Crowds can bring about social change

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Article Date: 
Dec 25 2011, 2118

For some, a crowd only means distraction and trouble. It is believed that crowds turn individuals into helpless copycats. It transforms individuals into “a single dysfunctional persona”. Due to loss of identity and moral responsibility, it may even lead crowd members to sacrifice their personal interests. Gustave Le Bon, in his celebrated book — The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, argued that man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation by becoming part of the organised crowd. “Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian,” he said. In a crowd, individuality is lost and rationality is destroyed. Being a part of a crowd can lead one to do things one wouldn’t normally do, and might even disprove of in normal circumstances. Do crowds really make us that stupid? Le Bon’s book was published in 1896. Has time changed the crowd mentality? Are all crowds that bad?
All crowds are not bad. There are many examples of crowd behaviour showing discipline and restraint. There are many examples of coming together of crowds to bring changes for the good of society. The studies on crowd behaviour made by psychologist John Drury shows that most crowds are not violent, and the idea that crowds always induce irrational behaviour and erase individuality is also not true. Citing examples of food riots, he says the rioters are motivated by a rational sense of injustice rather than the “animal” drive of hunger. He sees solutions to the problems of crowd from physics rather than morality; “a little pushing can create shock waves that ripple through a crowd”.
Crowds can bring social change. Crowd behaviour is a reflection of existing cultures and societies. It reflects a collective belief system. Their swelling number reflects power. Before joining the crowd, it is quite likely that the members may not have known the purpose for which they have assembled. They become aware of the purpose after joining the crowd.
It is not true that all individuals lose their sense of self and sense of responsibility simply by being part of the crowd.
The majority of what Le Bon theorised is essentially a primer on how to take advantage of the crowd mentality, how to manipulate crowds and how to recruit their enthusiasms to one’s own ends, writes Stephen Reicher, author of The Psychology of Crowd Dynamics. He says that Le Bon’s psychology serves as a denial of responsibility. “If crowds articulate grievances and alternative visions of society, then Le Bonian psychology silences that voice by suggesting that there is nothing to hear.”
It is true that anonymity makes one do many things one would not do otherwise. The paradox is that a crowd can bring out the best as well as the worst in us. When bad things happen, the crowd gets the blame. But when good things happen, the crowd doesn’t get the accolades. When violence erupts due to erratic crowd behaviour, we come to know about it promptly. But, we fail to notice that under “deindividuated conditions” one becomes more affectionate and generous. Crowds can change the way people behave. Being part of the crowd, one enjoys the glorious sensation of feeling part of something bigger than oneself. This is not to suggest that for all our problems, the crowd is the solution. Assembling a perfect crowd is not possible.

(The writer is a biotechnologist and ED, Birla Institute of Scientific
Research, Jaipur)