Dispatches # 5: Rallies and groupthink

I’ve been thinking about what makes people into groupies, frantic cheering mindless crowds, all a-thrill with the presence of their Great Leader, whether she or he is a dictator, a saint, or a pop-star. The thing is, of course, that they’re not a mindless crowd. They’re a thousand individual minds all screaming and shrieking and cheering and shouting and ready to go along without whatever is being proposed because … because everybody else is? To dismiss it as that seems a bit of a cop-out in trying to understand. Every single person there has to decide, yes or no, to whatever is going on. Presumably most who follow do so because they want to, because they agree with whatever the harangue is about. Once the majority is agreeing, those who would rather not agree mostly go along anyway, because they’re afraid it may be dangerous not to.

School pep rallies, freshman initiation mobs and the like, have always been quite horrifying to me, but then, I don’t like crowds much. Everyone goes along with it, but I just don’t get why. Saying, “Synchronized shouting, just like Nuremberg,” didn’t make me popular during Freshman orientation. (Nor did cursing and threatening violence when a bunch of thugs used a passkey to get into my residence room to haul me out for initiation at three in the morning during frosh week. Y’know, that’s when you call the police — strangers breaking into your house and pulling you from the bed in the night. Unless it is the police. In which case it’s time for the revolution. Though mind you, the threat of mayhem did make them go away. They even shut the door behind them. However, if the danger incurred by resisting had been prison, or guns, or other unpleasantness more unpleasant than a bunch of puerile second-years being mad at me for a few weeks, would I have had the courage of my convictions? That’s a very sobering question.) Anyway, I thought that in this bit of the book I was going to have to have someone haranguing the multitude, and so have been trying to understand the multitude’s reaction. As it is, I managed to narrow it down a mere passing procession, due in part to the slight nervousness that this might turn out to be merely a third through after all, and the fewer mass rallies that get into it, the better. Besides, I think there’s a better place for it later on. I’m reading The Anatomy of Fascism, while thinking about these things.

I’ve only ever been to one real mass rally, and that was when Jesse Jackson spoke in West Berlin, at a rally “against racism and fascism” on a VE Day in the eighties. It was a very strange experience. The space all around the Ged√§chtniskirche was packed, seething with bodies, and this tiny, distant little figure spoke, amplified, of course. When Caesar and the like were haranguing their legions, as assorted Roman histories would assert they did so frequently, how did they hear? Was it a case of rumour sweeping back from the front; did officers get an abstract to read out before or afterwards? Anyway, it was masses of people, listening and breaking into periodic cheers, which drowned out whatever came after the phrase that touched off the cheering. Jackson had a very dramatic oratorical style. He also had a translator. The way it was supposed to work was, he declaimed a bit, paused, and she translated, either from what he had said, or from a printed text — I was too far back to see and wasn’t athletic enough to join those climbing the lamp-posts. Carried away by his own oratory, though, he eventually surged on, talking over her, sweeping by, unpausing. Eventually she got fed up and went and sat down. And the thing that interested me at the time was that nobody seemed to notice or care. I had trouble following him, due to the distance (despite the sound system) and the echoes, and his regional American accent. How many of the Germans not in the front rows, however good their English, actually picked out more than a word here and there? But they cheered and they cheered, and they stood enthralled for a very long time. I was there with a Californian and a Swede, and neither of them could make out all of what was being said, either. So what were people listening to? Their own enthusiasm for what they thought he might be saying? The mere thrill of seeing a famous man, a celebrity of politics? Or was it the emotional kick of being part of a group, the power of “we are one”? I’m still musing over that, because whatever it was, it was a bit frightening; I couldn’t help thinking that quite a few people there might have been there anyway, cheering just as loudly, if Jackson had been preaching on a different text entirely. Humans are easily persuaded by emotion; reason is hard. In a good cause or a bad, a charismatic speaker who makes his appeals to the emotions seems able to pull people his way, starting with the ones who share his beliefs or fears, but drawing in the previously indifferent or unpersuaded. Once a certain mass of followers for a person or an idea is reached, it becomes easier to go along than not, to belong for the sake of belonging, or for the sake of not standing outside, alone and vulnerable.

Anyway, I think I’ve just hit the halfway mark in the current project. Either that, or it’s a third of the way through, in which case it’s going to be looong. I think it’s half. After all, I just need a small war and a revolution; sure, lots of room to cram those in. Really.

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About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at thewildforest.wordpress.com
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One Response to Dispatches # 5: Rallies and groupthink

  1. KV Johansen says:

    I read the first part of Gustave Le Bon’s book on The Crowd, too, while thinking about this subject. Interesting. His description of why a crowd acts the way it does seemed plausible psychology, though the bit that boils down to “being part of a crowd reduces men to the intellectual level of women, children, and savages” was … amusing. We’ll call it amusing, from the distance of a century-plus, keeping in mind that even among his contemporaries that particular attitude was not universal, thank goodness.

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