Love people, hate crowds

Those professing love for mankind in general are often incapable of loving anyone in particular. I’m the exact opposite of that.

I tend to love people individually, at least until they give me a strong reason not to. But assemble them into crowds, and I despise them collectively.

Some of this contempt might have been caused by a childhood experience. My cousin, a boy of 14, was trampled to death by a stampeding crowd at a Moscow football stadium. I was only one at the time, so I never knew him. But my mother always used that tragedy as a cautionary tale, a lesson in how brutal crowds could be.

I don’t know whether my hatred of multitudes is rooted in that experience or some innate inclination. One way or the other, I learned from an early age either to avoid crowds or else zigzag through them at speed, neither jostling nor jostled.

Even now, decades later, I dash through our local market at twice the speed of the ambling crowd, only ever slowing down when something tasty catches my eye. Other shoppers, most of them unhurried country folk, look at me as if I were mad.

I don’t think I am. It’s just that I’ve had plenty of time to post-rationalise that natural instinct, turning it into knowledge. Perhaps one could argue that most knowledge is like that, an intuition thought through. Most rationalisation is in fact post-rationalisation.

Hence, over all those decades, I began to understand why I love people and hate crowds. For a crowd is less than the sum of its parts – less intelligent, less moral, less kind, less human.

Every one of us is created in the image and likeness of God. That’s why we possess some inchoate godlike gifts: free will, moral sense, creative ability, a mind that’s a particle of God’s mind. The more a person develops those gifts, the closer he gets to God – and the more human he becomes.

The reverse is also true. When a person wantonly rejects those gifts, by word and especially by deed, he becomes less human and more simian. Darwin got it the wrong way around: the ape isn’t our past, it’s our future. It’s an illustration of what happens when human beings abuse their humanity. It’s not for nothing that Augustine called Satan “the ape of God”.

My point is that, assembled into a crowd, individuals trample their humanity to death, the way that Moscow crowd trampled my cousin’s body. They put their free will on hold; they ignore their moral sense; they replace their creative ability with destructive urges; they switch off their minds.

It has always been thus for, while individuals die, in this world at any rate, crowds are immortal. They are always on their eternal rampage like a herd of wild beasts, and they always want to drag others in – banishing or even killing those who cling on to their humanity.

Long before the non-term ‘peer pressure’ was coined, great thinkers wrote about the destructive magnetism of crowds. Both Plato and Aristotle, who miraculously escaped the fate of Plato’s teacher Socrates, warned against it. And Suetonius wrote about grex venalium, a venal throng. He didn’t make the next logical step to say that any throng is always venal.

That step was later taken by Gustave Le Bon, in his book A Study of the Popular Mind. Writing about crowds, he singled out their “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgement of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments…”

The temptation to dissolve oneself in a crowd is strong, and few of us have suppressed it successfully over a lifetime. We often don’t find out until later that the bandwagon we jumped on with such alacrity has turned into a runaway train, hard to jump off.

Or perhaps the metaphor of a tidal wave is more precise. It grabs a hapless bather and carries him off to sea. Unless he is a strong and determined swimmer, he’ll be lost for ever.

Man may have been a gregarious animal to Aristotle, but he isn’t gregarious in the way of herd ruminants. That’s why I feel so uneasy watching people seek tribal association, whereby they can pool (and hence lose) their individuality with thousands of others. They betray their humanity and, vicariously, mine as well.

Advertising shows how easy crowds are to manipulate. For it’s never individuals of flesh and blood who are the targets of ads. It’s always faceless numbers, ticks on a statistical chart.

That’s not quite as innocuous as it sounds. For if a crowd en masse has a set of toggle switches that can be flicked to elicit the urgent desire to buy a tube of toothpaste, it also has a set of buttons that can be pushed to trigger a catastrophe.

Those beefy burghers who screamed Heil Hitler through thousands of hoarse throats, or their Russian equivalents glorifying Stalin just as thunderously, could have been made to swap places with ease.

Flick a few switches, push a few buttons, and those Russians would have glorified Hitler with the same gusto as those Germans would have yelled Heil Stalin. And the flags flapping in the wind would have been the same red colour, if with different superimposed symbols.

It’s not just the nasty regimes that encourage herd instincts. Modernity as such promotes, nay dictates, collectivism at the expense of individuality.

This is noticeable in modern manufacturing, with its automated assembly lines and masses of interchangeable, dispensable workers sticking to minute, stupefyingly fractured and monotonous tasks. If in the past most of the things people used or consumed came from farmers and artisans, today they come from depersonalised and dehumanised mega factories.

