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THE MORALITY OF CROWDS.





Taking the word "morality" to mean constant respect for certain
social conventions, and the permanent repression of selfish
impulses, it is quite evident that crowds are too impulsive and
too mobile to be moral. If, however, we include in the term
morality the transitory display of certain qualities such as
abnegation, self-sacrifice, disinterestedness, devotion, and the
need of equity, we may say, on the contrary, that crowds may
exhibit at times a very lofty morality.

The few psychologists who have studied crowds have only
considered them from the point of view of their criminal acts,
and noticing how frequent these acts are, they have come to the
conclusion that the moral standard of crowds is very low.

Doubtless this is often the case; but why? Simply because our
savage, destructive instincts are the inheritance left dormant in
all of us from the primitive ages. In the life of the isolated
individual it would be dangerous for him to gratify these
instincts, while his absorption in an irresponsible crowd, in
which in consequence he is assured of impunity, gives him entire
liberty to follow them. Being unable, in the ordinary course of
events, to exercise these destructive instincts on our fellow-
men, we confine ourselves to exercising them on animals. The
passion, so widespread, for the chase and the acts of ferocity of
crowds proceed from one and the same source. A crowd which
slowly slaughters a defenceless victim displays a very cowardly
ferocity; but for the philosopher this ferocity is very closely
related to that of the huntsmen who gather in dozens for the
pleasure of taking part in the pursuit and killing of a luckless
stag by their hounds.

A crowd may be guilty of murder, incendiarism, and every kind of
crime, but it is also capable of very lofty acts of devotion,
sacrifice, and disinterestedness, of acts much loftier indeed
than those of which the isolated individual is capable. Appeals
to sentiments of glory, honour, and patriotism are particularly
likely to influence the individual forming part of a crowd, and
often to the extent of obtaining from him the sacrifice of his
life. History is rich in examples analogous to those furnished
by the Crusaders and the volunteers of 1793. Collectivities
alone are capable of great disinterestedness and great devotion.
How numerous are the crowds that have heroically faced death for
beliefs, ideas, and phrases that they scarcely understood! The
crowds that go on strike do so far more in obedience to an order
than to obtain an increase of the slender salary with which they
make shift. Personal interest is very rarely a powerful motive
force with crowds, while it is almost the exclusive motive of the
conduct of the isolated individual. It is assuredly not
self-interest that has guided crowds in so many wars,
incomprehensible as a rule to their intelligence--wars in which
they have allowed themselves to be massacred as easily as the
larks hypnotised by the mirror of the hunter.

Even in the case of absolute scoundrels it often happens that the
mere fact of their being in a crowd endows them for the moment
with very strict principles of morality. Taine calls attention
to the fact that the perpetrators of the September massacres
deposited on the table of the committees the pocket-books and
jewels they had found on their victims, and with which they could
easily have been able to make away. The howling, swarming,
ragged crowd which invaded the Tuileries during the revolution of
1848 did not lay hands on any of the objects that excited its
astonishment, and one of which would have meant bread for many
days.

This moralisation of the individual by the crowd is not certainly
a constant rule, but it is a rule frequently observed. It is
even observed in circumstances much less grave than those I have
just cited. I have remarked that in the theatre a crowd exacts
from the hero of the piece exaggerated virtues, and it is a
commonplace observation that an assembly, even though composed of
inferior elements, shows itself as a rule very prudish. The
debauchee, the souteneur, the rough often break out into murmurs
at a slightly risky scene or expression, though they be very
harmless in comparison with their customary conversation.

If, then, crowds often abandon themselves to low instincts, they
also set the example at times of acts of lofty morality. If
disinterestedness, resignation, and absolute devotion to a real
or chimerical ideal are moral virtues, it may be said that crowds
often possess these virtues to a degree rarely attained by the
wisest philosophers. Doubtless they practice them unconsciously,
but that is of small import. We should not complain too much
that crowds are more especially guided by unconscious
considerations and are not given to reasoning. Had they, in
certain cases, reasoned and consulted their immediate interests,
it is possible that no civilisation would have grown up on our
planet and humanity would have had no history.





Next: 1. THE IDEAS OF CROWDS.

Previous: THE INTOLERANCE, DICTATORIALNESS AND CONSERVATISM OF CROWDS.



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