Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Crowd: Mencken or LeBon?


Several times over the last few years, I'd bounced a counterargument around in my notebooks: the possibility that LeBon's character sketch of The Crowd has it backwards. The existence of a mob mentality is unquestionable, but maybe it doesn't psychologically transform an otherwise reasonable individual into a frothing barbarian. Instead, perhaps the induced hypnotic flock-state simply unleashes the domesticated savage's suppressed impulses; ones that are always boiling just beneath his thin civilized veneer.


I mean, the lonely crusader almost never takes his assault weapon to town unless he's already gone full-frontal murderous ape. It's always an armed herd mooing in unison at the state capital or attacking Tucker Carlson's family while he's at work or blocking Chicago freeways or beating elderly Trump supporters in Portland. That's because anonymously frolicking in a decadent public orgy is the one act that can still bring individual poltroons to exhibitionist orgasm. Don't forget, kids! This idea adapts to The Social Media Matrix, too!

Something I've learned about H.L. Mencken: just keep reading. Here's an except from his review of The Crowd published in the late-teens or early 1920's. Once I learned it existed, it was incredibly hard to find but equally worthwhile:
"Gustave Le Bon and his school, in their discussions of the psychology of crowds, have put forward the doctrine that the individual man, cheek by jowl with the multitude, drops down an intellectual peg or two, and so tends to show the mental and emotional reactions of his inferiors. It is thus that they explain the well-known violence and imbecility of crowds. The crowd, as a crowd, performs acts that many of its members, as individuals, would never be guilty of. Its average intelligence is very low; it is inflammatory, vicious, idiotic, almost simian. Crowds, properly worked up by skilful demagogues, are ready to believe anything, and to do anything.

"Le Bon, I daresay, is partly right, but also partly wrong. His theory is probably too flattering to the average numskull. He accounts for the extravagance of crowds on the assumption that the numskull, along with the superior man, is knocked out of his wits by suggestion— that he, too, does things in association that he would never think of doing singly. The fact may be accepted, but the reasoning raises a doubt. The numskull runs amuck in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely. In other words, the numskull is vicious, but a poltroon. He refrains from all attempts at lynching a cappella, not because it takes suggestion to make him desire to lynch, but because it takes the protection of a crowd to make him brave enough to try it.

"What happens when a crowd cuts loose is not quite what Le Bon and his followers describe. The few superior men in it are not straightway reduced to the level of the underlying stoneheads. On the contrary, they usually keep their heads, and often make efforts to combat the crowd action. But the stoneheads are too many for them; the fence is torn down or the blackamoor is lynched. And why? Not because the stoneheads, normally virtuous, are suddenly criminally insane. Nay, but because they are suddenly conscious of the power lying in their numbers— because they suddenly realize that their natural viciousness and insanity may be safely permitted to function.

"In other words, the particular swinishness of a crowd is permanently resident in the majority of its members—in all those members, that is, who are naturally ignorant and vicious—perhaps 95 per cent. All studies of mob psychology are defective in that they underestimate this viciousness. They are poisoned by the prevailing delusion that the lower orders of men are angels. This is nonsense. The lower orders of men are incurable rascals, either individually or collectively. Decency, self-restraint, the sense of justice, courage—these virtues belong only to a small minority of men. This minority never runs amuck. Its most distinguishing character, in truth, is its resistance to all running amuck. The third-rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first-rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise."
 Who was closer to getting it right? LeBon or Mencken? Would you even want to know? The factual answer to that question shades everything. In fact, it may be one of the foundational cornerstones in any choice between societal treatment and triage.