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The madding crowd
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 11 - 2009


By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
What fiendish force lies within the headless mind of a maddened crowd! Ordinary people can typically gain extraordinary power by acting collectively. A crowd takes on a life force of its own; moving as one in spirit and will, swayed by words, ideas, leaders, nations or even a football game. They merge in concert with irrational enthusiasm, knowing not why or where to. Crowds are empowered by their emotions, passion or panic. They act in great rhythm, but little reason.
Theories for explaining crowd psychology abound. Psychologist Carl Jung coined the idea of "collective unconscious". Sigmund Freud suggested that crowd behaviour differs significantly from individual behavior. With enthusiasm reaching a high pitch, individuals become unaware of the true nature of their acts. The insanity of an angry mob has been a subject of extensive research for over a century. Crowds have been instrumental in bringing about dramatic and social changes throughout history. Some of us may still remember the visual impact of German crowds furiously pulling down the Berlin Wall between East and West.
This mass of humanity, may be old or young, sick or healthy, rich or poor, good or bad, male or female. Choked by emotion they are motivated as one, forgetting their individual spirit and convictions. Often hopeless or hysterical, they are overwhelmed by the power they gain when acting in communion with a group. One of the leading thinkers of crowd psychology is Gustave Le Bon (1841- 1931) who considered himself the founder of "crowd psychology". In fact Le Bon was a pioneer in propaganda, which he believed was a suitable technique for managing and stirring crowds. Adolf Hitler was highly influenced by Le Bon's theories presented in his book "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind". Hitler's "Mein Kampf" regularly refers to Le Bon's ideas. One can safely say that Fascism manipulated society, by arousing man's behaviour, with or without the desires of the participants. That is what rendered Fascist crowds so merciless, unapproachable and dangerous. Such crowds do not stop to reason.
While many social scientists support this classic theory, it has its detractors. Accepting the premise that crowd behaviour reflects the desires of participants. It is never entirely predictable. Some scientists believe that crowds are not entirely irrational. Consider delirious crowds at a rock concert or mesmerized audiences of Om Kulthoum, Marie Callas or Susan Boyle. Patterns of behaviour emerge in the crowd itself. Hence the "emergent- norm" theory of Ralph Turner and Lewis Killian which suggests that people in a crowd take on different roles, producing the flood of emotions which overpowers a group.
The "convergence theory", adopted by most, claims that crowd behaviour is not irrational; rather people in crowds express existing beliefs and values. Thus crowds are only a convergence of like-minded individuals. Contrary to the "contagion theory", convergence brings people who wish to act in a certain way.
The conclusion is that as individuals are different in body and soul, so are crowds. Some crowds converge, some emerge, some act spontaneously and some are caught up emotionally. Others, gutless and inept, find nerve and courage in the fiery fervour of a "madding crowd".
Revolutions originate in a discontented crowd. They penetrate the soul of the multitudes, exaggerating all issues and all sentiments. With the French Revolution, as backdrop, Gustave Le Bon pictures crowds as primitive animals incapable of responding to the influences of reason. Not all men retain the refinement of a Gandhi. Yet despite his mild and passive behaviour, he managed to stir mad mobs, and ended up a victim to one of his maddened objectors.
Man in a crowd descends to a very low degree in the scale of civilization. He is transformed into the savage he was once, with all of the savage's shortcomings as well as attributes. He is at once a criminal and a hero. Skeptics become believers, misers become generous, honest men commit crimes.
Why have anthropologists revealed our ancestors to be ignorant ferocious brutes? Jean Jacques Rousseau, Father of the French Revolution, believed that "the fundamental principle of all morality", "is that man is a being, naturally good, loving justice and order". Perhaps it is civilization itself that transformed him into a modern savage. What takes place today is the product of this modern society, the age of human reason and human rights -- not the age of human instincts of love and compassion. If our primitive ancestors were guilty of errors, at least they were excusable. What excuses does our modern civilization offer?
Lennin once said "give me 100 committed, totally committed men, and I'll change the world". He nearly did. Following in his footsteps, came along Adolph Hitler, whose acts did change the world, at least its geography. Young brown shirted men and women followed this madman to such extremes that men had yet to reach. Their unified cry of "Hitler we are yours", destroyed a whole continent that became embroiled in a second World War, from which they are yet to recover. How about Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution! Have you ever read his "Little Red Book"? It helped propel the fury and fervour of the Chinese Red Guard, who carried out a violent and anarchic revolution.
Leaders, politicians and men of religion are quite aware of the power they wield ruling men's minds. Spiritual men often appeal not to the natural goodness within, but often to the fear and violence dictated by the various social and political conditions in our modern civilization.
Stadiums are places where crowds become mad monsters, influenced by some numbers on a score- board. Reason is forbidden from entering. Those who leave Reason at the gates, often forget to retrieve it on their way out. Wars have started in South America as a result of a football match. "The madding crowd" is unbeatable and whoever holds the power to sway them holds the key to destruction. Why can we not see more Gandhis and Martin Luther Kings? Has our civilization totally eliminated those who believe in man's natural basic instincts of kindness and goodness? Has our modern civilization handed us an insurmountable list of paramount world problems that have slowly but surely transformed humankind into savage beasts?
"Where does one go from a world of insanity? Somewhere on the other side of despair".
-- T S Eliot (1888-1965)


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