Mobs, Part 1

The reality of mobs

The formation of angry mobs lies at the heart of the politics of modernity.

We are living in an age of mobs, restless hordes of angry people intent on destroying evil. Stirring up an angry mob is an ancient route to power, and the techniques of mob formation are studied by politicians, consultants, writers and others. The main technique is simply to focus people’s dissatisfaction and fear and general angst onto a single cause—usually identified with a person or group. Simple messages—slogans or memes or chants—empty the mind of complexity and nuance. The evil must be destroyed, the story goes, then peace and order will return. Bill Clinton, who understood the process very well as both a perpetrator and a victim, called it the “politics of personal destruction.”

It’s alarmingly easy to be organized into a mob because our human desire to imitate has deep roots in our nature, and it isn’t usually a bad thing. Children come to consciousness—a long process of waking up—embedded in families and other social groups, and their desire to join those groups and fit in is delightful. Children ask questions and believe the answers. Their understanding of the world is linked to their “theory of mind”—their awareness that other people also have minds like their own. Two-year-olds talk about what they want and feel, but three-year-olds also talk about what others want and feel. Children who are better at recognizing and empathizing with what others are thinking and feeling are also better at resolving conflicts with friends. They are usually happier and more popular.

At around age four, children become more reflective about their understanding of others. They understand that people think different things and that sometimes people believe things that are not true, speaking or acting on the basis of false beliefs. It’s important to note how deeply imitative we are as children, not just of actions and gestures but also of emotions and beliefs. Researchers have found that when children encounter a menacing toy in experiments in which their mothers are present, the first thing most do is to look toward their mother. If she appears alarmed or frightened, they move away from the toy, but if she appears relaxed and happy, they move toward the toy. This is called “social referencing.” Many of the feelings we think are instinctive are in fact learned responses internalized through imitation of the people around us. Children learn language by following our gaze to see what we are seeing when we say “horse” or “cow.” And despite occasional forgetting or being overcome by tempting circumstances, child are mostly eager to learn and obey the thousands of rules that govern social life. They want to be taught who and what they are supposed to be. Children are attentive to adults, looking where they look, learning what to enjoy and what to shun. They want to know the rules. Kids pick up the natural language that is spoken around them with astonishing ease. From a very young age, they are blessed with undeniable genius.

However. Even at a very young age their ability to “tune in” can be used in unkind or destructive ways. Skilled liars and vicious bullies use the same intelligence that underlies compassion. Our ease at seeing what others want and wanting that too make us vulnerable to “catching” what is bad as well as what is good. Mob spirit is a contagion. People join mobs by letting go of their personal judgment and slipping into an anonymous delight in cheering what others cheer or booing what others boo. The character of mobs grows from the loss of individual judgment. The exhilaration of release into the crowd’s passion replaces the sometimes deeply troubling work of individual conscience, of sorting an overwhelming flood of information to find the right way.

Education, understood as the transfer of valuable knowledge from one generation to the next, is the most important work of any society. The most fundamental knowledge is held in the culture and is learned informally rather than in a rationalized school curriculum. The folkways of the culture do the deep work of education. This doesn’t mean, of course, that formal schooling doesn’t matter. There are reasons tyrants so often want control of the schools.

Even as adults we are somewhat “hard-wired” to want to join the group around us, and imitating the crowd comes easy. Today, we live in a society that is noisy with accusers pointing fingers at the wrongdoing of others along with counter-accusations that it is the accusers themselves who are the real evil. No doubt many of the accusers are evil, but this in itself does not make the accused innocent. People sense that society is fragmenting into competing mobs that view (and increasingly treat)others as rival gangs. Inevitably, we find ourselves organized into one or more of these contentious mobs from time to time. We have heard so many bad things about someone we once thought was doing the right thing that we hear ourselves passing on some of the destructive opinions without knowing of a certainty that they are true. They have come to seem true. This pattern of angry groups attacking and blaming each other is one of the oldest patterns in history.

Mobs are ancient. They can form quickly, and those in the midst of a society where a mob is forming are often organized into its passions without being fully conscious of what is happening. Various groups identify some evil they are committed to destroying (and indeed there is plenty of evil to go around so the accusations seem plausible). Typically, the accusers arouse uncritical passion rather than presenting the story with the care and precision that justice would require. The goal, not always clear even to the perpetrator, is to amass power rather than to do justice. The discourse tends toward rage.

In the American South, the recurrent pattern of lynch mobs murdering victims (nearly always black) who were, more often than not, innocent of the inflammatory accusations swirling through the mob was finally ended in the mid-twentieth century by imposing an external hierarchy of justice, with investigations and witness testimony and judges who were not part of the local contagion. The challenge for people who want justice—doing the right thing by establishing clear truth so the right thing is clear—is to stay free of being organized into the pattern of what RJnJ Girard called “violent contagion” where we see the evil of the other side and feel plausibly threatened by it. When we are in that state we are tempted to join moral crusades to destroy evil. Violence seems necessary to restore peace.

As we gain experience of such things, we see that the pattern of contention can be itself a worse problem than any particular example of the pattern, and we may ironically note that we aren’t likely to get free of the pattern by destroying the evildoers who bring the pattern to our attention. We are organized into the pattern, even as it seems the evil of those who hate us leaves no real choice. The violence demands a violent response. We see the trap without seeing a way out of it, so many of us are conflicted inside.

We have a lot to think about, and we don’t want our passions to get out of control. We understand that we need a cool head and considerable courage in the face of genuine threats. We know we need justice, and we know we also need mercy and we want the wisdom to balance them. Whatever side we feel tempted to join, we have the capacity to see that at least some people on the other side also feel threatened and are acting out of fear, and so we suspect that any enduring solution will require us to act in ways that don’t cause others to fear us. But the right move is not always clear when we have enemies—people who desire to destroy us. And we do have enemies, those who accuse us of having intentions that we don’t have or of being guilty of deeds that we didn’t do.

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