Regression to the mean: not the statistical phenomena, a societal one. The idea that when the going gets tough, when desperation rears its head as our primary motivation, then meanness often appears as its alarming derivative. And with that kind of regression to the mean comes the angry mob effect; mean attracts mean and the next thing you know mean has become the standard of behavior.
It’s a phenomenon captured far too vividly in “Man’s Search for Meaning” - Viktor Frankl’s first-hand depiction of life in the concentration camps during World War II. Written in nine days, in 1946 just after the end of the war and his release, Frankl describes a daily prison life filled with unfathomable cruelty, wrought not just by the guards and camp administrators but by the prisoners too. It’s a heartbreaking picture of what happens to people when hope becomes lost, when survival is their only concern. Their capacity to care for others, their ability to do the right thing is crushed by the presence of absolute proof that the right thing may no longer serve them well.
As stark a comparison as this may be, this same phenomena is happening in the race for president and Donald Trump’s shocking popularity among a large percentage of the voting public. His followers are effectively an angry mob, a largely irrational and mean-spirited populace made up of white blue collar Americans who have lost their jobs, lost hope and lost their way in the quest to realize the American Dream. They are desperate, and in that desperation they are willing to walk away from the rational, the common sensical, and the moral. In that desperation, anger, vitriol and verbal cruelty to others has become their psychological salve, a salve dispensed with careless abandon by their strongman leader.
In Frankl’s portrayal most of those powered by cruelty and meanness ended up not surviving. He posited in fact that the prisoners who were able to withstand the horrifying conditions were the ones that were able to rise above their imminent desperation and seek meaning. Not meanness, meaning. The ones who prevailed were those who were able to set an aspiration beyond survival, beyond the need for basic things and traditional measures. It’s a view that sets up an essential task for our country’s next leader: to quell the angry mob and re-unite our country not just by providing jobs and reducing the economic divide, but by helping us all see that the purpose of life, the purpose of being American is to be found in meaning.