We need to start cherishing our irritating contrarians


National “groupthink” ignored dissenting voices on economy and clerical child sex abuse, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

RECENTLY, OLIVIA O’Leary in her RTÉ Radio One Drivetimepolitical column spoke of making a programme in the 1990s about Bernard Connolly, a senior European civil servant. Connolly was sacked for his prescient opposition to the euro, expressed in his book, The Rotten Heart of Europe. Connolly saw how weaker peripheral countries, unable to tweak exchange rates or interest rates, would suffer the most in an economic downturn.

Although O’Leary has different economic views to Connolly, she commented on “how brave you have to be to stand out against the consensus in big institutions”.

After hearing the broadcast, I googled Connolly, who now runs an independent consultancy. In 2007, he wrote: “The chances that the Irish house price bubble will not unwind via a very substantial fall in prices is, in our view, minimal.” He continued: “In sum, the prospects for the Irish economy over the next couple of years are simply dreadful.”

Guess he still has not succumbed to “groupthink”.

Peter Nyberg devotes a great deal of his recent report on the banking crisis to groupthink and the dominance of the consensus model. He set out to answer this question: “Why did so many professionally adept Irish bankers and public servants (as well as politicians, entrepreneurs, experts, media and households) simultaneously come to make assessments and decisions that have later proven seriously unsound?”

He has been attacked for asking and attempting to answer this question, as if he were endorsing the infamous “we all partied” line by doing so. He has been criticised for not naming names, but his report is disturbing enough without doing so. Take this quote: “A number of people stated that, had they implemented or consistently supported contrarian policies, they may ultimately have lost their jobs, positions, or reputations.”

Here’s another question. Is Ireland peculiarly susceptible to groupthink because of its small size? Are we too scared of what others think to be independent thinkers?

At any given time, there is a high degree of consensus here. The fact the consensus may directly contradict a consensus held 20 years earlier does not seem to jar, or point to the possibility we have just swapped one form of groupthink for another without pausing to engage our brains in the meantime.

Here’s one example. A colleague drew my attention to a sign he saw in a pharmacy some months ago – “We are delighted to announce that emergency contraception is now available to 17-year-olds without prescription.”

He had a question. Are we really delighted? Is that what we want for 17-year-olds, that they are dashing to pharmacies for the morning-after pill after miserable sexual encounters that often involve being drunk? He wondered where the voices of dissent were.

That is just one, perhaps relatively minor, example. No one would now like to publicly challenge the consensus that teenage sexual activity is normal and inevitable, for fear of being labelled a prude, out of touch, or, God forbid, a conservative Catholic, who, as it is well-known, are the enemies of all progress and right thinking. (Especially if they have anything to do with the Iona Institute, of which I am a patron.)

Irving Janis pioneered work on groupthink. He identified several characteristics. There are always “outgroups” that are characterised negatively as the enemy, so making effective responses to them is deemed unnecessary. Members are pressured by threat of disapproval or ostracism into not expressing arguments against any of the group’s views, which leads to self-censorship.

The majority view and judgments are therefore assumed to be unanimous. There are also always self-appointed “mindguards” who protect both leaders and members from contacts or information that would disturb the cosy consensus.

The Nyberg report explains exactly how those characteristics got us into the mess we are in. One of the key giveaways about groupthink is that it is invisible, because any doubts are squashed before they can threaten membership of a valued group.

We saw this at work during the abuse crises in the church. It was simply unthinkable to expose the church to scandal. This groupthink ultimately ended up costing victims their childhood, and the failure to protect cost the church far more than it could have imagined.

Just a few years ago, seriously questioning the Celtic Tiger and its values put you in the Cassandra or curmudgeon category.

What is the groupthink we can’t admit to ourselves right now? Janis identified two other characteristics, including an illusion of invulnerability that leads to excessive optimism and ignoring risks. He also highlights collective rationalisation, where members scoff at warnings.

Both seem to fit our beliefs about climate change, though there is a bizarre mixture of excessive optimism and excessive pessimism, both leading to paralysis. The former consist of the “technology will save us” brigade, and the latter believe nothing will save us, so we may as well eat, drink and burn carbon.

Deep down, whether we partied or not, most of us knew the boom was hollow. We are the same about climate change. We can’t admit the threat is real, because the changes required are just too painful.

What does Nyberg suggest? Oh, a bit of grown-up debate, and space for contrarians. We are not good at embracing dissenters of any kind. There is always an elite telling us what to think, and people hate putting their heads above the parapet to disagree.

Dissenters may be avant-garde, pushing the boundaries of acceptability, or people who stubbornly refuse to give up on important values and virtues even when they become deeply unfashionable. Bernard Connolly is an example of the latter. He believed national sovereignty was more important than a centrally imposed consensus. We need to cherish our contrarians.

On the Saturday that is in it, it might be appropriate to end with one of my favourite quotes. Easter says that you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there. Happy Easter.

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