The group dynamics of activism are predictable, but rarely dull!

An incident I don't want to blog about has reminded me of the dangers of the phenomenon of the agitated "choir." When activists get together, what starts as a chorus of agreement can escalate to the encouragement of obnoxious, even illegal behavior. Activists compete with each other, and sooner or later someone -- perhaps an agent provocateur -- will do something extreme or stupid or violent, and then he'll be cheered on, and the result becomes a victory for the other side.

The reason I put the word "choir" in quotes is that what starts as a choir of activists tends to turn into something else:

I am hardly alone in noticing that like-minded, single-issue activists often associate with -- and tend to exclusively surround themselves with -- other like-minded, single-issue activists. The result is what many call an echo chamber -- or "the choir." But I think "echo chamber" and "choir" are less than accurate terms, because the implication is that people are simply getting together and agreeing with each other in groups. When group dynamics are factored into single issue fanaticism, a lot more happens than mere group agreement. Because people are naturally competitive, many activists want to prove to the group that they are not only devoted to the cause, but more devoted than the others. This leads to extreme hyperbole, and the taking of positions which normal people would consider laughable.
It's easy to understand the mechanism; after all, what could be more boring than an echo chamber of people sitting around agreeing with each other? Someone always has to liven things up, and tell people that they really aren't doing enough, that their positions are too moderate! Voices of reason are ridiculed or deemed suspect, rhetoric is ramped up, and things can go beyond merely taking positions normal people would consider laughable.

And I don't mean group hugs.

posted by Eric on 10.26.10 at 11:18 AM


Nice article. The tendency of a homogeneous group to move towards extremism is well known. I'd welcome your observations and examples to illustrate the effect, perhaps starting with departments in the humanities at many colleges.

CBI   ·  October 26, 2010 1:22 PM

Academic activists are a good example, and I'm pretty sure I have covered them at one time or another. So are union activists, anti-pornography activists, animal rights activists, environmentalist activists, gay activists, anti-gay activists, Islamist activists, birther activists, MADD activists, 911 Truther activists, feminist activists, Code Pink activists. I've had posts about all of them and more over these past seven years.

By now I probably need a category.

Eric Scheie   ·  October 26, 2010 1:36 PM

Yeah, I remember now. I guess I was preaching to the choir. :-)

CBI   ·  October 26, 2010 1:42 PM

If you all are thinking about the alleged assautl of the "activist" at a Rand Paul rally in Kentucky, please be real suspicious, that story doesnt pass the smell test. Like Althouse, I think the alleged assault was staged by the folks themselves, to try to discredit the Rand Paul campaign.

Daniel Fielding Smith   ·  October 26, 2010 4:29 PM

The man has been identified as Tim Profitt -- a Rand Paul activist:

Ann Althouse has updated, and gives this link:

(Please remember that I didn't blog about it, though. This is only a comment.)

Eric Scheie   ·  October 26, 2010 4:37 PM

That same 'echo chamber effect' was, I believe, the reason for that little global warming video that so many were blogging about. THEY found it funny.

Actually, after a few views, I found the last scene funny in a sort of ironic way (When Gillian Anderson gets blown up because of thinking talking about it on air was doing her part.) That being exactly what the skeptic side complains about ('Greens' flying all over the place to conferences, etc.)

No pressure when you're in an echo chamber, baby. None at all. (I've been in a few...sigh.) I don't echo well.

You'll notice I completely avoided the subject you aren't bloggin about.

Kathy Kinsley   ·  October 26, 2010 6:47 PM

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