Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Compassionate Mob: When Anonymous Crowds Do Great Things

by Nomad

After reading the Laney Christmas story (h/t to zane), I admit I got a tad weepy- but in a good way. Yes yes, it's true: beneath this rhino-skin lies a sensitive jellyfish. 
Despite so much evidence to the contrary, I, like Anne Frank, want to have faith in the goodness of people. Yeah, I want to believe that people are good.

So sue me. I was born this way.

Strangers on a Subway
Last July, another story in the same vein went practically unnoticed.
When a woman slipped between a train and a station platform just north of Tokyo on Monday, about 40 commuters and railroad employees worked together to tilt the 32-ton subway car enough to one side so that she could be pulled to safety.
The Associated Press writes that the train car's suspension system "allows it to lean to either side, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, Japan's largest daily." The woman was not seriously injured and, the AP adds, "after just an eight-minute delay, the train went on its way."

There's no real reason why this story should have attracted very much attention, I suppose. 
Things like this happen all the time but they hardly ever get much airtime or ink. News networks, like CNN, generally prefer enthusiastic spokespeople and charismatic leaders to interview to help them package things up neatly.

This was another spontaneous act of a compassionate but faceless crowd. The empathetic mob, if you will. Such stories are, to use a cliche, heart-warming. Common at Christmas time. 

With so much evidence of our greedy, perfidious,  violent or  destructive urges, stories like these make us feel happy again to be a human. 
So it's worth taking a closer look I think.

Lynching Looters and Rampaging Flag Burners
Large groups can be motivated by a lot of things. In capitalist societies, the primary motivator is usually fear.  The loss of a job, prestige, basic needs or love. This is usually quite enough to manage crowds to act in predictable ways. Personal gain is the carrot in the motivation game. It takes the form of luxuries galore.

All this crowd control is necessary, because nothing, we are told, is more frightening than a large groups of people that are not properly managed. Look at the French Revolution!
We  have been trained to think of  mobs in almost wholly negative terms. We associate the word with lynchings and lootings and riots. Rampaging howlers burning flags and effigies. In short, chaos. 
Organization is required, we are told. But  what we aren't told is that even when directed, disciplined crowds can also be dangerous. Think of  the mass rallies at Nuremberg.

But as the Laney story shows us, sometimes, crowds can, with a minimum of management or structure come together and form a means of positive collective action. (Sure the Net can facilitate things.) So, often a leader is not necessary and may in fact, be counter-productive.

If the last century teaches us anything it is this: a skilled leader can manipulate the crowds to follow paths that individually they would automatically reject. For every positive example of a leader-driven crowd, there are at least three negative ones. (My rough count, anyway.)

From the information in the two stories, we don't see any person with a bullhorn, issuing order. It was all done with seeming spontaneity. In the Laney case, it was assisted by the instantaneous impact of the Net. A sudden virtual community emerged out of nowhere, did a specific act of kindness and then, just as suddenly vanished again. If there's a miraculous quality about it's probably only because it seems so unexpected.
So what's really going on?


The Orton Insight
How does a leaderless crowd suddenly take it upon itself to act in a completely unselfish and compassionate way?  I don't believe that the people of West Reading were any more or less empathetic than the rest of the nation.  Why do crowds suddenly become altruistic?
There's possibly a simple answer to that question. And surprisingly it might have less to do with altruism and more to do with a sense of sharing. (A word capitalists must despise)

One blogger tells a great story which might offer some insight. According to her story, Singer Beth Orton's performance at The Royal Festival Hall during her UK tour seemed headed for disaster. Athough Orton was polite enough and the surroundings were grand, both the performer and her audience seemed exhausted. She offered none of the usual accouterments of a live act, such as explaining the history or emotions behind her songs.
Some of her numbers are quite raunchy and upbeat, some are beautiful and haunting. Some are just a tiny bit dull, and there was a section in middle of the concert where I thought it would be nicer to sit at home and listen to the CD with a glass of wine in my hand, rather than sustain pins and needles by sitting so very still in a concert hall.
But finally Orton explained that prior to the gig, that her favorite guitar had been stolen during the tour. Bad luck. However when Orton took a risk with the audience, their attitude began to change from passivity to participation.
But the crowd only started to demonstrate its sympathy when she actually asked for help. ‘You know I am really struggling’ she said towards the end ‘to work out if you are actually enjoying yourselves at all’. The effect was instantaneous. Beth was so desperately unhappy at the way the gig was turning out, that she actually needed and was prepared to ask for a show of support. We all cheered and clapped.
They had been touched. Interestingly, Orton's performance hadn't actually improved, according to the writer. If anything, it had become worse. Yet that didn't matter.
But by now the audience was really getting into Compassion. As Beth found things getting tougher and tougher, the audience started to cheer louder and louder. We did not want to feel she had been a failure, as really many of her songs are good and she is clearly a nice person with a sense of humour that should be allowed out more often.
But here's the key.
The audience saved the day, but the fact remains that people do not go to a gig purely to hear the music. They go because they want to meet the music makers, to see them in person and feel connected with them. This is what makes a gig, what transforms it from a collection of songs into a treasured experience.
This was a different kind of connecting. What we experienced, along with the music, was our own ability to help out. A memorable experience, yes, just not the one we were expecting.
In this story we have all of the elements, the unexpected request for sympathy, the appeal for help and the feeling from the crowd that they are contributing to a positive experience, being part of a transforming event. A feeling of belonging and connecting. 

That might take the form of an added voice in the crowds singing carols to a dying child. Or, one hand joining others in a subway station to give a little push. It might only be applause for a despondent performer. 
Most critically, nobody is asking what party you belong to or your religion, or your sexual preferences. Man or woman, rich or poor, of whatever race are welcome. 

I suppose, helping others supports our notion of fair play. And that sense of justice - how would I feel if it happened to me?- tends to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Exercising our sense of compassion not only has a civilizing effect but it also provides each of us with a sense of participating in a unique moment. 

Really, that makes a lot of sense. Life is not all about sitting back and watching, no matter what TV might lead you to think. Living, as short as it is, is all about getting involved and connecting. 

And that is what makes it worth all the bother.
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