ON THE MADNESS OF CROWDS.
One in … all in!
On the prairie the great buffalo herd are grazing peacefully. Then something happens … Maybe a tumble-weed blows into the herd and startles one of the cattle, perhaps the crack of a dry twig disturbs it, making it respond in panic. A tremor runs through the herd and suddenly they’re off – a buffalo stampede, a madness of the herd.
Birds ‘n bees do it, we do it, critters disposed to group behaviour do it, flocking, swarming, behaving tribally. Here’s a homo-sapiens kind of stampede account by James Thurber, remembering the day back in 1913 when his town in Ohio went for a run…Thurber describes in a story ‘The Day the Dam Broke,’ how a rumour gets around that the dam has broken. About midday, somebody begins to run. Maybe they were just late for an appointment, but then some one else begins to run:
‘Inside ten minutes, everybody on High Street from the Union Depot to the Courthouse was running. A loud mumble gradually crystallized into the dreaded word ‘dam’. ‘The dam has broke!’ The fear was put into words by a little old lady in an electric chair, or by the traffic cop, or by a small boy: nobody knows who, nor does it really matter. Two thousand people were abruptly in full flight. ‘Go east!’ was the cry that arose, – east away from the river, east to safety. ‘Go east! Go east! Go east!’ ’
As the town stampeded east not one individual paused to consider that the dam was so far away from their town that not one trickle of water could reach the High Street, no one noticed the absence of water, everybody just kept running …
‘Nobody has ever been able to compute with an exactness how many people took part in the great rout of 1913, for the panic, which extended from the Winslow Bottling Works in the south end to Clintonville, six miles north, ended as abruptly as it began and the bobtail and ragtag and velvet-gowned groups of refugees melted away and slunk home, leaving the streets peaceful and deserted…
The next day, the city went about its business as if nothing had happened, but there was no joking.’ Says Thurber, ‘It was two years or more before you dared treat the breaking of the dam lightly. And even now, twenty years after, there are a few persons like Dr Mallory, who will shut up like a clam if you mention the Afternoon of the Great Run.’
Above is an example of madness of crowds, a fear response not called for by the reality of the situation, irrational in the case of the citizens of Thurber’s hometown, par for the course for buffalo on the prairie. In that way-back machine of evolution, jumping to a conclusion can be a smart-survival response, the reptilian part of your brain signalling danger. For critters wired for a flight or fight response to that rustling in the jungle, that sharp sound on the prairie, flight is the safest option. By the time you pause to suss it out, too late to escape if it turns out to be a carnivore predator.
In humanity’s evolving history the panic response is a survival instinct that has stayed with us to now and so has crowd behaviour. Better to be venturing down that jungle track with a band of more or less trusty brothers, if armed all the more reassuring, if not, well, still some safety in numbers. As with a herd of buffalo, sheep or zebras, that man-eating predator won’t get all of you. On the other hand…in a complex situation, maybe pause a while, check out facts on the ground, context of claimants and claims…
The what, the how and the wherefore…
Regarding the madness of crowds, those irrational, manic responses to the reality out there, behind all that fear or group timidity, a felt need to follow the band, left right, left right…
Following the band, the what, how and wherefore of crowds. Concerning the ‘what,’ two books, ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,’ by Charles Mackay, published in 1841’, and plus ca change, plus meme chose, Douglas Murray’s ‘The Madness of Crowds, Gender, Race and Identity,’ published in 2019.
Charles Mackay’s book, in three volumes, lotsa’ madness out there, gives a guided index to human popular delusions throughout history, from alchemy, crusades, doomsday prophecies, and economic bubbles, to relics, sorcery and witch mania.
The ‘what.’ – Yr tulip mania.
Human stampedes take different forms, not always groups running from an imagined threat, just as often ‘jumping on the bandwagon,’ ‘following the fashion,’ ( or cult.) Regarding jumping on economic bandwagons, Charles Mackay recounts the investment follies of the South Sea Bubble and the Dutch Tulip Mania of the mid 17th century. Describing the mania to buy tulips, Mackay writes:
‘In 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade. As the mania increased, prices augmented until, in the year 1635, many persons were known to invest a fortune of 100,000 florins in the purchase of forty roots. It then became necessary to sell them by their weight in perits, a small weight less than a grain. A tulip of the species called Admiral Liefken, weighing 400 perits, was worth 4400 florins … and, most precious of all, a Semper Augustus, weighing 200 perits, was thought to be very cheap at 5500 florins.’
