April 27, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
‘Mobthink’ spreads like the covid
What Eugene Ionesco’s "Rhinoceros" tells is about political identity.
Thank God the covid is spreading more slowly. At least for now. On February 1, daily deaths soared to more than 3,500, according to the Times. As of this writing, those are down to 305. That’s very welcome news.
But like I said, at least for now.
We’ve been in these troughs before. With enough time, death rates can jump back up. And anyway, 305 dead Americans is still 305 dead Americans. Fifty-four thousand four hundred and forty-seven cases of infection are still 54,447 cases of infection. The virus circulates still. Indeed, the Post reported that nearly 60 percent of us have caught it.
I understand why people don’t want to wear masks anymore. I don’t want to wear one anymore either. But given what we know about the covid’s behavior, and given what we don’t know about its long-term health effects, it seems prudent to keep wearing one, at least indoors.
“The more people are going along with something, the harder it is for other people to disagree. That’s what I see happening with covid in places like the Northeast, where people have been pretty careful. Nobody in the grocery store is wearing a mask. I’m one of three. Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong?”Debra Caplan
Even so, prudence is one thing.
Doing what everyone else is doing is another.
If you’re in a community already hostile to mask-wearing, on account of it becoming a visible symbol of political opposition to Tribe Trump, you’re probably not seeing many people, if any people, wearing a mask.
You’re probably feeling a shit-ton of pressure to take yours off.
That’s what Debra Caplan was feeling.
Caplan is a historian of the theater at Baruch College. She recently wrote a Twitter thread about her experience walking around New York City and seeing one person after another not wearing a mask.
Sure, she wrote, the pandemic is easing. But you can still catch the covid. It can still harm you. It can still kill you. No mask equals crazy.
Yet here she was, feeling like she’s the crazy one.
The experience reminded her of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a play in which the main character is told over and over that he would feel less crazy if he did what everyone else is doing – turn into a rhinoceros.
Caplan said Ionesco’s protagonist faces the same moral conundrum many Americans are now facing amid the ongoing pandemic. It’s crazy to turn into a rhinoceros. His protagonist feels crazy when he doesn’t. It’s crazy to take your mask off. Yet you feel crazy when you don’t.
Caplan said the play is about the power of groupthink – or, she says, “mobthink.” In Ionesco’s time, how you reacted to fascism reflected who you were. In our time, your reaction to the covid is who you are.
That’s just absurd.
“Unfortunately, our political ecosystem is full of identity,” she said. “People choose their tribes. They feel strongly affiliated with them. This is an environment rife with mobthink. People look to members of their mob to understand what they should do, who they should be. If a mask symbolizes opposition to your tribe, you’ll refuse to wear one.”
In the time of the covid, “that’s just absurd.”
Tell us why Rhinoceros came to mind. Before you do, though, give us a preview of what Rhinoceros is. It’s not a well-known play.
Rhinoceros is a play categorized typically as theater of the absurd. It’s by the playwright Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian playwright.
It has a very simple premise.
In a small provincial French town, somebody spots a rhinoceros. There’s a big debate as to whether it really was a rhinoceros. The two main characters have a debate as to whether there are two horns or three horns on the rhinoceros, which obviously isn’t the issue.
The rhinoceros is trampling around town. All of a sudden people start turning into rhinoceroses, almost like a contagion or a disease.
At first, people are scared and try not to turn into rhinoceroses. But as more people catch the rhinoceritis, it becomes the thing to do.
It becomes harder and harder for people to see things the way they used to. This sort of groupthink, mobthink starts to take hold.
Eventually, the protagonist is the only person left.
Everyone has become a rhinoceros. At the end, even he is looking in the mirror thinking, “Maybe I am ugly. Maybe I should have a horn.”
Even he is questioning his own reality.
What about current events reminded you of Ionesco’s play?
A real shift has happened in the past couple of weeks. I live in an area where mask-wearing has been the norm for quite some time.
