We look briefly today an important part of life in the 21st century – crowds and crowd behaviour. Techniques and communication have changed greatly. But the psychology is identical in all crowds that have ever existed.
Consider these words:
Organised crowds have always played an important part in the life of peoples. The substitution of the subconscious action of crowds for the for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.” “The modern age represents a period of transition and anarchy. It is not easy to say as yet what will one day evolve from this necessarily somewhat chaotic period.
The writer is Gustave le Bon. His wonderful book “Psychology of Crowds” to which I have referred before, appeared in 1905. In that year, the Russian army surrendered to Japan in Port Arthur. Las Vegas was founded. The UK designed and built the first battleship leading to an arms race. And the Wright brothers second plane flew for 39 minutes.
Turn now to the present. In its Tracker, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that over 100 significant anti-government protests have taken place around the world in the last three years. The Endowment estimates that 30 Government/Leaders have fallen as a result.
Gustave le Bon would not be surprised. He would still maintain no doubt that no-one can foretell how this will end.
The Endowment suggests that each protest is different and has different objectives. And yet, to those who followed the Hong Kong protests, almost all others have a similar ring to them. Black-clad protesters with colourful umbrellas. Yellow helmets and plumes of tear gas. Leaderless crowds standing off against brutal police. Protests in places as different as Thailand, Belarus, Lebanon, the UK, South America and the United States – are strikingly like the anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year.
Dictatorialness and intolerance are common in all categories of crowds.
Social media has been central to helping protesters everywhere draw global attention to their protests. This form of crowd communication has enabled its users to become intolerant to any other view. Indeed:
Crowds do not reason; if they do, they reason falsely.
Le Bon believes this black-and-white approach leads to intolerance and fanaticism, the necessary accompaniments of religious sentiment. Modern protestors even have a hymn – ‘Can You Hear the People Sing’ (Les Miserables.)
The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke and is quite independent of their real significance.
Consider some of these slogans that protestors have used.
This is our collective battle, for our values, for a world we want to live in.Hong Kong
If Hongkongers are brave enough to fight for their future, despite the overwhelming odds, then why shouldn’t we?Thailand
No-one is free when others are oppressed.Anonymous
Eat the rich.attributed to Rousseau and often used since
Can we honestly say what these slogans mean? Come to that, the often quoted ‘freedom and democracy’ cry is an emotional phrase that almost everyone interprets differently. But words whose sense is the most obscure, are often those that are most appealing.
They can also be sinister. Robespierre founded the Jacobin movement, a ‘club’ that helped lead the French revolution. Their slogan included the phrase ‘liberty and fraternity’ – still used today. But their tactics were to terrorise, massacre and exercise despotic rule over millions of French people. In protests around the world today we see many similar examples of grand sounding words and themes used to justify criminal violence and death.
Crowds have always been a part of human life. They have always behaved in similar ways, whatever their cause, location or century. By joining a crowd an intelligent person becomes part of something much bigger than they are.
They also become significantly less intelligent.