Observes Charles Mackay: ‘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, one by one.’… Time came when the more prudent began to see that the tulip mania could not last for ever and as this conviction spread, prices fell and confidence was undermined:
‘Hundreds who, a few months previously, had begun to doubt that there was such a thing as poverty in the land, suddenly found themselves the possessors of a few bulbs, which nobody would buy, even though they offered them at one quarter of the sums they had paid for them. The cry of distress resounded everywhere, and each man accused his neighbour. The few who had contrived to enrich themselves hid their wealth from the knowledge of their fellow-citizens, and invested it in the English or other funds. Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of life, were cast back into their original obscurity. Substantial merchants were reduced almost to beggary, and many a representative of a noble line saw the fortunes of his house ruined beyond redemption.’
More ‘what.’ -Yr witch mania.
If that’s not bad enough, witch mania is worse. At the height of the witch trials by torture, and punishment by hanging and burning at the stake of the 17th century, god knows how many old women, hapless neighbours and vagrants died. Mackay cites some case studies and gives some figures, but likely more. From his opening paragraph:
‘The belief that disembodied spirits may be permitted to revisit this world, has its foundation upon that sublime hope of immortality, which is at once the chief solace and greatest triumph of our reason. Even if revelation did not teach us, we feel that we have that within us which shall never die; and all our experience of this life but makes us cling the more fondly to that one repaying hope. But in the early days of “little knowledge,” this grand belief became the source of a whole train of superstitions, which, in their turn, became the fount from whence flowed a deluge of blood and horror. Europe, for a period of two centuries and a half, brooded upon the idea, not only that parted spirits walked the earth to meddle in the affairs of men, but that men had power to summon evil spirits to their aid to work woe upon their fellows.’
Not just illiterate villagers succumbed to the superstition but the highest dignitaries in the land as well. Of course a crime that could be imputed against your enemies with ease had political expedience but seems lotsa’ superstitious belief in the mix. Pope Innocent V111 issued the papal bull Summis desiderantes of December 1484, a charge to inquisitors to investigate diabolical sorcery. King James V1 of Scotland, (later King James 1.) The Long Parliament of Cromwell had its witch trials. Charles Mackay writes that: throughout the 16th and 17th centuries:
‘An epidemic terror seized upon the nations; no man thought himself secure, either in his person or possessions, from the machinations of the devil and his agents. Every calamity that befell him, he attributed to a witch. If a storm arose and blew down his barn, it was witchcraft; if his cattle died of a murrain – if disease fastened upon his limbs, or death entered suddenly and snatched a beloved face from his hearth – they were not visitations of Providence, but the works of some neighbouring hag, whose wretchedness or insanity caused the ignorant to raise their finger, and point at her as a witch. The word was upon everybody’s tongue – France, Italy, Germany, England, Scotland, and the far North, successively ran mad upon this subject, and for a long series of years, furnished their tribunals with so many trials for witchcraft that other crimes were seldom or never spoken of. Thousands upon thousands of unhappy persons fell victims to this cruel and absurd delusion. In many cities of Germany, the average number of executions for this pretended crime, was six hundred annually, or two every day, if we leave out the Sundays, when, it is to be supposed, that even this madness refrained from its work.’
Good-bye to all that?
Say, aren’t we glad that those days of superstitious folly are a thing of the past? Well, nut so fast… you may just recall the recent history of the Jewish Holocaust during Hitler’s mad rule in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. And here’s the latest look at madness of crowds by Douglas Murray examining a recent political mania, the mania of treatment of different identity group politics, … politics of resentment really, everyone defined by their relationship to a minority group identity, specifically one of the trinity, race, sex or gender preference, these relationships involving ever-changing classifications, arbitrarily decided by social justice thought-police, you could call them, our 21st century Inquisition.
Douglas Murray gives a detailed account of the workings of this Inquisition and how it came into being as a consequence of leftist post modernist attacks in academia aimed at the grand narratives and institutions of western civilization. Attacking religious systems, economic systems, intellectual traditions and the arts, your post modern dogma is an assertion that the only reality of social life is power. Replacing religious experience and free enterprise, ‘power’ the one reality, combated through a lens of social justice and group identity politics, has become the new game in town. Everything must be viewed through your position in one of the disadvantaged identity groups and you may speak only with legitimacy if you belong in that group and express the consensus position judged appropriate to that group.
