Getting Ready 26

Getting Ready 26

Two weeks from today, August 15, we’ll be on the plane to Vietnam.

We’re in Vermont, with one grandchild here already and two more due to arrive this evening, with their parents. This is the “family event” that couldn’t be modified to get us to Vietnam earlier, which is why we’re arriving in Ho Chi Minh City about 24 hours before Joe’s first class on Monday the 17th. We want to spend the next 8 days cooking, eating, swimming, playing in the river, kicking balls around, playing.


Theo (the 11-year old) and Joe went down to Townshend to the Grace Cottage Hospital Fair, which is mostly an auction plus food and booths. While they were off doing that, I rode my bike up to Pike’s Falls. It’s a gentle nearly-five mile winding climb, first on asphalt and then on a dirt road when you cross the bridge at the West Jamaica turnoff. The falls itself is a beautiful waterfall and a good swimming hole.

I stopped halfway up and sat by the river long enough to see three little brown-black river otter cubs hustling along the far bank, over the rocks and under the bushes and ferns. There was a little thunder in the distance. Black clouds were visible along the tops of trees to the west, but where I was the sun was shining and the sky was full of small white clouds.

Then there was a snake in the road, a small one. It been hit by a car. It had a gash in its side. It coiled and uncoiled, raised its head and opened its mouth wide, hugely wide, the way pythons do in movies. Opened it and closed it, then lowered its head and rested, coiled and uncoiled, then raised its head again. It was clearly in pain and knew it. I could swear it was trying to communicate with me about it. I am sure that if I had the right ears I could have heard it screaming.

I rode on up to Pikes Falls, dumped my bike in the high grass near the old graveyard, and walked down into the pool below the falls. There were a few other people there, parents with kids and dogs. I swam: nice and cold. The dogs were barking nervously, because of the distant thunder. The dark clouds were moving in. I dried off and went back up to my bike. Just as I got on my bike, the rain started. It was pelting, blinding rain. It rained so hard I could hardly see. On the other hand the whole ride back is downhill so although I was cold and sopping wet, it was a fast ride. A few cars came by with windshield wipers wiping, and I could see people waving at me, but I couldn’t take my hands off the handlebars to wave back. It was beautiful.

Sometimes the sun came out even while the rain was pelting down. I was going too fast to look around to find a rainbow, though.

It was an absolutely wonderful ride, both ways. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better ride. Both places I live, Berkeley and here in Vermont, are close enough to open country – the great parks of California, including Tilden, and the Green Mountain National Forest, here – so that I can walk out the door or ride my bike out the door and be in real wild country. Not wilderness, but open land, public land. Both places still have access to open, public land.

Joe is still trying to read the books assigned for his class. Yesterday he told me about this: Seiter and Gass have a section on “social loafing,” which, along with “de-individuation,” means going along with the crowd. They see this as a bad thing. This is on page 135. The point they are trying to make is that when people become part of a group they lose their capacity to make a good moral judgment. Here is what Gass and Seiter say about groups:

“In this section, we examine how groups can affect a person’s behavior by causing the person to lose his or her sense of self or by making the person feel less responsible for his or her actions.”

And then:

“Crowds influence a person’s behavior; once we get lost in them, we tend to do things that we would never do alone.”




“Because being in a large group makes a person both more aroused and anonymous, the person focuses less on himself or herself and behaves more impulsively.”


All about weakness, susceptibility, loss. Impulsiveness is a bad thing. When people do things impulsively, they do bad things. Think about how this is going to play in a class on organizing a union!

Nothing about how  people are enabled to do more with others than they can do alone, how people learn from more competent peers.

Something everyone tells us about  Vietnam is that people are really good at working in groups. This may be a legacy of their socialist ideals; it certainly is how they were able to win the war. My experience, and my hope, is that doing things with other people, in a group, can make people braver and more generous, less selfish. You make a collective decision to do something difficult or risky because the outcome will be worth it for others: this is the idea behind concerted activity. There is also that little thing about power.

So telling our students that groups facilitate immoral or bad behavior is a serious misestimate of who our students are, to say nothing of contradicting the purpose of the class.

It gets worse. The authors give three examples of “social loafing,” or “dis-individuation,” meaning the loss of individualism through participating in a group.

One, a girl who had been at Woodstock in the 60s and went along with the crowd and may or may not have danced naked, along with thousands of other people. Apparently the authors think this embarrasses her; they tell us that she won’t talk about the experience. No kidding – she probably just won’t talk about it with them.