Trained throughout their working life to be ‘team players’ working in concert, the same people follow the herd in the after hours too. They sink the same swinish number of pints as everyone else and join the stampede to the football grounds, where they’ll scream obscenities at the fans sporting a different strip.

The steady expansion of franchise in modern democracies is part of the same problem. The wider the franchise, the less significant is each individual vote.

It stands to reason that political operators use the same polling techniques as admen. They don’t look at men and women; they look at percentages. They care only about creating blocs of votes, which is tantamount to shepherding human sheep together, using empty phrases as prods.

All the same sheep can easily float from one flock to another and back again, depending on which empty phrases are more effective as prods at this moment. The underlying assumption sold to the masses is that throwing millions of selfish interests (or rather contrived perceptions of such interests) into the same bubbling cauldron will produce a uniform stew of political virtue.

It doesn’t. Rising to the top instead, surely and predictably, is the scum of demagogues who, deep down, despise the malleable crowds as much as admen do. They don’t see the trees of individuals for the forest of percentages.

I shudder with equal revulsion at the sight of Labour activists singing the Internationale in chorus and one of Trump activists yelling “Make America Great Again”. The second group probably contains more individuals I could like, but they aren’t acting as individuals. Rather, they are baying beasts in a herd.

That’s not what creatures made in the image and likeness of God should be. And every time I see them being exactly that, I imagine the mangled body of that boy stamped into the dirt by thousands of human hooves in Moscow, circa 1949.

14 thoughts on “Love people, hate crowds”

  1. It calls to mind what you wrote about Tolstoy professing love for ‘humanity’ whilst being rather unpleasant to those closest to him.

    Awful to hear about your cousin. I wouldn’t have thought there’d be any appetite for such carnage in Russia so soon after the big war.

    1. It was an accident. A crowd of ticketless fans were pushing against a closed gate. Then suddenly the gate was flung open, and the mob rushed in. The weaker people, mostly children, were pushed to the ground, and a dozen of them suffered my cousin’s fate. My uncle and his wife never really recovered.

  2. A very poignant piece. Do you think there is something in the Russian or German character that made them more vulnerable to partaking in the mob behavior that characterized Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and Germany under Hitler? Or to put it another way, more likely to be stimulated to mob excesses by demagogic leaders?

    1. Watching sports fans in Britain, Holland or Norway, or political demonstrators in France or Spain, I find it hard to ascribe a heightened herd instincts specifically to Germany and Russia. I think of the Paris mob who worshiped their king and queen only to turn into murderous ghouls overnight. Or further back, those Athenians who liked the oddball who walked through the agora asking people uncomfortable questions – only to cheer thunderously when Socrates was put to death. I think this is a generally human characteritic, in the sense in which propensity for killing is also one such. It’s the role of civilisation to mitigate the rotten sides of human nature and encourage the good ones. And that’s where you may have a point. Germany and Russia are the most cultured nations in Europe, but the least civilised. That came to the fore when the historical screws were tightened in the 20th century.

  3. As you say, this is a general human characteristic. In recent times just look at the mob behaviour (exacerbated by social media which encourage herd behaviour) that characterises issues such as climate change, Brexit and the current Covid disaster, where people’s attitudes seem to be largely determined by tribal allegiance and are unaffected by such things as facts, evidence or rational argument. Again, as well as Le Bon see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and his discussion of the elephant and the rider and the hive switch. He argues that these behaviours are a consequence of the way the human brain is structured and has developed. He concludes by thinking that people are stuck in their moral matrix which they are unable to escape from – not much scope for optimism it seems to me. I imagine that this is why he chooses for the epigraph to his book a quote from Spinoza: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.”

  4. “Flick a few switches, push a few buttons, and those Russians would have glorified Hitler with the same gusto as those Germans would have yelled Heil Stalin. ”

    Thankfully I have a profound and unmalleable mind and am not subject to crowd hysteria and manipulation. I also cannot stand the smell of tobacco products. There.

  5. Your piece recalled a review of Everett Dean Martin’s “The Behavior of Crowds” penned by H.L. Mencken in 1921 and reprinted in “H.L. Mencken’s Smart Set Criticism,” an anthology edited by William Nolte and published in 1987. Mencken wrote then that “[w]e live in a time when … [a]ll the old restraints upon the swinishness of men in the mass are falling away, and the world is gradually coming to be run on principles borrowed from the communal ethics and politics of wolves and hyenas…” He points out that this phenomenon has been “scarcely looked into at all,” and that the “whole literature of crowd psychology” still consists only of Le Bon’s two books and the Martin study. Mencken thinks Martin’s book is an an improvement on Le Bon’s because it points out the error of the latter in “assuming that crowd thinking is confined to the actual herd, and that educated men do not indulge in it.” As Mencken writes, “All of us belong to crowds of one sort or another, and all of us, on occasion, think as crowd men, which is to say, emotionally, orgiastically, idiotically.” At the same time, Mencken regards Martin’s cure for crowd emotions and crowd superstitions — the education of the individual “as a truly civilized man — as unrealistic because the “whole educational machine in the United States has fallen into the hands of the dominant mob…” The time when “a pedagogue of the higher sort was a relatively free agent” and believed he “was superior to the mob and didn’t give a hoot for the mob,” Mencken said, has disappeared — and now he is “preeminently … the willing agent of of all sorts of disgusting crowd propagandas, the servile valet of the unintelligent and unspeakable.”