Douglas Murray’s book, ‘The Madness of Crowds,’ is set out in four sections, ‘Gay,’ ‘Women,’ ‘Race’ and ‘Trans’ and describes the particular madness of crowds regarding these groups, the pressures of consensus dogma and contradictions in thinking necessitated by adherence to group identity politics.
Identity politics, oh my! … Ah me… no, not ‘ you.’
Not too hard to understand that difficult and contentious subjects demand a whole lot of thought and a lot of thought often necessitates trying things out (including making inevitable errors.) Yet to think out loud on the issues which have become highly controversial has become such a high risk, Douglas Murray argues, ‘that on a simple risk/reward ratio there is almost no point in anyone taking the risk.’ Group-iness rules.
‘Today’ says Murray, ‘our societies seem always on the run and always risking extraordinary shame over not just our own behaviour but the way we have treated others. Every day there is a new subject for hate and moral judgement. It might be a group of school boys wearing the wrong hat in the wrong place at the wrong time.* Or it could be anybody else. As the work of Joe Ronson* and others on ‘public shaming’ has shown, the internet has allowed new forms of activism and bullying in the guise of social activism to become the tenor of the time. The urge to find people who can be accused of ‘wrong think’ works because it rewards the bully. The social media companies encourage it because it is part of the business model. But rarely if ever do the people in the stampede try to work out why they are running in the direction they are.’ (* Covington Catholic High School ,2019 * Joe Ronson. ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.’ Published 2015.)
Much of this activist bullying takes place on university campuses. Murray describes the example of Evergreen College, Washington, 2017, where respected left liberal, Bret Weinstein, and the President of the College, George Bridges, himself an advocate of social justice, were subject to violent bullying and chants of ‘ Black power!’ Here’s a Rubin Report video where Bret Weinstein speaks of the event.’
With the above and other examples, Douglas Murray describes how far we have regressed from the famous speech by Martin Luther King in 1963 when he said that he dreamed his children should ‘one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’
In the Race Debate today is an insistence that content of character is nothing compared to the colour of someone’s skin, group diversity politics is the measure of all things. Those who do not belong to an unprivileged group, yr ol’ white male in particular, are expected to undergo a process referred to as ‘intersectionality,’ the invitation, increasingly in work places, the legal requirement, for those classified as privileged, to spend the rest of their lives attempting to work out every identity claim in themselves and others with feelings of due guilt and a willingness to rewire their attitudes to the prevailing consensus position.
Serfs find it somewhat ironic that humans have evolved critical language, logical and scientific processes to help us distinguish fact from fiction and have invented communication means, the printing press and internet to allow spread of data and argument about ‘the facts’ out there, (what Richard Dawkins calls ‘memes’ * that other replicator besides genes that transmits from person to person,) but here we are manipulating and censoring discussion, for example, using filtering internet algorithms like Silicon Valley ‘Mechanical Learning Fairness, (MLF) to promote a particular point of view.
Murray describes in his chapter, ‘The Impact of Tech,’ how Google, builds into computers a set of values, (MLF) that could only possibly be held by those on the extreme left of society, so that, for example, searches for ‘European Art’ will call up images that predominantly feature portraits of black people and severely skew history. Similarly, if you search for ‘Gay Couples’ you will be presented with a series of images of good looking, smiling gay couples, but calling up ‘Straight Couples’ will give a more mixed result that includes non-straight couples. ( * Richard Dawkins. ‘The Selfish Gene.’ 1976.)
Contradictions all the way down…
When you try to fit dogma to reality, witch mania, group diversity mania, any wonder that contradictions abound. In the political arguments of race and gender diversity laws of logic, the Law of Identity and Law of Contradiction no longer apply.
For example, African Americans, Thomas Sowell and Kanye West, critical of prevailing racial dogma, are no longer considered to be members of the racial group they were born into. Peter Thiel, creator of Paypal, is gay, but because his views do not agree with the consensus, he is no longer considered a member of that identity group. Douglas Murray, who is also gay, observes that:
‘You are only a member of a recognised minority group so long as you support the specific grievances, political grievances and resulting electoral programs that other people have worked out for you. Step outside of these lines and you are not the same person with the same characteristics you had before….you have the characteristics taken away from you.’
Then there’s that biological contradiction involving hardware contra software in the gender debate. ‘Without doubt,’ argues Murray, ‘the scrambling device laid over the issue of the sexes is among the most deranging aspect of all. It involves a set of unbelievable mental leaps to try to play along with it.’ A lot of double think in the gender debate. ‘While Gay campaigners spent the 1990’s onwards hoping to persuade the world that homosexuality was a hardware issue. the direction of travel for women simultaneously went in the other direction.’
