In his book, The True Believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements, Hoffer described how mass movements function through the suppression of individuality and independent thought. People who are unsatisfied with the present are brought together by an ideology that promises a better future. There are many mechanisms for bonding them into an effective whole: and one of those mechanisms is hate.
I was reminded of this when I read that a preacher in Arizona is praying – and encouraging his flock to pray – for the death of President Barack Obama. According to a report by Americans United:
The Rev. Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist Church told his Tempe, Ariz., congregation he prays that Obama “dies and goes to hell.” In an Aug. 16 sermon that recently came to public attention, Anderson said, “If you want to know how I’d like to see Obama die, I’d like him to die of natural causes. I don’t want him to be a martyr, we don’t need another holiday. I’d like to see him die, like Ted Kennedy, of brain cancer.”
The racism is overt. The hate is painfully evident. The exact political agenda may be inferred but is, perhaps deliberately, less clear.
Anderson’s hate speech has been widely condemned. But it’s wrong to see it as an aberration. We might more properly view it as the violent eruption of a force that powers many mass movements.
Hoffer’s definition of ‘mass movements’ is fairly broad. The book was published in 1951, and so the horrors of European fascism – particularly the Nazis – and Japanese imperialism were fresh in the memory. Stalin was still in power. He delves further back, too, making frequent references, for example, to the French revolution. And he places religions – especially those of an evangelical or fundamentalist flavour – firmly alongside these other totalitarian and oppressive regimes. “The hammer and sickle and the swastika,” he wrote, “are in a class with the cross.”
The reasons for joining a movement are many, but commonly involve a conviction that the world as it stands is unbearably flawed. People who feel this way are, to use Hoffer’s term, the ‘frustrated’. They have no hope for the present. By joining a mass movement, they are able to slough off their unworthy selves, rid themselves of feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing, and find a new self-worth in the ambitions of a movement that promises a brighter future.
What the movement tells them is that change is required and cannot be achieved by gradual means. It requires a coup, a revolution, a jihad, mass exterminations, mass conversions, the absorption of all others into the corporate body, or perhaps a Second Coming. The movements’ leaders promise a hopeful future, often to be achieved by violent means: Christ, after all, claimed that the Apocalypse was at hand. (As it turned out, he was wrong – it’s been ‘at hand’ for two millennia now).
For the movement to be effective, its members must be united into a single entity: individual thought and action are destructive. Hoffer says of a movement’s members:
By renouncing individual will, judgment and ambition, and dedicating all their powers to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment.
Hoffer lists a number of unifying agents of which the most powerful is hatred. This, Hoffer says, “springs more from self-contempt than from a legitimate grievance … That others have a just grievance against us is a more potent reason for hating them than that we have a just grievance against them.”
This is all more subtle than it sounds. For a start, the self-contempt may be effectively disguised. A convert who rejoices in the glory of the faith – a faith that may (consciously, at least, if not truthfully) preach peace and love – may not stop to think of what is at the root of their abnegation, of their surrendering to the cause. Sin, Hoffer insists, is a key concept in all mass movements. Indeed, George Orwell pointed out that the imposition of rules so strict (and often vague) that one is bound to break some of them is a key characteristic of the totalitarian regime.
Identification with the movement is important if one is to enjoy its status and benefits – including self-approbation. Members sacrifice themselves to the cause and, says Hoffer, “The act of self-denial seems to confer on us the right to be harsh and merciless toward others … the surrendering and humbling of the self breed pride and arrogance”.
Once we give ourselves up to the corporate body, we are also freed of personal responsibility. And this is how a political movement or a church is able to generate, harness and focus hatred.
Any violence which does not spring from a firm, spiritual base, will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook.
— Adolf Hitler
Hate may take many forms. It might be the Rev Anderson’s frothing outburst of cretinous bigotry. Or it might come wrapped in smiles and charity, but be driven nonetheless by a deep conviction that if you are not part of the movement you are in some way ‘wrong’ and must be changed, whether you like it or not.