Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mob Psychology and Values Education

When I was in college, our highly competitive local hockey team was scheduled to play an equally successful Canadian team in a tie-breaking game near the end of the season. This was such a big deal at the time that news of the game had even penetrated my consciousness—and when it comes to sports, I generally live in an alternate universe. Tickets had been sold out for weeks, but a day or two before the game, a friend told me she’d been given two tickets and asked if I wanted to go. Sure, I thought, why not?

We arrived early, and as we waited outside for the doors to open, we chatted with an assortment of friendly people around us: a young couple with a toddler in a stroller, middle age couples, suit-clad business folks just off work on a Friday afternoon. After these many years, it’s eerie how well I remember some of these people; it’s like the almost preternatural recall some people have of the moments just before a car wreck.

The pleasant mood of gentile camaraderie continued as we all filed into the coliseum, picked up snacks, found our seats: people smiling, laughing, helping each other shrug out of their coats. So far, my friend and I were having a wonderful adventure.

Then the chatter over the loudspeakers rose to a crescendo, all eyes turned to the rink, and the players skated out onto the ice. The mood of the crowd changed instantly. One player shoved another with a stick, and the crowd roared. A fight broke out on the ice, and the crowd erupted. The good, kindly looking people around us began, literally, screaming for blood. Red-faced men, veins in their necks bulging, punching fists into the air; women screeching obscenities; almost everyone raging at one player or another, if not the referee. It seemed to take an hour for my friend and I to make our way to the end of the aisle and out the door. Then we stood outside on the sidewalk, in the quiet of a normal Friday evening, horrified at what we’d just witnessed.

From that day forward, a lot of things made sense to me: ancient Roman crowds in the Colosseum, the French Revolution, the Salem witchcraft trials. What I learned that day is something that must be understood in your gut, not in your head: like packs of animals, human beings can turn on a dime at the smell of blood.

Clearly this propensity for people to lose themselves—their individuality and personal consciousness—in a crowd has evolutionary advantages. In defense of the tribe, of the family, people forget themselves and willingly sacrifice their lives, if necessary, for the good of the whole. In the midst of a crisis, there is no time for reflection, and nature has provided a mechanism whereby rational thought can be shut down in favor of raw, unfiltered emotion.

Furthermore, in order to assure an ample supply of warriors to protect the community, nature has provided an assortment of hormones that, once released into the bloodstream, make us feel ecstatic and invincible. Simply put, it feels good to be swept away on a sea of emotion.

From rock concerts to religious revivals, hangings to hockey games, people gather together partly because, from a purely biological standpoint, it feels great to be in a crowd that’s emotionally charged up and focused on a common goal—whether that goal is a line on the turf or the slaughter of innocents. This is a fundamental feature of the human organism, and it hasn’t changed since our ancestors first started walking upright.

What has changed is our collective human experience and our ability to reflect on it. We can now ask ourselves questions like, “Is this right?” “Do I want to be a part of this?” We are capable of understanding—if only we stop to think about it—that just because something feels right, that doesn’t mean it is right, from either a factual or moral perspective.

We must start teaching this fundamental fact of human nature to our children. We must make it known that, sometimes, it’s our personal responsibility to detach ourselves from the crowd, to deliberately switch on the thought process, even to take the considerable risk of raising our voices in opposition. Such values education might not have prevented a 15-year-old’s homecoming dance from turning into hours of torture and gang rape—but then again, it might at least have inspired one of the many witnesses to call 911.

8 comments:

Idna said...

Dear Jane,

Are you seriously comparing a sporting event to a mob of rapists? Time to take a deep breath.

As a former hockey mom, I spent countless chilly hours in ice rinks ... if you add up both my son's practices and game time. Reading your horror story of your first, and I assume your last, hockey game, I just had to laugh. May I suggest easing your way into the world of sports ... maybe a rousing game of golf? Not too much excitement to be found there.

Just as you have awful memories of your hockey game, I have some wonderful memories of sports events throughout my life. My two favorite sports are basketball and hockey ... not for the faint of heart.

Best b-ball memories ... sitting next to Kareem Abdul Jabbar's parents as he won (and still holds) the all-time career high score in the game; watching Michael Jordan live, from floor seats when we lived in Chicago; living just 11 minutes door to door to the Palace of Auburn Hills when we lived in Detroit area. (I told my husband the only way I'd move to Detroit was if we got season tickets to the Pistons.)

Best hockey memories: Living in Detroit when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. My 9th grade daughter and her friends knew all the Wings and each had their favorite players. Much like devotion to rock stars, these girls built shrines in their bedrooms to the Red Wings with posters, news clippings, memorabilia plastered all over their walls. They dressed in their favorite player's jersey. What fun! I much preferred this to teenage adoration of some disgusting rapper.

