Comments and Quotes: Good People vs. Mob-Hysteria

Here’s a curious convergence of ideas — a coincidence. A few days ago I made the comment that individuals don’t think clearly in crowds; crowds can be become mobs, and even peaceful gatherings can lead to group-think in which individuals are inhibited from voicing, or even thinking, contrary opinions.

And before that I discussed the thesis of the new Rutger Bregman book, namely that people are good most of the time and not, as many religions presume, inherently flawed.

So this morning I began reading one of the earliest published novels by Robert A. Heinlein, METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN; it ran as a magazine serial in 1941 though it wasn’t published in book form until 1958. It’s about a secret group of long-lived families who hide their longevity from public knowledge for fear of jealousy or reprisal from ordinary humans. Early in the book is a discussion about whether they risk “coming out” and revealing themselves. Here are two passages from page 11 and 12 (of the Baen/Book Club edition from 1993). A woman speaking:

“…I have known a lot of people. Human beings are inherently good and gentle and kind. Oh, they have their weaknesses but most of them are decent enough if you give them half a chance.”

A man replies:

Eve is right…as far as she went. Individuals are kind and decent…as individuals to other individuals. Eve is in no danger from her neighbors and friends, and I am in no danger from mine. But she is in danger from my neighbors and friends–and I from hers. Mass psychology is not simply a summation of individual psychologies; that is the prime theorem of social dynamics–not just my opinion; no exception has ever been found to their theorem. It is the social mass-action rule, the mob-hysteria law, known and used by military, political, and religious leaders, by advertising men and prophets and propagandists, by rabble rousers and actors and gang leaders, for generations…

Attendant thoughts: at its nub this was the idea behind Isaac Asimov’s “psychohistory,” the premise of his Foundation stories: that history could be predicted at the group, though not individual, level, because of the principles of what he called “mob psychology.”

And this is why it’s easy to demonized, even as sub-human, people and cultures you don’t know, whereas once you “get to know” someone foreign to your community, you usually discover they’re not so bad after all, and have the same human motivations and emotions as you do. While politicians can stir a population into murderous frenzy capable of genocide.

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