Another is what they call the “Los Angeles riots” in 1992. They are referring to what happened after the video was released that showed the police beating up Rodney King, an African American man. Gass and Seiter give the destruction of property in the protests that followed the beating as an example of “social loafing.”

The last example will take your breath away. They offer the My Lai massacre, known in Vietnam as the Son My massacre.

They quote a US soldier saying:

I just went. My mind just went. And I wasn’t the only one that did it…a lot of people were doing it, so I just followed suit. I just lost all sense of direction, of purpose. I just started killing. I just started killing any kind way I could kill. It just came. I didn’t’ know I had it in me (p. 135).

I wonder if this quote came from the trial? They cite an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology but it’s a secondary source; they are quoting from a quote.

After this quote, they go on to talk about “anti-social behavior.”

From Wikipedia: The massacre took place in March 1968. Between 347 and 504 (this is the Vietnamese government count) civilians, including women and children, were killed. They were also gang-raped and mutilated. There’s a photo on Wikipedia. The news of the massacre started to leak out about 8 months later. Public outrage strengthened resistance to the war. Twenty-six soldiers were charged, only William Calley was convicted, and he was let free after three years of house arrest. The three soldiers who tried to stop the massacre and protect civilians were shunned, called traitors by various US congressmen, but eventually honored.

Gass and Seiter, the authors of this book, Persuasion: Social Influence and Compliance Gaining, seem to think that these three examples – dancing naked, looting as part of a civil disturbance in response to police violence, and finally a massacre that played a historically critical role in our conduct of and eventually abandonment of the war in Vietnam – are somehow equivalent or remotely appropriate to link together and use as illustrations of “going along with the crowd.” I hope that this will serve as convincing proof that this is not a good book to use as a textbook in a class on internal organizing – in Vietnam!

It is awful on so many levels that they’re hard to count.

We have wasted a lot of time ordering, reading and trying to figure out how to teach from these books. Given that time is short, this is a problem. Also, these books cost a lot of money — $100 each, and more, including shipping.

Vinh has not read them. The library at Ton Duc Thang has apparently ordered them but no one has seen them yet. I wonder who recommended them? We will bring out copies and talk about the problem. It’s really all about what flows from acknowledging that workers and employers have different, conflicting interests. The conflict goes way beyond what takes place at the bargaining table, which is what mediators, arbitrators, neutrals focus on — the resolution of problems through negotiation. The conflict extends out into culture and psychology, the way you understand what is fundamentally human.

We are still asking, “What exactly are we going to teach?” We’re going to have to go ahead and prepare the classes that we think we should be teaching.

Vinh was not able to Skype with us because she was going to a three-day retreat with others from her faculty. Once she got to the place they were headed, the internet connection was not good enough.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

2 thoughts on “Getting Ready 26

  1. Back when I was an undergraduate sociology major I really got into crowd behavior or collective behavior and even then the implicit individualism/capitalistic ethics of the writers tended to look upon collective behavior as situations where people would do things that they might not do otherwise. Very negative! For myself I took the ideas and devolved methods out of the readings that I later used to help push forward good collective action in demonstrations, union work and the like. Yes, the crowd does give you some anonymity but on the other hand if the police are vamping on assembled folks then anonymity may give one more courage to fight back against the injustice being perpetrated against folks.
    There were US soldiers who knew that Mylai was wrong and broke the story out — and sometimes I think that the stories by troops who didn’t know what they were doing or just acted without thought sound somewhat like buffalo dung — when I was doing things I knew what and why I was doing them even during demonstrations. If arrested and tried I would probably have claimed that I didn’t know that I did that or wasn’t even aware that I did it (I never did anything that I wouldn’t be proud to do again.). I am talking about motivating.
    These authors want people to be pacifistic and probably are abhorrent of people acting collectively. The work of organizing and carrying out an anti-colonial pro-communist national liberation struggle and revolution is not a sit around buffalo dunging kind of thing nor was the anti-war movement in the US or the civil rights movement or welfare rights organizing.

  2. Unfortunately, some groups are toxic — classifying all as one way or the other, even binary would be simplistic. I very vaguely remember a 60s Ramparts article on how cooperation was part of the Vietnamese culture. I also remember a more recent book on teaching that talked about every course having it’s own gestalt. Maybe you could adapt Gerald Graff’s “teaching the difference” approach here.

    Mark Hamon, a composition lecturer in Florida, has written some interesting posts on the dynamics of group cooperation — they draw on natural science and philosophy. I’ll look for them to share.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: