The Group

Malcolm Gladwell, in whimsical vein, writes in The New Yorker about the non-obvious connection between comedy-writing teams and groups that stimulate and encourage the creation of philosophy, psychoanalysis, art, ideas. He takes off from a book about the people who created the American tv show ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and then brings in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, about the group of thinkers and inventors around Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley in late 18th century Birmingham. Gladwell points out that one feature of group dynamics is that friends can encourage and provoke each other to take more extreme positions than they would on their own, and that this is generally considered a bad thing. “But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation.”

Surely he’s right, and group-think is yet another example of those tiresome, difficult, annoying phenomena where one has to say ‘Yes but’ all the time. Some of this but some of that; can be good but can also be bad; half full or half empty. Such things make it so difficult to generalise. There are groups like Aryan Nation and the National Front, and then there are groups like Monty Python or the circle around Emerson or the people who used to meet for dinner chez Magny in Paris in the 19th century. Groups of friends can encourage and embolden useful or beautiful new ideas, or vicious ugly ones. Moderation can be closer to truth or it can be just the tame conformist compromise that gets us nowhere. Extremism can be loony and absurd and futile, or it can reveal ideas and problems and solutions we need and want. It simply depends, is the boring truth of the matter.

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