The madness of crowdsby AC Grayling / August 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
John Donne’s observation that people are not isolated entities—“No man is an island”—is not quite a truism, because there are indeed solitaries, anchorites and society-shunning misanthropes among us; but it is nearly so, because it captures the fact that as essentially social animals we need our connections with others, our friendships and our exchanges of affection and dependency.
This is what explains the phenomenon of taking sides. You might be watching a sporting event in which you have no particular interest regarding who wins, and yet soon find yourself preferring one side to the other. It is hard to stay aloof in any division of opinion, any quarrel or conflict. Sometimes one can think, “a plague on both your houses,” but that is a relatively rare state of disinterest. We like to belong, even vicariously.
This group thinking was no doubt of evolutionary advantage to our earliest forebears, given that clubbing together against a tiger or gang of marauding strangers has obvious survival value. In more recent times the natural inclination to get caught up in group feeling has had less constructive outcomes. The madness of crowds, their manipulability by demagogues, the collective blood-lust of lynch-mobs, are frightening examples of how something monstrous still lurks below the individual level of consciousness, making people do as one of a mob what one would never dream of doing on one’s own.