Group‑Mind by Prof John McMurtry – Sage Encyclopedia of Case Study Research

Can also be found with references at:  pp. 790-794

What do the following phenomena have in common – the Pushtan honor code, the Spanish Inquisition, female genital mutilation, and academic mobbing? They variously express the value syntax of the regulating or ruling group mind (RGM). The RGM is a discrete structure of thinking which underlies diverse levels of collectively life-destructive behavior which are otherwise anomalous and unconnected – from such practices as the above to caging harmless offenders to normalized regimes of exogenous homicide. The RGM mechanism may be understood as the direct opposite of conscious social organization for the life security of members. Unrestricted to any culture or period, the RGM is recognized and defined by an always distinguishing set of generic properties: (i) life-blind and destructive behaviors at micro or macro levels on the basis of (ii) a ruling set of group presuppositions which (iii) frame social ideation and communication to (iv) select only for what confirms them and (v) invalidate what does not to (vi) generate stereotypes and myths as replacement standards which (vii) reinforce and confer claims of the group’s superiority in virtue of its inherent moral order which is conceived as (viii) equivalent to laws of Nature, God or Reason which (ix) only malicious or less-than-human enemies reject who (x) are therefore warred upon in with-us-or-against us campaigns to impose the group’s ruling value program. While this set of characteristics is diversely expressed and admits of degrees of rigidity and extreme, the RGM is a unitary mechanism whose interlocking operations constitute (xi) a ruling mind-set of the mutual understanding of members and self-identity. While RGM formations are invariably confused with beneficial social order, these locked and life-destructive regulators mark it as pathological.

What distinguishes the RGM from early comprehensions of the “group mind” (Le Bon, 1895), MacDougall (1920) and Freud (1959) is that these conceptualizations confine their referent to crowds. Crowds are unorganized and volatile phenomena which exhibit RGM properties only inchoately. While Freud seeks an underlying order to “the group mind” of crowds as prototype social orders, he reverts to an ancient myth of the primal horde’s murder of the clan-father as an originary group crime which leads to social organization for collective self-protection (“civilization”). Freud, as others, conflates opposite forms of collective ordering with no distinction between those properties providing for mutual life protection and those life-blindly disposed by the RGM mechanism.

The later micro-concept of “groupthink” associated with the work of Irving L. Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions (1972) identifies an elite-group dysfunction within a larger society. Janis’s model refers to a decision process by a small, isolated group of homogenous and cohesive members in a stress situation which fails operationally (his case study being the National Security Council’s decisions on the U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba). While there are common operations at work here – a-priori moral certitude of cause, stereotyping of opposition, and rationalization of disastrous consequences – the “groupthink” of an elite committee whose plans are known to have failed does not penetrate the deeper RGM mechanism which joins leaders and followers by built-in assumptions which can be identified beforehand as structured to harm life and to block out corrective feedback.  The RGM mechanism can indeed hold even across class and cultural divisions – accepting the world as rightly ruled, for example, by the autonomous and higher necessity of man-made constructs conceived as laws of nature to which continuous life sacrifices are made to ensure compliance with its order. The top-level, secret and ultimately failed decisions which Janis and co-researchers examine can be understood as expressions of such a wider group-mind mechanism – with this or other criminal aggressions under international law widely supported as right and moral despite countless deaths, vast resource wastage and infrastructural destructions. Janis’s model itself symptomises the problem of the RGM by selecting for case study only top-end backroom planning which has operationally failed.

