The Problem With Causes, Crusades, or Organized Movements

by Stephen Mills on November 20, 2010


“A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.” – Eric Hoffer

Right off the top let me say I support doing good, I support helping people, and I’m not opposed to trying to change things.  I do think it is a huge mistake to take group action to do these things and the larger the group the bigger the mistake.  This is not a categorical statement as there are exceptions, but as a general rule in my opinion, group action (esp. large groups) is a mistake.

Causes, crusades, mass movements, especially organized ones, very seldom work; they usually end up with most people involved becoming frustrated and depressed. Usually the movement becomes an end in itself that takes on more importance than the original cause for which it was established.  Preservation of the movement now takes priority and the formerly idealistic leaders end up trying to preserve the power and prestige they have gained as a result.

Your individual contribution to the goal of the movement is not generally amplified by joining the movement; instead it is diluted.  Your participation just adds to diversity of opinion and bureaucratic piddling around and thus individual effectiveness is thwarted.  Time is now spent trying to agree on strategy or tactics, planning, communication, etc. and all that before any actual work is done.  Most of the resources of the group are spent on internal bureaucracy and structures instead of real action.

Your individual aims are sacrificed to the lowest common denominator of the group.  Reflection, nuance, deep-diving on complex issues get lost in sloganeering and the mindless repetition of the latest revealed wisdom from the leaders or gurus.   Research has repeatedly shown that people in groups, even mixed opinion groups, harden their positions and move towards becoming more extreme.  You seem to lose the ability to remain open-minded and become a victim of groupthink.

Movements appeal to emotion more than intellect.  Immersion in a movement gives the participant the illusion that he is part of some greater good when in reality it allows them to fool themselves into the belief that they are actually accomplishing something.  What is being accomplished is support of the movement itself.  Some people get off on joining movements and that is fine.  If that is what you want I say go for it.  Just don’t fool yourself into believing you are changing the world.

When you join a group movement you are not longer responsible for success or failure; a great way for people to avoid individual responsibility.

Taking Your Own Direct Action

“Most people think in terms of indirect alternatives – who must be changed, how people must be educated, what others should be doing.  Consequently, they spend most of their lives in futile efforts to achieve what can’t be achieved – the remaking of others.” – Harry Browne

In any situation you need to ask yourself what can you do yourself to improve the situation?  Forget save-the-world causes; the principle applies equally to every day action.  If people around me are noisy I can take the indirect action of asking them to behave the way I want them to behave and quiet down, or I could take the direct action of putting on headphones, going in the other room, or going outside.

If I don’t like what my neighbors are doing I can try to change them or I can move.  I hate moving and it is not easy, but I’ve never convinced my neighbors to do what I say either.

If you have a good idea at work, good luck trying to convince others, especially the corporate bureaucracy.  Some people say it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.  I say it’s better to ask neither – just do it.

If you want to travel somewhere or eat lunch at a certain restaurant or do something else you can try to convince others to agree with your choice or you can announce what you are doing and invite them to join you.

If you think your taxes are too high, you can take the indirect action of spending your time in a futile effort to band together with other people to convince the government to lower them.  Alternatively, you could take the direct action of figuring out ways to avoid them yourself.

There are few cases where joining a cause or where trying to take indirect action through others is a better approach than taking direct action yourself.  It’s a mistake to believe you can accomplish more through others; you just end up frustrated and disappointed.  Your actions are diluted, your goals are reshaped, and your time is wasted.

“Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels fastest who travels alone.” – Rudyard Kipling

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Henway November 20, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I agree with pretty much everything you said. I love being the leader rather than the follower. And your example of deciding where to go eat, and inviting ppl along really resonates with me… I hate organizing social events, and having everyone agree on something – it seems people just are awful at making decisions. Take the lead, and if ppl follow cool, if not, their loss.
Henway´s last blog post ..Camera Recommendations


Stephen Mills November 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Hi Henway “I hate organizing social events”. Me too! Instead of enjoying each others’ company you’re are figuring out what to do. Thanks for the comment.


Oroboros November 21, 2010 at 12:04 am

Chapter 6 of Mein Kampf, on War Propaganda, backs up the idea that “Movements appeal to emotion more than intellect.” and Hitler says so in as many words.

Henway, I like Ed Abbey’s ideas on leadership:

* Grown men do not need leaders.

* A leader leads from in front, by the power of example. A ruler pushes from behind, by means of the club, the whip, the power of fear.


Stephen Mills November 21, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Hello Oroboros. My observations through 49 years of living, has been that most people who enthusiastically participate in movements are most excited about the movement and not the goal, whether they realize that or not. Thanks for your comment.


Dave Richardson November 21, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Without group cooperation we would still be in the Stone Age.


Stephen Mills November 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Hello Dave and thanks for commenting. I totally disagree with that and I’d like you to support that statement. I’m not talking about specialization or cooperation, which of course are required for “progress”. I depend upon that daily; we all do. I don’t grow my own food. There’s a big difference between that and joining causes to change the world, or advancing your interests by joining a group. I believe you missed the point in a big way.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga November 23, 2010 at 6:19 pm

I expect a lot of people to disagree with you, but I truly understand what you mean. Of course, there are times when more “manpower” is needed than one person. There are situations that are best resolved by having many, many people in agreement. However, there are so many cases where joining a cause is just another way of feeling good about doing as little as possible.

Big organizations often end up getting a lot of angry people together who spend mega bucks on things like formal advertising and shipping expenses. When we get our own butts out there and truly do our part as individuals, even if it’s inconvenient, that’s when we create change.

What an awesome & daring post you have here!
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Inspirational Words- Attracting Wealth and Abundance


Mark January 18, 2011 at 10:31 am

The more I live, the more I realize that most of these “movements” aren’t worth the effort. Just like most of politics, I think my time and money is best spent elsewhere, doing something that’s I can control. I like your take on them losing effectiveness the bigger they get, because over time, the leaders lose sight of why they started their “movement” in the first place.

I actually liken this phenomenon to what the blogosphere represents, which you have done an amazing job avoiding. Most blogs are just a regurgitation of something someone said somewhere else, not a true evaluation of anything of meaning. Most just want to republish and link and tweet and social network the hell out of everything, disguising it as their own movement “against the status quo”.

That is why I really like your site. You don’t need to tell people your reason for writing. You write with purpose, about things that matter, not about 8 helpful tips to a flatter stomach while paying off your $800,000 credit card debt, and raising 19 kids at the same time.

Though I do disagree, to a degree, on one point – that you can’t accomplish more through others.

I can’t create in a vacuum. The more I try, the worse my output. It’s easier, for sure, but without that objective third person opinion, my work just doesn’t stack up. I’ve learned to really branch out and try to get outside opinions before releasing my music online. Perhaps I’ve taken your statement out of context, but I’ve found that with most of what I do, I lose sight of my reality without outside input.

Long time reader, first time commenter. Sorry for lurking for so long.
Mark´s last blog post ..Listening to Lord Huron


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