Confronting Communal Avoidance


How is it that even now so many weeks after the trial of Nechemya Weberman there are still so many individuals raising funds for a legal appeal on his behalf? How can there be so many individuals who, at least publicly, firmly believe that he is innocent or that he was railroaded, or that he was the subject of a witch-hunt initiated by just one young woman who vindictively attacked her parents her community and the one representative she could name, Weberman? These individuals see the courts and police as irrevocably anti-Hasidic and not to be trusted. Certain skewed media outlets reinforce these views. Yet, in the follow up to the tremendous tragedy that occurred where a young pregnant couple and their unborn child were killed on their way to the hospital by a known felon who recklessly T Boned their car at high speed and left the scene of the accident these same individuals are turning to the police and the same legal system to do their job and send the felon to prison.

Is jail ok for everyone else? 

It sounds like cognitive dissonance is the guiding principle that is at work here and maybe it is in part, but there is more to this than this one fundamental theory. Cognitive dissonance explains the discomfort one feels when attempting to reconcile competing ideas, thoughts, or feelings. In this situation though, there may not be any internal conflict between blaming the secular authorities in one case while turning to them in another, again reinforced by certain restrictive media outlets.

There is a psychological principle known as pluralistic ignorance that may help explain attitudes and behaviors that seem so contradictory. I have had more than just a few opportunities to speak with members of the community affected by both the Weberman situation and the terrible car accident travesty. For many of these individuals there is a strong sense of confidence that they, as individuals, do firmly believe that Weberman is guilty and that in his case, justice was served. For them there is no conflict in turning to the police or the court system for fair and reasonable justice. These individuals do, however, believe that most of the other members of their community and, in particular, their sect do not feel like they do and therefore the community at large affects the attitude of distrust for anyone outside of their own. Individuals thus mistakenly believe that they think one way but that the majority of others in their sect think differently and will not trust any secular authority. This is the definition of pluralistic ignorance – it is a form of almost stealthy communal views, which allow individuals to avoid confronting misperceptions and thereby wrongly thinking that others as a group think differently. Moreover, the misperceptions and ignorance mongering may not even be coming from the very top of the sect but are always spread surreptitiously.

Why do people allow themselves to be ignorant of certain realities or more specifically – why do smart people allow themselves to believe that others think differently without attempting to find out the truth? I am not sure, each situation is different, but I do know that this is a not so subtle form of communal control that certain leaders use to maintain compliance, and people want to belong to their groups. Michael Shermer writing in Scientific American (March, 2013) uses the theory of pluralistic ignorance to understand how Lance Armstrong, recently stripped of his Tour de France titles for drugging, was able to maintain the communal silence that protected him for so long. By making it seem that, everyone was doping and implying a threat of discipline for those who publicly voiced otherwise Armstrong was able to carry on his charade for all those years. As Shermer writes, “When you add an element of punishment…pluralistic ignorance can transmogrify into…repressive political regimes.” This form of pluralistic ignorance and control reinforces bigotry, repressive and restrictive ideologies which are in turn moderated by a media that restricts access to the truth sometimes for the sole purpose of increasing readership.

It may sound like I am arguing for the right to use the media more freely in these insular neighborhoods and I am. I am also arguing for the right to read newspapers like the New York Times, in part because, as I have said in the past, it is important to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but also because not opening oneself up to the world allows dictatorial powers to be even more controlling.

It is important to hear more than one position otherwise low-level modesty squads can use pluralistic ignorance with just a small measure of threat to reinforce a totally repressed community that allows unlicensed counselors to abuse children and then self-righteously complain that they, not their victims, have been wronged. Many smart people out there are afraid of being shunned and even punished because they do not have the awareness of the beliefs of others in their sect. Communication that is more open can correct this problem and it is a problem that if not corrected will result in even more repression and ultimately abuse. The good news is that the Calgary Jewish community rejected a rabbinic letter written in support of a convicted offender (2/15/13). They supported the offenders sentencing and not the view of one rabbi. This can happen elsewhere.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon ,a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee for his 'transformative work in raising awareness of the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse". He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."