The ugliness of ‘crowd mentality’ as illustrated by the George Floyd case

Minnesota was in the white-hot spotlight of the media last week. It wasn’t for the beauty of, or bountiful fishing in, our 10,000-plus lakes, or the loveliness of the North Shore drive along Lake Superior, or many other scenic vistas that draw tourists by the thousands every year. No, we were in the spotlight for a horrific crime — yet another police-involved killing of a civilian (in this case, a black man named George Floyd) — and then the ensuing demonstrations and riots.

On the surface, this case was just another in a very long line of what appears to be racially-motivated violence against non-white people, and it is likely that it is. Presumably the violence and hatred that spewed forth last week came about from the long-burning fires of racism, injustice, and resentment between the races for their mistreatment of the others. I can’t say truthfully that I disagree with people of color being angry about how they have been treated by white people historically, because my heart is genuinely sad about all this shit.

As we all know, there have been a large number of similar high-profile officer-involved killings of men, in most cases white officer(s) against a black man. Some of these cases have occurred in my state, which prides itself on so-called “Minnesota Nice,” a phrase that is basically a tourist slogan. Because of these killings, millions upon millions of dollars have been paid out in settlements (such as in Minneapolis) and now many police departments require their officers to wear “body cams” which record the events in their interactions with the public. Supposedly there was going to be training for police officers to help them deal with people less violently. Apparently it didn’t work, or else the officers involved in the latest case in Minneapolis were just “bad apples.” Either way, it is sad, disheartening and shameful beyond words.

Those of us who were deeply heartsick and ashamed of “those people” in our state who perpetrate the violence in the name of the law can take heart, perhaps, in the fact that police brutality takes place everywhere and most likely on a daily basis. The killing of a black man allegedly by white police officers happens in many other locales around the United States, and reportedly the rioting and looting was happening last week all across the country too. These senseless acts of violence can be attributed to concept known as crowd mentality, and last week’s ugly events illustrate the horrific lengths to which people who are ‘caught up with the crowd’ can go.

Crowds, as such, can be inspired to do horrible, unspeakable violence, though luckily they can go the other way as well.

The study of crowd mentality became ‘a thing’ over a hundred years ago when a French psychologist named Gustave Le Bon published a book exploring it in 1895. What it means is individual personalities become dominated by the collective mindset of the crowd. One might say it’s like a virus that can be caught by one person and quickly spread to include many, many more people — as in the example of the widespread “unrest” following the Floyd murder. People were angered, they banded together, and the rest is, as they say, history. Our largest cities were literally burning, while apparently nothing substantive was being done about the original crime (such as arresting the officers involved) which fueled the fire that brought about this destruction. That these events happened is a huge ugly stain not only on my state but this country as a whole.

“In a crowd, (man) is a barbarian.” — French psychologist Gustave Le Bon

One thing of many that captured people’s attention, and drew their ire, was a video of the event. Apparently there were four officers involved, trying to arrest one black man, though one officer allegedly did the dirty deed while the others supposedly just looked on doing nothing. Their absolutely inexcusable behavior, if that is true, can be explained by the “bystander effect,” which can be simply explained by a saying I read once: “Everyone assumes that Someone is doing something, and therefore Nobody every does anything.” Or the “see no evil, hear no evil” blindness that people often have.

There’s little doubt that many of the looters were enabled by people who didn’t want to become involved, who just either stared or walked on by. I’ve read countless articles over my half-century of life about people being beaten, raped and/or killed in broad daylight (or a public venue, such as a bar) with witnesses …. and nobody lifted a finger or their voice to help the victim(s). Every time I read about such events — like the George Floyd case— I lose more faith in humanity and am just chilled to the bone. As we all should be. Everyone should be outraged by injustice, and senseless violence, but unfortunately the tendency to violent behavior is simply an aspect of some (many?) people, and society sometimes seriously fails in its attempts to deal with these persons.

When the peaceful vigils being held in Minneapolis were apparently dispersed by people who ‘caught’ the crowd mentality ‘virus’ and all Hell broke loose. This ‘virus’ spread all over the country and, for all I know, around the globe (though it’s hard to believe, but one never knows, that it would be a global event). The “smash and destroy” mindset of these people spread like wildfire, leaving millions and millions of dollars in damage, people’s businesses, homes and lives destroyed, and to what end? All because of the ugly phenomenon known as crowd mentality.

“What we might not do as individuals we may do as p art of a crowd,” wrote Dr. Wendy James in a 2014 article. “People may lose control of their usual inhibitions as their mentality becomes that of the group.” She further wrote about the ‘contagion effect’ when “crowds exert a hypnotic influence on their members that results in irrational and emotionally charged behavior often referred to as crowd frenzy.”

Crowd frenzy explains last week’s mindless mayhem, and other phenomena as the boorish behavior of shoppers on Black Friday, or sports fans who riot when “their” team doesn’t win the game. It can also be seen in young children who gang up on on other kids teasing or excluding them, or worse, beating them.

So what, if anything, can be done about negative crowd mentality,? I’m not sure there is any way to successfully address the potentially-violent effects of the crowd (also known as “herd mentality” or “mob mentality”), because of the fact that some people just seem to be born — are hardwired — to do the “wrong” thing. Either that or they are just easily persuaded by others to participate in heinous acts to “go along with the crowd,” sometimes with deadly results … as we saw last week. Again.

As stated above, crowd mentality is not just destructive or violent. It can work in positive ways too; for example, often when a community member gets sick, or has a farm or vehicle accident and the medical bills pile up, a neighbor (or crowd of neighbors) will organize a benefit for those people. These benefits are usually very well attended, and probably are one of the main reasons Minnesotans think they are all so “nice.”

Since reportedly there were literally carloads of people coming here from all over the country to riot and loot, maybe my fellow citizens take smug comfort that not ALL of the destruction was done by “us,” but rather there were a lot of “them” also involved in the unrest. We shouldn’t have such deeply divided “us” vs. “them” but unfortunately we do, and it seems to be coming to a frightening crescendo for a long time, though especially since November 2016.

As another example I read today that groups of volunteers are turning out in droves to help clean up debris and garbage from last week’s rioting. The hard work of these volunteers helping out the city is a silver lining in an ugly gray cloud that hung over our state, and these people deserve our utmost respect gratitude. This is crowd mentality done in a good. way. Too bad we can’t have many more examples of this good in our lives, but either they are rare or newspapers just don’t focus on the positive. Either way is highly possible.

So we have theories as to why all the hatred (spawned, as I said earlier, by racism, hatred, resentment, injustice and mistreatment) spread so viciously in last week’s events, as it has been for hundreds of years. Events such as the George Floyd case clearly illustrate the oppression and mistreatment, and the events that follow clearly show the ugliness, and negative side, of crowd mentality. For many generations these fires of resentment have been burning, sometimes creating much destruction, and people have been crying for productive dialogue on how to stop these fires from spreading.

It is a strong hope held by many — myself included — that this peace-making may be done. Though given human nature, I sadly have not much faith that will ever happen … at least in my lifetime. I lose a little more hope as the years go by; it’s been more than 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. crowd marched for their civil rights and fair treatment. And yet we still have racially-motivated crimes occurring everywhere, every day. It may be a Utopian dream of mine, but people, you are all free to join together in a crowd (preferably made up of persons of different races), do positive works and deeds and prove me wrong on this point, and prove that peace CAN be achieved.

Experienced professional writer/freelancer and former newspaper reporter-turned-online writer/blogger. Thinker. “Old soul”, young hippie, empath.

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