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.
Some would hotly deny that supporting a football club or the national team has anything to do with the hysteria of a mass rally at Nuremberg. The good-natured singing on the stands, the sense of affinity with thousands of like-minded folk wearing the same-coloured scarves, is of course a thing to be celebrated: it is a paradigm of the harmony of togetherness, at least on one side of the ground. The point is that it is not just in very different circumstances, in bad places and times, that the same community of sentiment can go horribly wrong: it used regularly to go horribly wrong on those self-same stands.
John F Kennedy famously said that hell’s hottest depths are kept for those who stay neutral when the moral stakes are high. He is…