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My Own Herd Instinct


I’ve been watching my own herd instinct, my lemming logic: how I take up what Alfred Webre calls a “meme”: a catchword, buzz, or piece of “conventional wisdom,” and run with it.

Very often this “buzz” is negative: “Down with so-and-so.”

I notice how much I enjoy the feeling of being right or, even more, self-righteousness. It’s very satisfying. I’ve accomplished something. Doing something positive or constructive takes time and energy. But just tearing something down, why, I can do that in an instant.

If you sat in my chair, this is what you would be looking at.

Lining up behind a meme wins me membership in a group. Instant fellowship and fellow-feeling. And appreciation. I’ve put my neck on the line.

But I also notice that the feeling is fleeting. It doesn’t leave me with a long-lasting sense of accomplishment and it doesn’t leave me feeling like I’ve really done something enduring.

If I watch over time, I notice that, after a while, I build a character based on this same negativity and protest. Over a very long time – the benefit of being an older person – well, I notice a coralization set in, a calcification, a kind of osteoporosis of the mind. Oh my God, I’ve become trapped in this nasty way of being. Oh my heavens, I’ve become one of those nattering old $$$$ I so much avoid. Oh gosh, listen to me. I feel like crying.

Is this what I’ve become?

Hey, I grew up a hippy. I tore through one marriage, ripping it apart with free love and a lack of commitment. I willingly gave up developing any kind of self-monitoring eye or voice of conscience. Let it all hang out, baby. Wus happening, man?

God took a hippy and made him an adjudicator.

It took eight years of listening to men and women from really ugly countries describing being raped and tortured to get how really shallow I’d become.  That’s when the change came. I can remember the moments. The stereotypically blonde and blue-eyed Russian woman drugged and used as a sex slave by the Chechen mafia, who seemed, according to her testimony, to be getting back at Russia. The Rwandan man who dissociated in my hearing room describing seeing his father’s head on a stake. The Jewish couple from Kiev who were fleeing death at the hands of the militia, whom my colleague would not accept and whom I overruled. I wanted to scream every time I had a shallow thought. My own triviality condemned me.

I could have made her decision after half an hour, but I let her tell the whole story because I knew she needed listening. It was a ritual. She needed to tell her whole tale once and have somebody hear her. And hearing her was part of the job.

I can’t be trivial any more. I can’t listen to mindless negativity. I can’t latch on to memes and give away my brain to the herd mentality. I owe it to these people. Their faces haunt me.

We don’t face these conditions at home, not most of us. Very few of us have had the privilege – yes,  privilege – of sitting in that seat of judgment and listening to the rest of the world describe first hand their torture and persecution. I am very much aware that their lives were in my hands and that is not a trivial circumstance.

I can’t be shallow any more.

Life has consequences. It matters. It means something.

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