Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the stupidity of crowds
The authoritarian foundations of cancel culture
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”
If you glance up as you enter the west entrance of Westminster Abbey, you will see a statue of a German pastor and theologian called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His statue is there because Bonhoeffer died a martyr to Christianity when he was executed for speaking out against Hitler and the Nazis and taking part in the German resistance movement against the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 for helping Jews escape to Switzerland. Following his arrest, the Gestapo connected him with a group of high-ranking Nazi officers planning to assassinate Hitler. He was imprisoned, first in Berlin and eventually in Flossenburg concentration camp, where, three weeks before the end of the Second World War, he was executed by hanging (Metaxas, 2020).
The statue of Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Westminster Abbey
Bonhoeffer famously wrote, ‘If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction’ (Bonhoeffer et al., 2017). Unlike many German citizens, Bonhoeffer got off the train. In Letters and Papers from Prison (ibid.), a collection of his writing while he awaited execution, is an essay called ‘On Stupidity’ in which he writes:
Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one, needs the stupidity of the other.
By ‘stupidity’, he wasn’t referring to people’s intellectual capacity but rather their capacity to think independently. Bonhoeffer said that in the face of the overwhelming social forces associated with rising power, humans are deprived of their sense of themselves as separate from the group.
The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.
From his prison cell in 1940s Germany – well before the social psychology research of the 1960s and 1970s – Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified the power that authority and being part of a group exerts over people’s ability to think independently and act ethically.
He added that this effect was intensified by overwhelming social forces. In other words, it wasn’t just internal psychological characteristics that resulted in people enacting evil; it was external social, political and economic forces.
What Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘stupidity’ has the power to take possession of the mind and put it under a spell where the person turns a blind eye to objective reality. When this stupidity can take possession of the mind and anaesthetise it we are all capable of evil.
Why is this important?
I have a friend who is going through the awful process of being cancelled. My friend is an academic who also happens to be a Christian. As you would expect my friends' opinions about social issues are informed by Christianity. My friend1 is a gentle, intelligent and thoughtful person who would never wish to impose their views on others or proselytise. Because of this, my friend is popular with both students and faculty. Yet, a student carried out a forensic analysis of ten years of social media posts by my friend and unsurprisingly dug up a number of posts that offend against the dominant ideology of 2023 academia. My friend was characterised as a racist, homophobic misogynist; transformed from an intelligent, kind and thoughtful (if fallible) human being into an object - symbol for all that is wrong with society. This triggered a campaign demanding that the University dismiss my friend. My friend discussed this with the faculty who are supportive but nonetheless my friend was suspended from teaching and is now very hurt, upset and frankly terrified that this may be the end of a distinguished academic career.
What bothers me most about cancel culture is its refusal to acknowledge its own authoritarianism. An honest authoritarian system, like the one Dietrich Bonhoeffer came up against, is easier to challenge because its intentions are clear. This new form of social censuring demands its rights while turning a blind eye to its own tyranny.
It’s common now to learn of someone who has suffered consequences such as losing their job, being disciplined, or missing out on something because at some point in their life they made relatively harmless comments in private or on social media.
The stories of cancel culture that make headlines strike a chord because they could happen to any of us at any time.
Most academics (and many executives) I know are now terrified of saying something that might offend the prevailing ideology. Always, in the back of the mind is the fear that a student or (or employee) with a personal grudge could twist their words and use them against them. This results in boring sterile lectures.
We need to challenge this stupidity by encouraging empathy, compassion and most of all critical thinking and open discussion - in short psychological safety. We need to resist unreasonable demands for moral infallibility.
A society that does not believe in redemption and forgiveness is unhealthy. A society where a significant portion of the population self-censors rather than risk facing reprisals for thinking freely is a society on the path to authoritarianism and tyranny. Cancel culture is a cruel and inhumane trend more suited to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia than a modern Western democracy.
Bonhoeffer, D., Bowden, J. & Wells, S. (2017). Letters and Papers from Prison (new edition). London: SCM Press.
Metaxas, E. (2020). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (revised, updated edition). Nashville: Nelson Books.
I’m sorry about the clumsy writing her. My overuse of ‘my friend’ is to preserve their anonimity - the last thing I want to do is to make things any worse than they are.