I remember one night (school-night, at that!) my daughter pleading with me to drive down to the Joe Lewis Arena in downtown Detroit for a Wings game. My husband was out of town, so it was just the two of us. During the game one of our famous midwestern blizzards descended on the city. The 40-mile drive home was pretty treacherous. Slip, sliding away, we passed countless cars in the ditch. But my daughter and I still talk about the great time we had.

I could go on and on about sporting events that our family has attended and have great memories of ... and afterwards we NEVER raped anyone or destroyed anyone's property. I think for people who do those kinds of things we have to look a little deeper into why they do the things they do. Where did they learn their moral compass? Attending a hockey game or a school dance just didn't transform them into rapists or murderers.

Six said...

Jane - you are missing out on one of the great thrills in life living in an alternate universe as you describe. Just the sheer adrenaline felt as a spectator gets me excited for the upcoming Seahawks game we are going to in a few weeks (even though they are terrible this year, the thrill of being at the game will not be any less!).

Calling a ref a jerk, cheering a hard hit or booing an opposing player is all part of the game. Never in my life have I ever felt unsafe at any of the likely hundreds of sporting events I have ever been to... sure it happens where crowds turn in to mobs, but it is incredibly rare and is not some out-of-control human condition as your post implies.

As Idna points out -
To make the leap from a heated hockey game to the French revolution/salem witch trials/gang rape is ridiculous. And I don't think parents are not teaching the lessons you imply we need to 'start' teaching them... one of my mothers favorite lines - and I know we all heard this growing up -'well, if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?' (I did later in life actually illegally and dangerously bungy jump off a remote train bridge with friends in the cover of darkness - so clearly the lesson did not stick for me!) every single one of those young men involved KNEW what they were doing was wrong, they made the concious decsion for whatever reason - whether self preservation, peer pressure, or twisted enjoyment to not make an effort to stop the crime. It was not some uncrontrollable mob-switch-animals that caused that girl to be hurt.

Sue said...

And I'd like to add -- all sports require teamwork and skill, gang rape doesn't.

Citizen Jane said...

Oh, for Pete's sake, people. I'm not equating sports with gang violence. I'm simply saying that both spring from the same human factor, which needs to be acknowledged and understood.

My first experience of being in a hostile crowd taught me quickly that there is incipient violence in mob mentality. It's true that I've never been to another hockey game, but I've since learned to enjoy some sporting events very much. (In fact, I'm very much looking forward to a basketball in game in January in which my alma mater, Gonzaga, will no doubt trounce the opposition in its usual fashion.)

I enjoy being at a concert or game or rally as much as the next person. But as a student of human nature, I'm very much aware of the potential of individuals to lose themselves, literally, in a crowd. To ignore that human trait is foolish, just as people are foolish who refuse to admit that their sweet little pitbulls can turn violent.

Six said...

I owned a pitt for 14 years (we lost her in the spring) that was a rescue and I far more trusted that dog with my waddler/toddler son than I do today with my in-laws expensive, purebred, lineage documented scottish terrier - who we have to lock up when he visits them. Thier scottie actually gave my wife stiches when we first introduced the two dogs. Thier scottie actually attacked my pitt who sat on command as I instructed her to do despite the scottie still-biting her, barking and growling and breaking my pitts skin on the ear (and as my wife pulled the scottie off the scottie bit my wife and tore her hand open). As a child we had a pitt-mix and the only dog-bite I ever suffered growing up was from a family-friends lab who left a nasty scar above my eye when I attempted to play it's food bowl (I was 3 at the time) while we were visiting. Any breed of dog can turn violent, they are predators by nature - sure some could be more dangerous if violent than others, but that is true with ANY breed or size of dog.

It TRULY is all in how the animal is raised and how the owner handles it. I am more confident around pitts with respect to people, especially children than I am with German Shepherds, Rotts, Dobermans and so on down the list... those breeds are bred specifically for thier propensity of aggression towards people and 'guard dog' nature to protect thier territory from strange people. Little dogs are the worst with kids - toddlers in particular. Pitts on the other hand are NOT bred towards people-aggression... in fact quite the opposite. It is often mistaken that they make good guard dogs - when actually they generally make LOUSY guard dogs. They generally have to be taught people aggression is okay. A pitt that exhibits people-aggression is usually destroyed immediately by any responsible owner and certainly not allowed to breed. Not everyone should own a pitt, but then again, not everyone should own a dog at all - just like some people should not have pools at thier house or drive cars.

Citizen Jane said...

Interesting comments, Six. Thanks. As a cat person, I don't know too much about dogs.

I do know, however, that Scotties sink like rocks in the water. (My stepmother lost one when it fell off a dock.) If I were you, I think I'd be tempted to give that dog of your inlaws swimming lessons!

Kimberly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Six said...

I've thought about it!!