‘Until the last decade or so,’ says Murray, ‘sex ( or gender) and chromosomes were recognised to be among the most fundamental hardware issues in our species, but suddenly ‘everybody was meant to believe that sex was not biologically fixed but merely a matter of ‘reiterated’ social performance.’
All that crowd mania through the ages, economic bubbles, superstition and fashionable group – think, where it turns out, ‘no matter how much you believe something to be true, believing does not make it so.’
The how and the wherefore…
Those pesky cognitive illusion.
Plenty of evidence in the human record that the homo sapien brain is likely the best there is in our universe, Horatio, enabling your critical language, your scientific methodology, human discoveries, inventions, architecture, great literature and symphonies, etcetera. We are the species that deliberates, reflects, makes conscious decisions. See my ‘Clocks and Clouds’ post on same. https://beththeserf.wordpress.com/2019/11/27/62nd-edition-serf-under_ground-journal/ Says Karl Popper, ‘Our conscious states act as a probe on our behaviour. They anticipate our behaviour, working out, by trial and error, its likely consequences; thus they not only control but deliberate.
‘Not enough careful deliberation,’ says psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ that examines the various cognitive illusions which supposedly rational people demonstrate when making choices under controlled conditions.
In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ Kahneman argues the existence in human brains of two independent systems for organizing knowledge, one he labels System One, a fight or flight fast thinking system making judgements and taking action without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up. Making use of heuristics linked with strong emotions like fear and pain, in the complex environment we now live in, its judgements are often wrong. The other system, System Two, is the slow process of forming judgements based on conscious thinking that checks the actions of System One and allows us to correct our mistakes. Human science and the arts have been created by System Two.
Says Kahneman, we’re machines for jumping to conclusions, prone to associative bias. For System One, the measure of success is coherence of story, consistency matters most, not completeness of evidence. There’s a grab-bag of simple heuristics we adopt to make adequate but often wrong answers to difficult questions, like the ‘availability heuristic,’ whatever comes readily from memory is first in line. And the bad news is, as Kahneman found working with the Israeli Defence Forces in the 1950’s, that System Two thinkers are also prone to similar thinking errors and heuristics, more apologist than critical of the emotions of System One.
Regarding the ‘availability heuristic,’- ‘ that which comes readily to mind,’ there’s neurobiologist Antonio Damasio’s research on human associative bias.
In his book ‘Descartes’ Error,’ Damasio identifies the close biological connection between our evolutionary pre-mind and the complex human brain structure that has evolved over time. Damasio observes that in our evolutionary history, long before there was a homo sapien mind, organisms must have begun with a concern only for their internal problems via a rudimentary nervous system preserving the basic integrity of the living system, a kind of primitive low tech postal system, a form of positive or negative reaction or primitive emotional response, the bloodstream transporting hormones and information around the body to where it was needed for control and self maintenance.
‘Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from and with it. The mechanisms for behaviour beyond drives and instincts, use, I believe, both the upstairs and downstairs: the neo cortex becomes engaged along with the older brain core, and rationality results from their concerted activity.’
This relationship between emotion and human reason is the main focus of ‘Descartes’ Error.’ An overview here… http://www.cogprints.org/282/1/damasio.htm
Based on Domasio’s studies of neurological patients who have damage in the area of the frontal cortex of the brain, (that Damasio calls the body’s convergence zone for decision making,) Damasio found both defects of decision making and a disorder of emotion, so that while these patients could observe and explain what’s occurring when shown images of a horrific nature, they were unable to register emotion as normal subjects do. And while they could still pass tests of logic, in their own lives they were unable to call up salient reasons to act in their own best interest.
From these investigations Damasio advances his Somatic Marker hypothesis that emotion was in the loop of reason, that emotion is both a necessary adjunct to reason, sorting out appropriate reasons to act, and a mode of undermining reason, as in the madness of crowds, acting on a first available, or preferred, call to action.
Why we go wrong, a prey to conceptual bias, a prey to shaman persuasion. Emotional reaction is a survival mechanism of life, chimps do it, birds do it, reptiles, even the zig-zag dance of the stickleback is emotional response. Old knowledge for us homo sapiens. Your early human rope-trainers learned it domesticating animals. Shaman leaders, and later gurus, observed it and applied emotional association to control a human populace.
Difference between madness of crowds … jumping to conclusions and rational thinking … Like Richard Feynman says, ‘First you guess and then you test.’
He also said: The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
That’s all, folks.