Are We Living in Salem Circa 1693? Lessons for America 2016

When people feel threatened they can form groups which can become aggressive

Posted Aug 14, 2016

On a cool August evening in upstate New York, a production of "The Crucible," an opera based on Arthur Miller's play, is engaging and enthralling with powerful singing and a riveting score. Yet, what haunts the evening, more than its musical excellence, is the relevance of the story to our contemporary climate. As Francesca Zambello, the artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, noted, in a talk-back, that when she planned this production two years ago, she did not anticipate its relevance to the world of 2016. 

"The Crucible" is Miller's creative transformation of the irrationality of 1950s McCarthyism. The story portrays the destructive group contagion in the Salem, Massachusetts, of 1692-1693. In those few short months, 20 of the people accused of witchcraft were executed.  History gives evidence of the pervasiveness of this sort of contagious and destructive group behavior in different places and different times. Unfortunately, ours may very well be one such moment.   

A great deal has been written about the dangers of ultra-nationalistic leaders in today's world. But only recently, have we begun to talk about the potential dangers of groups. We need to think about the effect of groups that can form when people feel threatened. At those times the groups may engage in violent or terrorizing sprees. In addition, manipulative leaders may inflame the group's fears and present themselves as the only avenue to redress its grievances. An increasingly destructive cycle of anxiety and aggression towards others can follow. 

The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion described the various kinds of groups that people form; after all, humans are social animals and it is natural for us to come together. One type is the "work group," which forms in order to accomplish a task: whether it is to build a house or to formulate a law to help society as a whole. Another type forms when danger is feared: the "fight-flight group." This kind of group can become aggressive if it becomes convinced that fighting may be the only recourse available to its survival. Remarkably, as early as 1932, the great theologian and ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr, recognized the destructive potential of groups.

In Moral Man and Immoral Society, Niebuhr wrote that "in every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships."

We need to be aware of the complex dynamic that can occur when people experience intense fears and concerns that make them vulnerable to exploitation. The combination of a vulnerable group of people and a leader who foments them becomes the energizing force which fuels the anti-social power of some groups. We have to understand this complex genesis of the potential destructiveness of groups in order to address this problematic dynamic more effectively. 

Many people in our culture worry about their safety and/or their financial security, whether as a result of bigotry or economic displacement. In group situations these grievances can become magnified, making the group more vulnerable to manipulation. When that happens, instead of working productively to address real problems such as inequality, people may turn to scapegoating. In a multicultural society such as ours, people may feel that the needs of different groups are mutually exclusive and in competition with one another. 

Our fears and vulnerabilities need to be addressed. However, we always have to be cognizant of the ease with which our anxieties can be stoked to dangerous levels, as religious and political leaders did in Salem of yore. 

Leon Hoffman


Leon Hoffman is a psychoanalyst in NYC and author of Regulation Focused Psychotherapy for Children with Externalizing Behaviors