Here is an example of a phenomenon that has long puzzled me: Nasty in-group fighting. In The Rise of Neo-Kantianism, Klaus Christian Köhnke asks:
What can “explain one of the most distressing features of the neo-Kantians: the fierceness and bitterness of their polemics, the nastiness of their ad hominem arguments, which destroyed personal friendships and decent collegial relations? Heinrich Rickert (Heidelberg) wrote to Paul Natorp (Marburg): ‘Just because we critical idealists agree on fundamentals, we have to take the knives to each other” (Cambridge University Press 1991, p. x).
It’s easier to understand demonizing the far opposition, i.e., those whose beliefs and values are alien to your own. But it’s harder to understand demonizing those with whom you agree on 99% of key issues. Why does the 1% disagreement drive some to paroxysms of anger, bitter infighting, and denunciation?
The infighting dynamic crops up in a variety of types of movements across history — political movements (e.g., the Marxists), educational (e.g., the Montessorians), architectural (e.g., Frank Lloyd Wright’s followers), philosophical (e.g., Objectivists), semi-scientific (e.g., Freudians), and of course most religious movements.
Heinrich Rickert above stated it as an imperative: The closer the agreement, the worse the fighting. Why is that so?
* Is it that we expect or hope for more from those close to us, so disagreements are more crushingly disappointing?
* Is it that those close to us have more power to hurt us, so disagreements lead to defensive over-reactions?
* Is it that movements are social, so disagreements are opportunities for in-group status advancement or for signaling one’s status and alliances?
I can understand the phenomenon more easily within systems that have strong faith-and-authority epistemological traditions. Such groups do not make reasoning and healthy argument habitual, so it makes sense that their members would not be able to handle questioning and disagreement well.
But that makes more puzzling the in-fighting among rational belief systems, i.e., those that explicitly identify and urge productive argument and discovery skills. In those groups, is the descent to nastiness simply a failure of character? Or are there strong psychological and social-psychological dispositions that even rational belief systems have a hard time overcoming? Or is the initial impression of great amounts of infighting distorted — that actually most of the group’s members handle the disagreements productively and in proportion, while only a few noisy participants drown them out and drag down the discussion?
A related question about leadership: Does a movement’s leader typically contribute to the in-fighting problem, or do the followers do it all by and to themselves?
One datum: In discussing Freud’s fractious movement, Howard Gardner tells this sad anecdote:
“Less happily, their involvements with Freud proved costly for some individuals, particularly those who had broken with him. Freud’s young protege Victor Tausk, despondent over his recent rupture with the unforgiving Freud, committed suicide; of the earlier followers, at least six others ultimately did the same. These facts represent our first evidence of the casualties that tend to befall those within the orbit of highly creative individuals” (Creating Minds, p. 82).
But I was struck by this contrasting datum about Frank Lloyd Wright’s circle, as recalled by Ayn Rand after a visit:
“She long remembered her indignation over the attitude of hero worship and servitude that Wright was famous for instilling in his ‘Fellowship,’ made up of tuition-paying students. They cooked, served meals, and cleaned. They ate at tables set a step or two below the dais on which Wright and his guests and family dined, and they consumed a plainer diet. Their drawings, she noted, were undistinguished and imitative of Wright. ‘What was tragic was that he didn’t want any of that,’ Rand told a friend in 1961. ‘He was trying to get intellectual independence [out of] them during the general discussions, but he didn’t get anything except ‘Yes, sir’ or ‘No, sir’ and recitals of formulas from his writing.’ She compared them to medieval serfs” (Anne Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made, pp. 169-170). And of course some of Rand’s followers have behaved that way too.
Nietzsche said that one must always forgive an intellectual his first generation of followers. It seems a sorry truth of history that those who grow up directly in the shadow of a genius have special difficulties with becoming independent.
About justifiable, virtuous anger, Aristotle stated the ideal best — to be able to “feel anger on the right grounds and against the right persons, and also in the right manner and at the right moment and for the right length of time” (Nicomachean Ethics 4.5, 1125b 31). That is indeed the challenge.