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.





THE MEANS OF ACTION OF THE LEADERS: AFFIRMATION, REPETITION, CONTAGION THE REASONING POWER OF CROWDS facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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