    1. You can add Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddhin’s book The Menace of the Herd. He clearly saw the dangers of the herd mentality where he stated that democratism and the herd, while remaining loyal to the principle of equality and identity would never hesitate to sacrifice liberty.

  6. The modern ethos seems to be to view all of us as groups (herds, mobs) rather than individuals. One company where I consult has taken this to an art form. While championing “diversity” with every breath, they also push segregation. There is a “resource group” (what used to be called management club) for nearly every aspect of humanity: women, American Indians, blacks, young employees, Hispanics, Asian-Pacific employees, veterans, the disabled, and of course, sodomites and transsexuals. Which group should a young, black, disabled, female veteran employee join? I think the answer lies in which group currently seems to suffer the most egregious “ism”.

    They have gone so far as to ask all “disabled” employees to register their disability and consent to be interviewed regarding the disability, how it affects their lives, and how calling out the disability will help them overcome it in the workplace. I must be mad, but I thought most disabled folk want nothing more than to be treated as if no disability existed, not be exalted for it.

    The company touts the phrase “We’re all one company”, but with such legislated segregation, it is hard to swallow.

  7. Oh so true – and there is book in this Mr B, if you’d care to expand…

    I think your background in advertising will lend some fascinating insights into this. Rory Sutherland, writing for the Spectator, has made me aware that there is more science in advertising than art.

    My father always said that it’s the ‘rats in barrel’ syndrome – where rats will cooperate, in a confined environment, up to a given number whence they will start eating each other.

    Both my wife and I grew up in rural environments. We met in Paris where we had both experienced a few years of apartment living in a large city.

    We’ve both now retreated to the countryside in her native Spain and hold to the maxim that: ‘Hell is other people’ (except the next individual(s) you meet).

    1. I spent 30 years writing adverising copy and running creative departments, which was the only painless way I found of making a decent living and still having plenty of time to do things that really mattered. Advertising is indeed a blend of art, science and, increasingly, double-entry accounting. Agencies used to be run by creatives; then marketing men took over, and now it’s accountants ruling the roost. But there always was a blend. What both fascinated and appalled me about adverising is that it worked. People lend themselves to being treated as faceless statistics. I was always astounded that things I wrote about this or that product made thousands buy it. After all, I could have just as easily written ghastly things about this product, while lauding its competitor. In my book How the West Was Lost I have a whole chapter on the inherent dishonesty of advertising.

      1. I will be interested in reading that chapter and the rest of your provocatively titled book. Perhaps the worst aspect of advertising is that in its most refined and effective forms it is now a staple of political campaigns in Western democracies, and to that extent has become an important and to my mind deleterious influence on governmental policy and legislation. George Kennan, in his “Around the Cragged Hill” (published at age 89), says that it would go too far to label commercial advertising as “untruth,” because most of it contains some element of truth; and he instead describes it as “not necessarily truth, and largely something else.” Kennan said that the real difficulty comes when advertisers borrow the legitimacy of nonadvertising material by associating it with that material on the tv screen or the newspaper page. And also when advertisers use such things as doctors’ gowns, nurses’ uniforms, priests’ robes, or even expressions like “doctors say” in their ads. In these ways, Kennan said, advertisers attempt to conflate “truth” with “not necessarily truth,” and they abuse and ultimately weaken the public’s confidence in medical and other professsional groups. And public confidence in those professions, he adds, “is essential to the very strength and health of a society.”

        1. Advertising doesn’t lie, in the sense of saying deliberate falsehoods. It deceives – lies by omission and by attaching undue significance to trivial features. As I said, I wrote a longish chapter about it.

  8. Very timely piece Mr Boot – looks like we’re all on the same page. I too have always had an aversion to crowds, ever more so now keeping me away from concerts and football, with the irony being that no one can attend these anyway! And the various govts are encouraging us to be one giant global blob, accepting all the 2+2=5 they’re forcing onto us, soon at the point of a gun sadly, or needle.

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