RGM analysis applies most obviously to cases of cultural insanity which do not otherwise make sense, but more interestingly applies to conventions and practices assumed as good and  normal. The RGM mechanism is most dramatically demonstrated in sustained and well-organized collective behaviors which are rationally incoherent as well as serially homicidal. Exactly administered witch-hunts systematically pursuing and destroying countless people over centuries in the name of “purging evil superstitions” and “saving the innocent” ( as in the ecclesiastical handbook Malleus Malficorum which was applied from 1446 to1669) are a paradigm case. Genocides under covers of “defence” against monstrous enemies, enslavements of peoples as uplifting them in the name of “civilization”, enforced subjugation of women to beast-of-burden status as “natural” or “God’s will”, and sacrifice of environments and countless millions of people to “modernization drives” all exhibit RGM operations (1) to (11). These wide variations of expression, however, conceal the common mechanism at work across levels of phenomena – from militantly parochial “do-or-die” battles between groups distinguished only by different colors to Communist-Party China’s genocidal occupation of Tibet as a nationally understood campaign of misunderstood virtue. The collective mind-lock is fastidiously tracked in the modern scientific labelling of “the disease entity of syphilis” in which to quote Fleck “(1) A contradiction to the system seems unthinkable; (2) What does not fit into the system remains unseen; (3) Alternatively, it is noticed, either it is kept secret; or (4) labourious efforts are made to explain an exception in terms that do not contradict the system. (5) Despite the legitimate claims of contradictory views, one tends to see, describe, or even illustrate these circumstances which corroborate current views and thereby give them substance” (Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, 1929/1979, p. 27). In overview, there is no a-priori limit on where the RGM disorder can form and reproduce in a manner not explanatorily reducible to functional or material-interest accounts. While the blocking and rationalization operations at work within modern science and its “paradigms” have been studied in depth since Fleck’s work (in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962 and its successor literatures), only scientific cases are considered and are cordoned off from other operations of the RGM mechanism and its wider life-destructive expressions. Fleck himself lived in Nazi Germany, but made no connection of his study or its principles to the Nazi interregnum in which the RGM mechanism was paradigmatically expressed.

Evolutionary supercession of an RGM structure in the long term (abolition of the slave trade, equal rights of women, war criminal law) may be understood at the highest level of abstraction as step-by-step processes of ruling out RGM operations – reframing social ideation and communication to recognize the  harms rather than deny them, demonstrating the false nature of myths and regulating stereotypes sustaining the mechanism, recognizing the defeasibility of the structures of oppression formerly assumed as lawlike, and otherwise detecting and de-normalizing RGM behaviors. What has been lacking to case-study research is the well-defined generic RGM mechanism to provide an explanatory map of unifying operations across cases. RGM disorders and counter-movements to them can often he traced to “deciding moments” of their emergence or their rejection. Just as the Nazi rise to power can be usefully located in the February 27 1933 Reichstag fire and its pretext for national emergency legislation acceptable to the public (originally claimed necessary to crush a falsely alleged “communist plot”), so, conversely, the London meeting in May 22, 1787 of 12 Quakers adopting the cause of abolition of slavery might be seen as the initiating moment of the eventual end of this global-market free trade decades later. RGM mechanisms die hard, almost like a rewiring of an instinctual repertoire to which people have become collectively habituated. Yet there are countless examples of such emancipations from a formerly reigning syntax of the life-blind group mind – among them, the adoption over centuries of non-bleeding, anti-bacterial and empirically-led methods by persisting isolated physicians in the face of life-sacrificing medical establishments decrying their deviations; the June 1971 release of the classified “Pentagon papers” revealing accepted official lies in the US invasion of Vietnam; or, more recently, releases of cigarette corporation documents showing the morbidity and death effects of this major-revenue product in the face of decades of RGM operations. What may appear as unbelievably vicious to a critical standpoint is always assumed by RGM participants as, on the contrary, necessary and virtuous. Only understanding of the mechanism enables research to confirm or disconfirm its pathological hold in any case.

With electronic information pools available in nano-seconds, case studies of the RGM mechanism have unprecedentedly rich and available data bases to draw from, but understanding of its phenomena is blocked by the mechanism’s operations themselves. Closure to relevant questions, evidence, arguments or positions by group assumptions indicates the mechanism at a preliminary level, but apparently normal judgements may be RGM-closed with no-one noticing anything amiss within the group thought-system. No-one that we know, for example, flagged the RGM phenomenon of centuries-long certitude about the “discovery of America” although millions of people had lived and explored its continent over tens of thousands of years before this “discovery”. The underlying assumption that only Europeans are human beings remained undetected, as well as the RGM operations building on this regulating premise of understanding. Because this set-point of meaning and value was firmly ensconced from the first contact on, no problem could be perceived in the systematic murder and genocide of first peoples. The humanity of the victims was blocked out – a defining operation of the RGM. Killing the aboriginals and their way of life is consequently conceived as a “triumph of civilization”. Opposition is mocked or demonized. And so on. RGM operations are systematically interconnected.

