Between Groupthink and Marketplace of Ideas


This reflection was inspired by some virulent personal attacks and labelling I have been receiving recently from some quarters for my supposed non-support of the candidacy of General Buhari during the last presidential election.  I had in my column of April 9, 2015, talked of an emerging triumphalism by some people following General Buhari’s victory at the 28 March 2015 presidential elections.

 No, I do not mind my ideas being very aggressively interrogated. It is all part of the ideas interchange, which ferments the political marketplace of ideas. The latter in turn is the substructure on which the entire democracy infrastructure is built. It will indeed be awful to write and no one is able to tell you that you have written ‘crap’ for that essentially means you have written such a crap that no one deems it important enough to waste effort on telling you have indeed written a crap.

My  decision to reflect on this is not so much about me as to show the dangers  posed to the political system and the people they purport to protect by self-appointed ‘mindguards’ or conformity police  As mentioned, I am not averse to criticism. As an academic, it is part of our being. I learnt a long time ago from the public intellectuals I regarded as mentors and role models – the Ali Mazruis and Elaigwus –   that you must have the courage to be a contrarian, if you need to be, and the skin to absorb it all when others make you the contrarian object. However I feel a reflection on the notions of ‘groupthink’ and its nearest anti-thesis, the ‘marketplace of ideas’, could open up important conversations   that will have implications for our stalled nation-building project, the current de-Nigerianization process and the trajectory of our democracy.  But what is ‘groupthink’?


Groupthink is a term coined by the American social psychologist Irving Janis (May 26, 1918 – November 15, 1990)  in 1972. Janis  explained the concept as “the mode of thinking that persons engage in when concurrence-seeking becomes so dominant in a cohesive in-group that it tends to override realistic appraisal of alternative courses of action.”  In groupthink, loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial or non-conforming issues and ideas or even alternative solutions. One of the consequences of this is that the  “in-group” often significantly overrates its own abilities in decision-making, significantly underrates the abilities of its opponents (the “out-group”) and believes passionately, even irrationally,  in the inherent morality and rightness of the cause(s) they espouse. Groupthink can produce dehumanizing actions and utterances against the “out-group” in the forms of stereotyping, hate speech or even premeditated violence. Groupthink is not just instinctive conformity, it is also conformity for fear of being maligned, regarded as a traitor or being shunned or even ostracized by the ‘in-group’ especially where you have several self-appointed ‘mindguards’ or conformity police defending the in-group’s symbol or assumed values.. Anyone who does not conform to the groupthink could be labelled a traitor or even have violence visited on him or her.

The idea of groupthink has been used to explain many faulty decisions in history   such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (1941), the Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961), the prosecution of the Vietnam war (1964-1967) and Nazi Germany’s decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. The argument is that in each of these instances, decisions taken by those in authority were extremely poor because of groupthink which prevented contradictory views from being expressed and subsequently evaluated.

I once worked closely with a known social critic in the 1980s. The social critic rarely completed a sentence but would repeatedly interject into sentences the question:  ‘you know what I mean?’ To this the hangers-on around him would enthusiastically echo, “Yes, yes”, and some would go on to complete what they thought the social critic wanted to say while the more ‘fanatical ones’ would invent quotable quotes which they attributed to the social critic. That was groupthink at a smaller level. Every member of the in-group wanted to conform.

Though groupthink exists in every society in various degrees, what seems to be happening since the election of Buhari is the hardening and proliferation of political   groupthinks – those who supported Buhari’s emergence tend to see those who did not (or whom they believe did not support him) as the ‘out-group’,  whose moral values were defeated in the election. Perhaps to such people, it was not just elections but the great ‘moral battle of our time’. For the in-group, people, including those not expressly supportive of the group’s accepted and sacrosanct version of the truth are stereotyped, maligned, labelled – with some even calling  for their physical extermination!

Concurrently, among those who did not support Buhari’s candidacy – mostly people from the Southeast and South-south – their own groupthink, which manifests in counter stereotyping, also seems to be  hardening. They justify their electoral choices and promise to do it all over again, if given another choice. They rigidify their positions on issues, if only to make themselves different from those who supported Buhari and also employ their own discriminatory epithets to describe and profile Buhari’s supporters.  From our knowledge of identities, we know that identities that are perceived to be under threat are often the most vigorously defended.

One of the consequences of the proliferation and hardening of groupthinks is that the end of elections that could ideally provide an opportunity for restarting the stalled nation-building project and halting the de-Nigerianization process that started under the military regime could be imperilled. With aggressive stereotyping and counter-stereotyping of the outgroups, the social distance among Nigerians appears to be widening.  In this sense, the self-appointed ‘conformity police’ on either side of the political divide are not only threats to the nation building processes but also to the leader they erroneously think they are trying to protect.

Marketplace of Ideas

The “marketplace of ideas” is often used as a justification for freedom of expression based on an analogy to the economic concept of a free market. A key idea here is that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free and transparent public discourse. The metaphor is based on the market economy and free exchange of goods in that market.  Because many goods (read: ideas) are available in such a market, we as rational consumers, choose carefully what we want from the available goods after evaluating the relative merits and demerits of each product.

The ‘marketplace of ideas’ was first developed by John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty (1859) but was popularized in the dissenting judgment of Oliver Wendell Holmes  in Abrams v. United States (1919).  According to Holmes, “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical….But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas….

“The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Essentially this theory tells us that a laissez  faire approach to the regulation of free exchange of ideas (both  by governments and the mindguards in group thinks), will lead to ideas, theories, propositions and movements succeeding or failing on their own merits. In other words, left to their own devices, free individuals have the capacity to sift through competing ideas and proposals in an open environment of deliberation and exchange, allowing truth or the best possible results to be achieved at the end.

From the above, while groupthink in a polarized environment like ours is unavoidable, their politicization by ‘mindguards’ and self-appointed ‘conformity police officers’ may in the short term help the in-group’s cohesiveness. In the long run however it perverts the democratic process, complicates the search for the truth and undermines the nation building project.


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