Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How a Mob Forms

Almost a year ago the Manchester Guardian published a frightening article (republished on Alternet) about the influence of Fox News, which stated that "[o]ne in four Americans believes "most or all" of what's said on Fox News, despite Fox's fabrication of everything from death panels to Climategate."

I have noticed that in study after study of gullibility, pliability, and outright insanity, there seems to be a consistent finding that about a quarter of the test subjects are extremely vulnerable.

The Asch Experiments, studying conformity, the Milgram experiments, studying blind obedience, and data on the incidence of serious mental illness all show around the same percentage of the population is essentially irrational and out of control.  These studies have shown that anywhere from 25 to 35 percent of any population is disturbed in some fashion--simply unable to see or react to reality in a rational manner. 

I have also noticed that many times those who are more rational will go along with, or give undue deference to, whichever person or group frightens them the most.  To my mind, this is a huge moral failure on their part:  doing what is easier rather than what is right.

It has occurred to me that this is how mobs form--they coalesce around the core of scary, out of control people because most other people are scared of them.  They would rather go along to get along and are probably simply happy that they are not the mob's target.  Such people console themselves that the target has "brought this upon him or herself" by not being "smart" enough to go along with the crowd.

What religion and right wing political movements have in common is that they both use the emotionally disturbed and mentally challenged as weapons.  They push the emotional buttons of such people, whip them into a frenzy and then point them toward their political opponents.  

I think that this describes much of what is occurring in American politics today.  The religious and political right are taking advantage of the instinctual, emotional desire present in most people to protect the young.  They convince people that fetuses are actually "babies" and use this instinctual desire to whip them into a moral frenzy that blinds them to other considerations. 

If that doesn't work on particular individuals, then they use racism.  This takes the form of objections to taxes and the size of Government.  Such objections arouse feelings of selfishness and fear of those who are different (usually black people or Hispanics).

Those who object to taxes and "big Government" are almost always completely unperturbed by obscene levels of defense spending and unprovoked wars against those who are "different" (currently, Muslims).  What they object to, in a most vociferous fashion, is spending to help those who are poor.  This is obviously because the poor in the U.S. have historically been black or Hispanic.

Putting aside these political questions, it is useful to be aware of the dynamics of mob formation because, as non-believers, we are uniquely vulnerable to mob action.  Our non-belief gives a ready made weapon to anyone who takes a dislike to us.  Should that person be manipulative and a bit (or a lot) psychopathic, he or she can use this to whip the core of the mob into a frenzy.  If this is done in the workplace, a church, or a school--i.e., a place where the rational must get along with everyone because they are there for the long term--then we can find ourselves the target of an irrational mob before we know it.

If you see evidence that someone is trying to do this to you, you need to take action immediately.  The action needed will vary with the circumstances but can include placating that individual who has targeted you, making friends with other leaders in the group, finding a way to force the troublemaker out, or even leaving the group yourself.  Usually, people don't want to take that last step of leaving, but I have found that whatever the cost of the move is, it will be far less than the cost of staying if all other stratagems have failed or will fail.  And, the sooner one realizes this and makes a diplomatic exit, the better.

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