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“In crowds the foolish, ignorant, and envious persons are freed from the sense of their insignificance and powerlessness, and are possessed instead by the notion of brutal and temporary but immense strength.”
This line, part of Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 opus on behavioral psychology, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, foreshadowed the approach of a violent age: an “ERA OF CROWDS,” all caps, according to the author.
At the time, Le Bon’s assessment frankly must have scared the bejesus out of everyone.
Now, those warnings about the power of collective irrationally—and the “disappearance of brain activity” that goes with it—seem like the quaint personality of a bygone age.
It’s no coincidence that Benito Mussolini supposedly knew the book by heart.
Anyway, for the last three Wednesdays (including today), I have been forcefully reminded of The Crowd’s lessons.
As a result, I’ll avoid large groups for as long as I live.
Well, it’s not all that bad. Actually, the Red Sox riots on Kenmore and around Fenway—following clinchers on Oct. 21 and Oct. 27 against the Yankees and Cardinals—were strangely liberating.
That’s the scary part.
“He is no longer conscious of his acts…He is no longer himself, but has become an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”
Okay, so maybe I shouldn’t have joined the “Burn it dooooowwwn—clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” chant that raged inside our Green Line T car after World Series Game 4.
In reality, I did not plan to burn down Boston. It seems like a great city.
“Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.”
Imagine my surprise when, minutes later, I found myself in the middle of a street battle between riot police and Bostonians.
“Throw what you’ve got!” screamed an overweight man with bloodshot eyes. Glass bottles rained on the heavily-armored cops like giant water droplets.
I stayed clear of the focus but still found myself a candidate for A. random arrest or B. fan-on-fan violence.
The police, for their part, did a terrific job of controlling the environment. Even as they were attacked by flying projectiles, they remained calm and didn’t overreact.
In only a couple of hours, the crowd was gone.
“…the individual forming part of a crowd acquires, solely from numerical considerations, a sentiment of invincible power which allows him to yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint.”
One man turned this rule on its head and should be applauded for it.
When a quartet of large, scary men began rocking an unoccupied Saturn on a nearby dark street—with the obvious intent to turn it over—our hero clearly felt “invincible” enough to challenge them personally.
“This isn’t what Boston is about!” he screamed, and the men, glaring back, stopped.
“The transformed sentiments may be better or worse than those of the individuals of which the crowd is composed…A crowd is as easily heroic as criminal.”
Yesterday, our fellow citizens felt compelled to vote for President of the United States.
Whoever won the electoral vote (hopefully someone has by now) matters not; voting, as the act of a large crowd, is worthy of none but the greatest human dignity.
Hopefully Boston plays it safe if Kerry wins.
If he does, I think I’ll stay away from any victory rallies. I’ve learned my lesson.
—Staff writer Alex McPhillips can be reached at email@example.com.
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