Not so much anymore.
The prevailing attitude seems to be that it’s over. It’s done.
I started thinking about groupthink and peer pressure. There’s mounting pressure to drop mitigation measures and say it’s over.
I would love to do that.
Like I really, really, really, really would.
But it’s not over.
I was walking around New York a couple of days ago, just looking at people, watching their behavior, feeling this sense of contradiction.
“This is absurd,” I thought.
Then Rhinoceros popped into my head, where everyone’s trying to talk the protagonist into going along with something that’s crazy.
But everyone thinks he’s the crazy one.
I’d like to dive into mass delusion. The term is applicable to our current circumstances with respect to masks but also with respect to American politics generally. What are your thoughts on that?
Rhinoceros has been read most of the time as a political allegory. But early in the play’s history, Ionesco said it was a play about fascism.
When he was a young man in Romania, everyone became fascists.
Romanian interwar fascism was a morbid creepy blend. To be initiated into these clubs, or “nests,” people had to suck each other’s blood out of their arms. They would bleed into a cup and pass it around and drink it together. They vowed to do whatever the legion told them to do, including killing people. They would write oaths in their own blood.
Creepy wild stuff.
His father, his friends – this is what they were all doing.
Ionesco was half Jewish, but that was not widely known. The Iron Guard, the group all these people were joining, was virulently antisemitic. Its leader committed extreme antisemitic atrocities.
So here’s this young university student. His friends, his own father, are coming under the sway of this fascist movement that’s really insane.
“In time, Eugene Ionesco talked about the play more expansively. It’s not just about fascism, but also about moments when people are swayed by mobthink into doing and believing absurd things, and how the person tethered to reality feels crazy. They’re basically being gaslit by the world.”Debra Caplan
Ionesco talked a lot early on in the play’s history about how Rhinoceros was a response to that. That was clearly the genesis for him.
In time, he talked about the play more expansively. It’s not just about fascism, but also about moments when people are swayed by mobthink into doing and believing absurd things, and how the person tethered to reality feels crazy. They’re basically being gaslit by the world.
The plays that last have in common a template-like quality. They’re not prescriptive. They give artists the room they need to expand and play.
Rhinoceros is one of those.
You could make Rhinoceros productions about anything. As theater of the absurd often does, you can take a super absurd premise that makes people go, “Wow, this is a weird play,” and then you make those people recognize that something about their own reality is absurd.
The play isn’t crazy.
It’s the world they’re living in that’s crazy.
I’ve been thinking whether “life imitates art” or “art imitates life.” If you think of the news media as a kind of art, or artifice, it doesn’t take much for people to imitate the media. If we think of propaganda as a kind of art form, people start playing along. Your thoughts?
We’re such social creatures.
We’re constantly reading each other’s social cues and adapting. It’s uncomfortable to be standing out from the crowd. Even when standing out comports with people’s morals, we know it’s very uncomfortable for people to speak up in a crowd. It’s a basic aspect of psychology.
Ionesco spent his life, especially after what happened in the 1920s and 1930s, in Romania, being extremely wary of groupthink and mob mentality, because he saw what it did to his friends and his father.
In interviews, journalists would say, “Oh, your play means this, right?” He was famous for saying, “No, it means the opposite of that.” Ionesco was trying extremely hard not to be influenced by other people.
The Iron Guard didn’t have mass media to spread propaganda. Newspapers aren’t the same as social media. I think Ionesco would have written some really interesting plays about our moment.
He’d have the same fears, because mobthink can spread so fast.
Like a virus.
The more people are going along with something, the harder it is for other people to disagree. That’s what I see happening with covid in places like the Northeast, where people have been pretty careful. Nobody in the grocery store is wearing a mask. I’m one of three.
Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong?
But we shouldn’t use that logic to calculate risk and benefit. The logic should be about facts on the ground, not what everybody is doing. Right now it seems to be more about what everybody is doing.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.