Thinking sheep
by Chetan Parikh
  
 Mail this article to a friend
Previous Back  

In a must-read book, “The Age of the Crowd”, the author, Serge Moscovici, writes on crowd psychology.

 

“Man is a thinking sheep, credulously and impulsively rushing towards things which he neither sees nor understands. Depending on the orders he receives, he bends or stands, immersing himself body and soul in the multitude until he is indistinguishable from it as an individual. Tarde was convinced of this, as is clearly shown by his descriptions of crowds. Indeed, he incorporated all the features of what was now the classical picture. In his view, crowds lived in a kind of waking dream, constantly harassed by the movement of urban life and tom between simple but violent feelings. Consequently they were unable to establish serious and prolonged contact with reality or to escape from their illusion-ridden world. But, he declared:

 

However diverse they may be in origin and in all other ways, crowds are all alike in certain characteristics. These are their enormous intolerance, their morbid susceptibility, their grotesque pride, their delirious sense of irresponsibility arising from their illusion of omnipotence and their complete loss of any sense of moderation resulting from their overweening and reciprocally exalted feelings. For crowds, there is no middle way between horror and enthusiasm, between the cries of ‘Long live. . .’ and ‘Death to . . .’. (Tarde, 1910: 36)

 

The major missing element was, of course, reason. It was missing because it belonged with a sense of measure and compromise and a recognition of the limits to what each of us can do. If this is lost, the future is fraught with danger. Thus, crowds in their normal state exhibited all the absurd and unreasonable characteristics visible in individuals when they were in the abnormal state of madness. They shared so many characteristics with ‘the inmates of our mental asylums’ that when, as in 1789, they ran forward at the slightest rumour, full of heroism or panic, it was impossible to make any judgement as to whether they were credulous or mad. ‘They suffer from real collective hallucinations. Men in a crowd think that they see and hear things that as isolated individuals they would not see or hear, and when they think that they are persecuted by imaginary enemies their faith is based on the reasoning of madmen’ (Tarde, 1910: 55).

 

Obviously, Tarde did not mince his words. In his view the persecutions that crowds in their fear ‘imagined’ themselves to be the victims of pushed them to the worst excesses and produced in them extreme swings of mood from excitement to depression. Sometimes, in their megalomania and intolerance, they had the impression that anything not forbidden was permissible. The rigidly consistent way in which he put forward the masses as a collection of sleepwalkers, disturbed and deprived of reason and any of the sense of responsibility proper to the civilised adult white man, was truly extraordinary. Caught up in the chain of stereotyped associations, he slipped from the ‘crowd/madness’ analogy into that of the ‘crowd/woman’:

 

In short, in its permanent capriciousness, its upredictable veering from fervour to tenderness and exasperation to laughter, a crowd is a woman even when, as is almost always the case, it is almost entirely made up of men. This is very fortunate for women, whose way of life means that they have to stay at home and are relatively isolated. (Tarde, 1910: 195)

 

He believed that he had discovered several characteristics in crowds - emotional instability, collective hysteria, fits of mania and melancholia and a lack of moderation in all things - that he saw them as sharing with the inmates of mental asylums. Try to visualise in concrete terms what he was suggesting: thousands of men instantaneously changed into women, thousands of strict uniforms and tight trousers transformed into a sea of skirts floating in the wind and you will see not how absurd the fear discharged into this notion of the crowd was, but its secret explanation. It was at once a fear of the sex war and the loss of (male) sexuality. The (male) reader is implicitly warned that if he wants to stay a man he must avoid crowds, for any man who mixes with crowds becomes one of the leader's women.

 

For Tarde, saying that the crowd was female meant that it consisted of subject, obedient men ready to lose their manhood and be possessed by the leader, the only one to ‘wear the trousers’, as the popular phrase has it. One should, in fact, be quite blunt and say that the relationships that leaders have with the masses are homosexual ones. The comparison with women merely hides the obviousness of the act of renouncing individuality, the equivalent of losing characteristics seen as specifically masculine - castration, in short - and union with another man, and hence a union which goes against both reason and nature. For Tarde, the nature of crowds was ultimately female, and the individual stood out in contrast to society, as the male principle does to the female.”