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I'm reading a book called The Crowd published in 1896 written by a Frenchman, Gustave Le Bon. It may be the earliest study of mob psychology and it is very interesting and revealing. Le Bon asserts that certain crowds essentially abandon individual thinking for the collective mind which, when you think about it, is self-evident. He puts it this way:
Under certain given circumstances, and only under those circumstances, an agglomeration of men presents new characteristics very different from those of the individuals composing it. The sentiments and ideas of all the persons in the gathering take one and the same direction, and their conscious personality vanishes. A collective mind is formed, doubtless transitory, but presenting very clearly defined characteristics. The gathering has thus become what, in the absence of a better expression, I will call an organised crowd, or, if the term is considered preferable, a psychological crowd. It forms a single being, and is subjected to the law of the mental unity of crowds.Can you think of any recent events that fit this profile? I immediately thought of the Black Lives Matter mobs and the anti-police riots in Ferguson. Then there are the more recent mob actions like the Women's Hate-Trump March and the protests over Trump's executive order on immigration. All of these protests have involved a single unified mindset: hate cops or hate Trump. The rhetoric (and often the actions) are nasty and violent at least verbally. In some cases individuals outside the collective are physically attacked, for example with the inauguration protests.
Le Bon points out that individuals in an organized crowd will often do things they would not do if they were not part of the crowd. Think of looting and burning and the recent incident in New Haven where a crowd protesting the travel ban blocked an ambulance carrying a seriously ill patient. How many people would endanger a person's life deliberately if they were on their own?
A big group of people is not necessarily a "crowd" as Le Bon describes it. Only when they rally around a single event or idea do they take on the psychological characteristics of the crowd, or mob as I prefer to call them. And they don't need to be geographically together. An entire nation can become an organized crowd rallying around a fixed idea:
The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd. The psychological crowd is aLe Bon uses the French Revolution as an example where very normal people committed incredible atrocities as part of the the Reign of Terror. When the revolution passed they returned to their ordinary lives. Recall the shock among the tribunals trying Nazi war criminals when they found people like the banal little bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann who marked so many for death as well as others in the collective who argued they were "Just following orders." They abandoned their consciences for what was "politically correct" at the time.
provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.
I will be posting more on this and encourage you to read it for yourself. It's online here.
One last thought. I went to Trinity College right down the street from Catholic University. I once participated in a one-act play from Eugene Ionesco's body of "theatre of the absurd" plays. My friend, a drama major, chose The Leader for her directing class.
Reading Le Bon's work reminded me of the play which had a small crowd pursuing their "leader." Someone would say they saw him and the crowd would run there. Then another sighting took us to the other side of the stage. By the end of the short work we were running back and forth bleating "Leeeeeader....leeeeeeeeader." Then at the end, the crowd found the leader and in a shocked air of disillusionment an individual in the crowd said, "But the leader has no head."
Exactly! The mindless crowd follows an equally mindless leader of the mob. But the real "leaders" are behind the scenes. Men like Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden who organized the attack on Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and attempted to "bork" Clarence Thomas orchestrating mob opposition with lies and slander. Today we see the same thing happening with everything Trump does. The behind the scenes leaders use the mob who mindlessly mouth their slogans like "Love trumps hate!" and "Not My President!" to delegitimize everything the president does.
Will it work? I hope not. Hopefully enough Americans continue to think critically and will take the common sense strategy of pulling back the curtain to expose the frauds pulling the strings.