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.