THE IMAGINATION OF CROWDS





Just as is the case with respect to persons in whom the reasoning

power is absent, the figurative imagination of crowds is very

powerful, very active and very susceptible of being keenly

impressed. The images evoked in their mind by a personage, an

event, an accident, are almost as lifelike as the reality.

Crowds are to some extent in the position of the sleeper whose

reason, suspended for the time being, allows the arousing in his

mind of images of extreme intensity which would quickly be

dissipated could they be submitted to the action of reflection.

Crowds, being incapable both of reflection and of reasoning, are

devoid of the notion of improbability; and it is to be noted that

in a general way it is the most improbable things that are the

most striking.



This is why it happens that it is always the marvellous and

legendary side of events that more specially strike crowds. When

a civilisation is analysed it is seen that, in reality, it is the

marvellous and the legendary that are its true supports.

Appearances have always played a much more important part than

reality in history, where the unreal is always of greater moment

than the real.



Crowds being only capable of thinking in images are only to be

impressed by images. It is only images that terrify or attract

them and become motives of action.



For this reason theatrical representations, in which the image is

shown in its most clearly visible shape, always have an enormous

influence on crowds. Bread and spectacular shows constituted for

the plebeians of ancient Rome the ideal of happiness, and they

asked for nothing more. Throughout the successive ages this

ideal has scarcely varied. Nothing has a greater effect on the

imagination of crowds of every category than theatrical

representations. The entire audience experiences at the same

time the same emotions, and if these emotions are not at once

transformed into acts, it is because the most unconscious

spectator cannot ignore that he is the victim of illusions, and

that he has laughed or wept over imaginary adventures.

Sometimes, however, the sentiments suggested by the images are so

strong that they tend, like habitual suggestions, to transform

themselves into acts. The story has often been told of the

manager of a popular theatre who, in consequence of his only

playing sombre dramas, was obliged to have the actor who took the

part of the traitor protected on his leaving the theatre, to

defend him against the violence of the spectators, indignant at

the crimes, imaginary though they were, which the traitor had

committed. We have here, in my opinion, one of the most

remarkable indications of the mental state of crowds, and

especially of the facility with which they are suggestioned. The

unreal has almost as much influence on them as the real. They

have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.



The power of conquerors and the strength of States is based on

the popular imagination. It is more particularly by working upon

this imagination that crowds are led. All great historical

facts, the rise of Buddhism, of Christianity, of Islamism, the

Reformation, the French Revolution, and, in our own time, the

threatening invasion of Socialism are the direct or indirect

consequences of strong impressions produced on the imagination of

the crowd.



Moreover, all the great statesmen of every age and every country,

including the most absolute despots, have regarded the popular

imagination as the basis of their power, and they have never

attempted to govern in opposition to it "It was by becoming a

Catholic," said Napoleon to the Council of State, "that I

terminated the Vendeen war. By becoming a Mussulman that I

obtained a footing in Egypt. By becoming an Ultramontane that I

won over the Italian priests, and had I to govern a nation of

Jews I would rebuild Solomon's temple." Never perhaps since

Alexander and Caesar has any great man better understood how the

imagination of the crowd should be impressed. His constant

preoccupation was to strike it. He bore it in mind in his

victories, in his harangues, in his speeches, in all his acts.

On his deathbed it was still in his thoughts.



How is the imagination of crowds to be impressed? We shall soon

see. Let us confine ourselves for the moment to saying that the

feat is never to be achieved by attempting to work upon the

intelligence or reasoning faculty, that is to say, by way of

demonstration. It was not by means of cunning rhetoric that

Antony succeeded in making the populace rise against the

murderers of Caesar; it was by reading his will to the multitude

and pointing to his corpse.



Whatever strikes the imagination of crowds presents itself under

the shape of a startling and very clear image, freed from all

accessory explanation, or merely having as accompaniment a few

marvellous or mysterious facts: examples in point are a great

victory, a great miracle, a great crime, or a great hope. Things

must be laid before the crowd as a whole, and their genesis must

never be indicated. A hundred petty crimes or petty accidents

will not strike the imagination of crowds in the least, whereas a

single great crime or a single great accident will profoundly

impress them, even though the results be infinitely less

disastrous than those of the hundred small accidents put

together. The epidemic of influenza, which caused the death but

a few years ago of five thousand persons in Paris alone, made

very little impression on the popular imagination. The reason

was that this veritable hecatomb was not embodied in any visible

image, but was only learnt from statistical information furnished

weekly. An accident which should have caused the death of only

five hundred instead of five thousand persons, but on the same

day and in public, as the outcome of an accident appealing

strongly to the eye, by the fall, for instance, of the Eiffel

Tower, would have produced, on the contrary, an immense

impression on the imagination of the crowd. The probable loss of

a transatlantic steamer that was supposed, in the absence of

news, to have gone down in mid-ocean profoundly impressed the

imagination of the crowd for a whole week. Yet official

statistics show that 850 sailing vessels and 203 steamers were

lost in the year 1894 alone. The crowd, however, was never for a

moment concerned by these successive losses, much more important

though they were as far as regards the destruction of life and

property, than the loss of the Atlantic liner in question could

possibly have been.



It is not, then, the facts in themselves that strike the popular

imagination, but the way in which they take place and are brought

under notice. It is necessary that by their condensation, if I

may thus express myself, they should produce a startling image

which fills and besets the mind. To know the art of impressing

the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of

governing them.





THE IDEAS OF CROWDS THE INTOLERANCE, DICTATORIALNESS AND CONSERVATISM OF CROWDS. facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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