Insights: Challenging Group Think

Last night we celebrated our collective achievements for 2023 in a wonderful Presentation Evening. I would like to share a section of the speech that I delivered.

The world since October 7 is a different one. As you, our graduating students, stand at the threshold of a significant transition, I want to share with you some ideas that I hope will help fortify you for the future and particularly for the challenging discourse that dominates contemporary tertiary education. As many of you will soon be attending university, I wish to challenge you to maintain the critical thinking dispositions that we have nurtured in you.

It is my view that the failings that many noticed in the tertiary sector prior to October 7, have now become impossible to ignore. I hope that the ideas I will share with you help you to stand firm in the place of the group think and anti-intellectualism that have overtaken what should be places of deep learning.

Earlier this year I had the great privilege of hearing Rabbi Donniel Hartman who was brought to Melbourne by the Zionist Federation of Australia. Rabbi Hartman described the golden age of Jewish thought as being during the time when Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai shared the same Beit Midrash – a house of study. Hartman explained that these two rabbis argued about everything. They never saw eye to eye. There were always two schools of thought, when one said “a” the other said “b”. They would try to convince each other but they were both equally stubborn and intransigent.

The story goes that after they had spent three years arguing over a particular interpretation, God intervened. A voice came forth from heaven and said “these and these are the words of the Living God … but the law follows Hillel.”

These and these are the words of the living God. How? What does this mean?

Hartman takes it to mean that there is merit in the argument, in listening to the ideas of others. Even though Shammai was wrong in his interpretation, God designates his words as holy. These are still the words of the living god.

Rabbi Hartman explains that in Judaism, debate is blessed. It honours the Torah to engage with the subject matter. The problem he presents in contemporary society is that we tend to avoid debate and exposure to ideas that we do not like. We follow news sites that match our world view and unfollow those who disagree.

Rabbi Hartman is not saying that anything goes. There are some extreme ideas that are reprehensible and should not be countenanced.

We have experienced ample examples of this following the Hamas atrocities and the ensuing war where aspects of the media quickly blamed Hamas’s terrorism on Israel and attempted to justify the unjustifiable. The burgeoning antisemitism present on university campuses was as predictable as it was devastating and it was fed by a rashness to shape the conflict into an ill-fitting and binary, colonial template. The quickness to judge without engaging in the nuance was evident.

Rabbi Hartman argues that the binary nature of our thinking in ordinary discourse means that we apply such dichotomies to situations which are far more complex than a division between right and wrong. He also explains that we often group ideas with people – if I don’t like your thinking on this topic, I don’t like you.

Two American academics take this idea further in their analysis of the state of contemporary tertiary institutions. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt posit that universities have become so focused on what they call “safetyism” that it has inhibited student growth and learning. In this model, the students have become accustomed to feeling psychologically unsafe or triggered when exposed to ideas that they disagree with.

Whereas in the past, student groups tended to challenge administrative attempts at censorship, now, it is frequently the students that are demanding the censoring.

Lukianoff and Haidt address what they describe as the three great untruths being taught to contemporary tertiary students.

These are:

1. The Untruth of Fragility – that students need to be protected 2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning – that how something makes you feel emotionally is more important than what is being said; and 3. The Untruth of Us versus Them – that life is divided neatly into good and bad.

The authors provide a plethora of examples where students have been made to feel that they need to be protected from an idea that is anathema to them. Some responses have been to call for texts to be taken off reading lists, or for students to be offered safe spaces to go to so they can avoid being confronted with a troubling idea and to call for universities to disallow speakers who reflect ideas that are deemed unacceptable.

Lukianoff and Haidt also cite numerous examples of tertiary staff who have been disciplined, had classes taken off them and even sacked as a result of expressing views unacceptable to their employers or even for merely facilitating discussion about these views.

They quote Van Jones, Barack Obama’s former green jobs advisor, who in an address to students said the following:

“I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”

The polarisation that is evident in contemporary society seems to create a self-reinforcing cycle of misunderstanding of the other. This, along with the great untruth of Us versus Them, has created an environment where we are likely to speak with people who think like us, read articles from media sources that confirm our world view and follow people on social media who we agree with.

This makes us less prepared to cope when we are confronted with someone who differs in their worldview. The zeitgeist phrase is to describe someone we disagree with as “toxic”. This acts to demonise the other and to essentialise their character in reference to their response to a particular issue.

One of the blessings I have found that has come with life experience is a dilution of my assuredness about most matters. The fact is that to characterise people as either goodies or baddies is reductive, arrogant and very damaging to society.

As I have grown older I have become more accustomed to appreciating nuance, to accepting that we all have elements of hypocrisy and our job is to try to reduce these but also to acknowledge that we cannot eradicate them all.

So as you now prepare yourselves for the next stage of your lives I encourage you to search for the humanity of the other.

Another great untruth which is not addressed in this book is in my view another challenge that exists in contemporary society. I call this – “it’s all about me”. This is a consequence of the growth of the cult of individualism.

In 2017, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks delivered a powerful message on the state of humanity in a TED talk. Rabbi Sacks characterised contemporary western society as worshipping the self and argued that we need to find our way back from the “me” of individualism to the “we” of community.

Rabbi Sacks argued that through curated news loops on social media and an intolerance to ideas that are different to ours we have grown accustomed to seeking people like us and avoiding people not like us. He reminds us that it is people not like us that make us grow.

Rabbi Sacks offered a simple suggestion saying that it might “just change your life and might just help to begin to change the world.” He said we should “Do a search and replace operation on the text of your mind and wherever you encounter the word ‘self’ substitute the word ‘other’. So instead of ‘self help’, ‘other help’. Instead of ‘self esteem’, ‘other esteem’. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for [Rabbi Sacks] is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature – [Psalm 23:4] ‘though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.’ He says we can face any future without fear so long as we know we will not face it alone.”

So Class of 2023. You have been given the blessing of a tremendous education. You have been equipped with strong interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and strong values. You have been imbued with Jewish wisdom and have been encouraged to pursue a range of passions.

Now we hope that you can use these blessings to live meaningful and purposeful lives.

In order to do this I implore you to reject group think, reject the urge to dehumanise the other, embrace the humanity in those who are different. Reject ignorance and reductionism. Learn to love the argument.

And then seek out others. Maintain your tribe, you are so fortunate to have one another. But also cultivate new members. For you can face any future if you are not alone.

Shabbat Shalom,

Marc Light