Could ‘Mass Formation or Mass Atrocity’ Be a False Dichotomy?

4 min readDec 1, 2022


‘Mass Formation or Mass Atrocity?’ is a multi-authored review of ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’ by Mattias Desmet, which seems to acknowledge a reality and significance of the phenomenon he calls mass formation, while rejecting his characterisation of it as “the essence of the problem of totalitarianism” and supports this position through appeal, with considerable depth of detail, to other modes of oppression associated with atrocity.

The latter phenomena are real and significant in my view, without necessarily justifying the authors’ rejection of the claim above from Desmet.

In layman’s terms, mass formation has been described as a collective psychosis, precipitated by widespread anxiety that has no clear object till focused upon one through a symbol, which accordingly becomes a handle for manipulating society.

Emphasis on any phenomenon inevitably in some regard at least de-emphasises other ones. Both didactic and activist contexts necessitate a strategic economy of emphasis, and it is my impression that relatively banal tensions here between Desmet and his critics are excessively leveraged by each against the other.

Without generalising over every aspect of the review, I would include in this category most of its rubrics and the overall design of argument, which suit the adversarial genre of its featuring publication with regard to cultural and intellectual positioning.

Although I have ongoing gripes concerning downsides of this genre and expect to continue airing them where appropriate, I see many as part of the inevitable cost of its vital upsides.

Perhaps it is worth noting that for binary thinking, which all emotive estimation will deploy or foster, there is by definition no such thing as a third option, or thus any false dichotomy where a meaningfully distinguished choice exists.

As this mentality is hard to avoid in connection with abuses, there are psychological vectors along which heat is at least superficially taken off abusers by noting respects in which their victims bring such abuse on themselves. Yet recognitions of the latter type are inherently recognitions of abuse and thus vectors of heat on the abusers. So perhaps, in metaphorical terms, what gets lost on the roundabout is made up for on the swings.

Indeed, were a choice between paradigms necessary in this case, it might be advisable to forgo the dualistic for the wholistic. For while action energised by dualistic framing is often appropriate in any crucial resistance, it can be liable to waste or derail insight, clarity and poise that higher faculties allow and which is required for most effective results.

No pure monism radically inspires immediate change. Yet things are only likely to be made worse by heeding the panic logic which binary thought terminates in when clarity is lacking and pressure mounts, where any fight or flight seems better than doing nothing.

But fortunately we don’t have to make a principled choice between action and sober reflection just because of differences in how various brain parts deal with circumstances or arguments. We can note the liability to succumb to certain dichotomies and thereby transcend them, sometimes even while indulging them.

Nonetheless, while I might wish that every precious collated and synthesised import of the review was not framed in adversarial form, it seems hard to envisage any particular effort to that end being practically conducive to its creation, clarity or reception.

I suppose its opening claim that Desmet’s book “manifests the psychology of atrocity” would be true if promotion of his thesis were a pivotally enabling distraction from atrocities, but despite tenacity of the authors I see very little scope for this in practise and a massive liability for any such effort to catastrophically backfire.

I also see no fair grounds for taking what strikes me as Desmet’s economy of didactic emphasis to signify denial of, or encouragement to generally ignore, the bulk of phenomena appealed to by the review, as opposed to similar types of claim that happen to be both false and fevered. I do suspect he might go too far in dismissal, though merely by way of understandably erring on that side, just as the review appears to me to err on the side of antagonistic overstatement, rather than with concepts or facts.

However, the adversarial rationale is not hard to comprehend in general or with regard to any detail of argument. Indeed such antagonism amounts to a vivid contrast scheme which serves as an efficient and lively means to convey a vast amount of what, at the very least, crucially compliments Desmet’s account.

Perhaps it would even be more correct to say that his account compliments it, though I don’t see sufficient evidence to decide which, if either, is primary.

In one of his first interviews, Desmet evinced a philosophical kinship with my own orientation in regard to characterising physicalism as inevitably fostering oppression, albeit useful to liberate from historical superstitions. There are also obvious parallels between the distributed responsibility his view entails and that expressed in my last two posts here on Medium.

I still haven’t managed to read his book and had not read this review (which I imagined would do no worse in locating any shortfalls) till after writing those pieces only two days ago, which makes me wonder about synchronicity.

Suppose for the sake of argument that we are afflicted exclusively by conspirators who are all fully comprehending of their monolithically joint action. Now imagine that they suddenly disappeared all at once. Would followers of Desmet on one side and, let’s say, James Corbett on the other, subsequently reduce the world to rubble through mutual hostilities?

I’m rather sad to say that I’m not sure they would avoid this outcome, since power could be theirs to divide and power corrupts, especially in the context of division and judgement, which are already relevant.

Perhaps they would find a path to unity, or even synergy of outlooks. But if so, what prevented them from achieving it thus far? Whatever it is, perhaps we would do well to get beyond as much, if only for better odds to overcome current oppression.