“Demagoguery is an appeal to people that plays on their emotions and prejudices rather than on their rational side. Demagoguery is a manipulative approach - often associated with dictators and sleazy politicians - that appeals to the worst nature of people.”

Definition from vocabulary.com

There is a strange poignancy about seeing the US mid-term elections unfold just days before such a significant anniversary of remembrance. We have on display both present and past examples of human susceptibility to demagoguery, demonstrating its immense power over individual self-determination. 

Throughout history there have been, and still are in abundance, those who can whip up crowd fever. Its appeal to the herd instinct can overcome both common sense and intelligence and the results can be devastating, as we have seen time and again in the 20th century. 

In this commentary we explore this fundamental weakness in our human psyche, and ask if anything can help us moderate it.

I remember attending a rock concert featuring ‘The Who’ in 1968 on the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada. They had developed a routine of smashing their instruments on stage in order to whip their audience into a frenzy of excitement. I found the combination of wanton destruction and crowd hysteria both sickening and frightening and walked out of the event.

However it gave me an early experience of what charisma can do for the human condition. It was like a powerful dose of narcotics, resulting in a huge mass of people losing control of their common sense.

Politicians and dictators alike have recognised this phenomena and have used it mercilessly to work up the masses. Of course Hitler was one of the worst: how was it possible that so many people in Germany could have been taken in by this beast? People who are naturally some of the most courteous and sensible in the world, resulting in conflict in which millions of people lost their lives?

In his address for the Remembrance Day service from Royal Hospital Chelsea, Bishop Richard Chartres referred to Norman Angell’s 1909 book ‘The Great Illusion’ which claimed that war was economically and socially irrational, and that war between industrial countries was futile because conquest did not pay. Just five years later the onset of the Great War proved that rationality is not the determinant for war: there is something deep in the collective human psyche that takes hold, like a fever.

Both on the left and right of politics, and both overseas and in the United Kingdom, we can see this marshalling of the herd, almost tribal, mentality still at work: whether in youth adulation of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent election, or in the appeal of Nigel Farage in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

And now in the US mid-terms, we see the great demagogue of our time, Donald Trump, clinically targeting those extra Senate seats with his mass hysteria, rabble-rousing, events so that he had some sort of victory to claim: notwithstanding the overall displeasure with his rule which simultaneously showed through his loss of control in the House of Representatives.

This is not just small town America: it is a genetic weakness which runs through us all, and all of the evidence shows that it is getting more rather than less prevalent.

Some thought that the liberation of the internet without any central control would enable individual free will to flourish, but at present we are seeing mainly exploitation of social media by the few in order to marshal the many; and the onset of Artificial Intelligence could make it a lot worse.

We do need that international rules-based order to which national security adviser Sir Mark Lyall Grant referred recently and, as Archbishop Justin said in the Remembrance service at Westminster Abbey, guided by the lessons of the past 100 years: but we also need to cherish individual freedom. On 14th May this commentary focused on the power of patronage - the way that people of power and influence seek to impose their will on others, for better or for worse. It called for a world in which people can take control of their own individual destiny, but with a deep respect for others: and a desire to empower others to take control of their own lives also.

The French Revolution developed the great rallying cry of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ – freedom, equality and care for others - and these take us a long way forward in producing a decent society. But there is one further quality to seek: individuality. Without this, the others can so easily be marshalled into ‘what’s best for the masses’, and that’s how so many disasters have begun in human history. And not just in politics: even religion is not immune, resulting in terrible atrocities like the Inquisition in the Middle Ages or modern day ethnic cleansing - not to speak of the current case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan.

Each human being is individually inspired, as Antione de Ste. Exupéry wrote in the deeply moving epilogue of his book ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’: “Only the Spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create man”. [in a gender-neutral sense, of course]. Each of us has our own relationship with the divine, recognised or unrecognised, and we steer our own individual destinies through life.

So ‘Each to their own’ is an attitude to be cherished in the respect we should show for others and, when we set checks and balances to limit the damage that tyrants can do, we should not just set these in a pooled environment but for individuals - to protect them against oppression.

One of the panellists on the BBC’s question Time last Thursday evening was Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor of psychology from the University of Toronto. He’s been studying ‘authoritarianism on the right and the left’ for the past 35 years. I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, ‘Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief’, in which he explores how ideologies hi-jack language and belief; however we clearly need this sort of analysis if we are ever to address the human weakness we experience when faced with demagoguery. We need to do that before Artificial Intelligence takes too deep a hold and gives still more tools to the tyrant.

In the meantime, in this season of remembrance, it’s important not only to ask why it happens but also to express our individual sorrow for the human cost to so many families who have suffered as a result.


Gavin Oldham

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