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Sunday, March 28, 2021

All Aboard the Bandwagon | Palm Sunday 2021

"Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 'Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!'"Mark 11:8-10 NRSV

When I was in 6th grade my class covered common marketing schemes for a week. We learned about things like celebrity sponsorship and bait-and-switch. It's proven to be one of the more useful things I learned about between then and high school graduation. One such technique is the bandwagon effect.

The bandwagon effect is great for brands if they can get it going, and is a mixed bag when it happens more-or-less spontaneously in society. It's when people do something because other people are doing it, often regardless of their own beliefs. Good sense is often set aside when this group psychological phenomenon is in full-steam. It goes to the extent of compelling people to realign their values, beliefs, and conduct to correspond to that of a group. That aspect is described as 'herd mentality.' 

In the US we've such innocent fads as Spuds MacKenzie and Reebok Pumps. In Brazil I saw fads come and go on a regular basis. One particularly memorable one was pin-on buttons. Children and teens in particular collected and traded the buttons, decorating their backpacks and jackets. The pins would feature flags, brand logos, names, and so forth. I saw a girl on the city bus one day with every square inch of her jeans jacket covered in pins, and it made a loud sort of ringing/rattling noise as she got off at her stop. A few weeks after that, the fad was no more. If you visit Brazil and notice that a classic or contemporary song in English is playing absolutely everywhere, it's a safe bet that it's prominent in the soundtrack of whatever telenovela that the Globo Network has running in prime time. 

People love their bandwagons.

Sometimes bandwagons can be abusive and even violent. Countless times in history a mob mentality has resulted in an extrajudicial execution or the mass destruction of property. This is also manifest from time to time on social media when people are trying to identify and punish people who are seen as having done wrong, often targeting the wrong people.

In 2017 in the aftermath of the 'Unite the Right' rally (which would have been more aptly called 'Unite the Whites') every Twitter rando was scrambling to try identify the racist idiots who marched bearing tiki torches. This led to numerous cases of misidentification, including of an entirely innocent university professor. People called and threatened him and his family, published his address and other personally identifying information online, and howled at the university for him to be fired.  

On Saturday Professor Quinn was forced to defend his character by by tweeting: "The man in the photo is not me. I am in Fayetteville, Arkansas, not Virginia.

A day later he took to social media again posting: "The individual who wore an engineering shirt in #Charlottesville is not me. I proudly support a diverse environment at U of A."

But his responses didn't stop scores of people from calling him a racist, threatening him, publishing his home address and demanding he lose his job. (BBC News)

In 2020 a video of a bicyclist attacking children went viral, prompting the online outrage machine to fire up and spew forth assertions about the identity of the guilty party. Two innocent men were falsely accused, and one of them in particular took heat because his bicycle tracking app had his information publicly available and indicated that he was on the trail in question at that time. The only problem was that the police had reported the wrong day for the incident, and it really wasn't him. Word of his innocence did not manage to keep up with accusations of guilt. 

 It took off. Weinberg didn’t know what “doxing” meant, but it was happening to him: Someone posted his address. Detective Lopez didn’t answer his call, but soon someone with the police department contacted Weinberg to let him know that officers would be patrolling the area around his home because he might be in danger. (NYMag.com)

Then there was the retired firefighter just this year, accused of being one of the pro-Trump insurrectionists on January 6. When that was going on, he was 700 miles away buying groceries. Rather than simply report their suspicions to the federal authorities, quite a few geniuses thought it important to go ahead and dox him on social media. The aftermath has been quite difficult for the victim.

“It’s created havoc in my life, for my family, my wife, all of us,” Quintavalle told The Washington Post. “It’s just grueling us. Someone should be held responsible for this. It’s just not right that you live your life correctly, follow all the rules, and this is what happens.” (The Washington Post)

It's long been pointed out that according to the Gospel narrative, the same public that celebrated Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem one day turned around and demanded his execution later the same week. Setting aside the obvious anti-Semitism in the descriptions and later interpretations, this is conceivable as part of herd mentality and the bandwagon effect. I strongly suspect that through this year a lot of people who got wrapped up in the Trump cult through rallies and social media are and will be questioning how that all happened. Many have family and friends who witnessed the wild, ugly transformation and wondered how otherwise good people could have become so paranoid and toxic. 

Rather than close on a down note, let me share a more positive bandwagon effect I've experienced.

My son, now going on 19, was a regular at church youth events from 8th grade and all through high school. He loved them. Since we're Unitarian Universalists, there was no dogma or purity culture involved. Kids were welcomed and affirmed as who they are, and at the beginning of the year they created a covenant together to abide by. Although there were moments of tension or misunderstanding here or there, for the most part this was a fairly harmonious experience. The youth commented at times that they were glad that most of them didn't go to school together, because the group was a place where they could just relax and be themselves. When you're a teen, you don't often get to let your guard down. I'm certain that this was a soft version of herd mentality. At school it could be as emotionally challenging as ever, but at youth group most everyone wanted it to be a good experience. It was because they were able to believe it could be that. 

Changing culture for the better, in a church, business, or society, requires persistent efforts to get as many people on board as possible. Easier said than done? Perhaps, but based on what I've seen and experienced, not impossible.