Cases of sexism, homophobia, ethnic and national hatreds variously express the same generic mechanism, as testing through any will show. If any does not qualify under RGM criteria, then there is reason to question the application of labels of “racist”, “sexist”, or “anti-semitic”. RGM criteria impartially identify the invisible lines of the regulating prejudices, providing the criterial litmus test across conflicts and issues which is oterwise missing as a diagnostic tool. Wherever research discovers any framework of judgement which bonds in life-blind and exclusionary identifications, blocks out contra-indicative facts as heretical, and generates myths of moral superiority and sub-human others, the RGM mechanism is confirmed, however militant in certitude the thought-system is in the surrounding culture. Virulent “anti-communism” was long such a RGM phenomenon in Western societies, with the motto “better dead than Red” echoing “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” of an era before. With each destruction of a designated Enemy, another can take its place without diagnostic recognition. Thus after 1991 and the fall of the “Evil Empire”, the same generic RGM operations re-appeared in a different form. The post-2001 official “War Against Terrorism” follows the RGM pattern, with the targets more omnipresent than before – including demonstrators against international trade-and-investment treaties who block official limousines or even individuals resisting confiscation of their water bottles in flight travel. An interesting case for study in the third millennium has been the official conspiracy theory of  the September 11, 2001 atrocity itself which has led to this “war without end against terrorism” and exhibited all the hallmark characteristics of the RGM mechanism. Armed invasions and occupations bombing civilian populations and infrastructures in poor third-world countries, selection of facts to suit the ruling story and exclusion of facts which do not, stereotypes and myths replacing impartial standards of truth and moral judgement, presupposition of the overriding goodness of the cause, and mounting destruction of domestic lives and resources are again the observable symptoms of the mechanism (McMurtry, 2002, 2007). When known laws of physics and jurisprudence are screened out, including the melting temperature of steel, the first question of forensic justice (cui bono?), and all contra-indicative evidence to the official story (Griffin,    ),  we find further confirmation of RGM operations. In observable manifestation of the mechanism, independent scrutiny is blocked out of the given circuits of acceptable meaning, critics of the official understanding are identified as sympathizers with the enemy or deluded, while cumulative harm to human lives and life conditions proceeds as obligatory and high-minded. Beneath dramatic variations of expression, the RGM mechanism is the unifying explanatory constant across the events and the visibly warring sides in mirror-opposite operations. Throughout, confirmation or disconfirmation of the RGM in this or other cases is testable and revisable by application of criteria (i) to (xi).

Other explanatory frameworks are, in contrast, unable in principle to identify the operant mechanism. For example, explanation by “the economic base” cannot by definition explain anti-economic group phenomena, and rejects diagnosis by internal regulators. On the other hand, Antonio Gramsci’s concept of a “social hegemony” cannot explain the RGM disorder because it is not grounded in the prestige of a productive class, but rather the opposite. Pierre Bordieu’s collective concept of “habitus”, in turn, cannot identify the mechanism because “habitus” is rooted in a specific practice or a locale and is not characterized by a syntax of delusion. Psychoanalysis seems the most promising method of case study here, but it can neither empirically track nor explain the RGM phenomenon because it is not a disorder of the individual psyche nor identifiable by any existing tool of the psychological or social sciences.

The RGM may ultimately be understood as a mechanism of group reproduction resembling the primeval repertoire of a troop animal, but vulnerable to the development of social intelligence. Its compelling attraction is the proclivity of human groups to conceive their own order as ordained by higher forces and sanctified by subjugation of all who do not conform as a bond of group solidarity.


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