© K. Krombie

Go Mad in Herds: Groupthink is Alive and Well in our Protests and Uprisings

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”


So said Charles Mackay in his 1841 book: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, in which he humorously lampoons the delirium of the masses when applied to select cases, ranging from religious hysteria to rash economic investments.

James Suroweicki’s 2004 book, comprehensively titled The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, complies with the Convergence Theory.  In it, Suroweicki argues that decision making is of a better standard and beneficial to the group, when decided by the group, rather than a singular person, albeit one that contains a diverse sum of free-thinking components.

The aptitude of numbers, powerful enough to conceal ambiguity and readdress caution within the individual, can and has turned swathes of entire generations that have hitherto witnessed little or no violence, into regime topplers, heroes, villains, ineffective strugglers, murderers, and maniacs, able to unify and/or pit sibling against sibling and neighbor against neighbor.

That fitful human urge to wreak havoc, slay opposition, conquer and claim territories, and witness a detonated climax in high definition, is as old as our evolution and not unlike the puerile thrill of dismantling Lego or Dominoes.  Once the thin thread of civilization is pulled at, no matter how playfully, the true nature of mankind can all at once erupt into its own vindication.  The umbilical bond to our undomesticated evolutionary predecessors is stubbornly tenacious.  The foundations of discord are ever-present; the threat of division represented by just about anyone that scuttles about our daily lives.  Latent resentments within the composition of kin and close-knit communities often lie dormant, but for the drip-feeding of generational grievances.

Conversely, history tells us that sometimes, peaceable civilian collectives such as Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience or Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, can result in overthrown dictatorial regimes and provide, for however long a period, power to the people.  When the common cause is a noble one, as perceived by objective hindsight or humanitarianism, there are practiced patterns of symmetry and strategy that have gained momentum throughout the accumulative protest gatherings of the last two centuries, in particular the mid-20th century.  Distinct types of demonstration protocol have emerged, still in the pull of the 1960s, an era awash with civil unrest.  Back then, the ardor that was necessary for rallying upon American soil against military conflict, nuclear power, and race and gender relations, had unquestionable ties with contemporary condemnations going on elsewhere, from the Paris Riots and the Prague Spring, to resistance in Japan to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and South Africa’s struggle with its Pass Laws.  The civil rights movement has had ample opportunity to set the standard for public dissent, whether it be marching, sitting, or the pitching of tents on ground worth defending or obstructing.

Certainly, the sit-in has its behind firmly placed in American history, going as far back as attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker’s 1939 protest at the Alexandria public library in Virginia in response to its nonacceptance of African-Americans.  The sit-in is an effective pain in the ass for all concerned, especially for those who’s routine functions are sabotaged by passive-aggressive tactics.

The Occupy movement, with Occupy Wall Street at its nerve center, employs hand signals as a practical form of communication when in proximity to the human microphone, which in turn incorporates a parrot-fashion technique, whereby unamplified speeches can be heard at each stage, via the responsive repetition from those situated close to the speaker to those further away.

In the modern protest, French sociologist Gustave Le Bon’s theory of crowds in three stages, suggestion (born of an innate instinct), submergence (obscurity of the crowd removing individual restraint) and contagion (the infectious spread of shared sentiment), is perhaps less ambiguous when up against a force that is wise to common practices.  Sometimes, banners, slogans, songs, and chants pertain to something a little too labored, as in the post-speech call to “take the streets” and the small-print grasp of civil liberties.  The modern tempo of many demo chants represents less of a hypnotic incantation, than it does a broadcastable time-signature, catchy and familiar.  Second-guessing authoritarian maneuvers has become a well-rehearsed game of cat and mouse.  The use of social media-managed counter surveillance is able to interfere with, at the very least, police cordoning stratagems such as kettling.  Nowadays, there is a modus operandi with regards to leaked diplomatic exchanges, combative violations, swift organisation and turmoil that we have come to expect.

Every once in a while, those who doth protest too much can come across as haphazard and tedious, little more than a V for Vendetta mask in sheep’s clothing.  Seemingly more interested in the problem than the solution, the slogan drone can breed fatigue in the absence of substance.  In any group or individual, beware of a foggy aim and a dearth of wit.

The anti-war protest of February 15th 2003, the world’s biggest demonstration to date, accomplished a place in the Guinness Book of Records, if not its cumulative goal in preventing the invasion of Iraq, while the revolutionary domino effect of the Arab Spring is arguably outweighed by the ongoing repercussive crises.

Nevertheless, when persuaded by cynicism or apathy, which advises not to partake in protest, the consequences can occupy a stalemate position comparable with choosing not to vote.  US streets and squares continue to support heavy footfall from political activism, in particular the topical institutionalized racism.  The Black Lives Matter movement, notable for its female driving force, has rapidly gained supporters, beginning with the death of Trayvon Martin and more recently, the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray in police custody.

In the same month as the Freddie Gray solidarity protests occurred, another demonstration made headlines around the world for its originality.  In April, the world’s first hologram march took place in front of Madrid’s lower house of the national parliament, the Congress of Deputies, in response to Spain’s Citizen Safety Law, which greatly impedes upon the rights of the Spanish people by prohibiting unauthorized groups from gathering outside government buildings.  No Somos Delito (We Are Not Crime), a cohesive collective of over a hundred organisations, took to social media to ask for help in the form of supporters via webcam, which were then used in the projection of a holographic parade of over two thousand virtual protesters.  Not only was the result haunting and mesmerizing, but it demonstrated a clever and inventive riposte which was both subversive and willfully diminishing.

Medieval Peasants Revolt type rebellions had a prolonged pregnancy before giving birth to the kicking, screaming, modern protest.  Come what may, there will always be reasons for taking to the streets and exercising dissatisfaction.  The cogent power of adjoining forces equipped with a rallying cry, can squeeze an outcome just as it can annihilate prudence.  The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other within a band of others, while making a shameless racket and, God forbid, a point can make the individual as significant as they are lost in the crowd.