Our brains in a crowd
Why do mobs, made of diverse people, behave like a single unit? Two yesteryear masterpieces on crowd psychology, encapsuled in a new Marathi book, bare the tools used worldwide to shape popular sentiments
When rationalist leader Dr Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated, seven years ago, conspiracy theories about his mistaken murder were feverishly circulated on social media. One theory claimed that someone other than Dr Dabholkar was to be shot in the morning hour of August 20, 2013. The hypothesis added to the climate of suspicion. Even as the assassination was being investigated, unresolved till date, conflicting views were put forth by unrelated people at unsuspecting junctures. The popular, often baseless, views clogged communication channels. Family members of Dr Dabholkar were not just hurt by the theories, but they wished the popular mind wasn't so hyper receptive, so eager to believe every WhatsApp forward, so unknowingly irresponsible while reinforcing rumours and fake news. Mob psychology was in full display, and little could be done to control the traffic of unnecessary misleading information.
Vinod Shirsat, the editor of Sadhana Prakashan (the executive editor when Dr Dabholkar helmed the publishing house) felt the need to bring out a book that captured the confusion created by firmly held popular beliefs, not just in the case of assassination mysteries, but in the context of the wayward swaying of the popular mind in all realms—be it an impending cyclone, an election, a pandemic outbreak and the resultant overhyped demand for ginger as a magic panacea. Coincidentally, he zeroed in on a 1978 text written, rather crafted, by Vishwas Patil (who passed away in 2002), who summarised two well-known searing books—the English version of French polymath Gustave Le Bon's (1895) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, and American philosopher Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951).
Patil was an ideologue who wrote with authority on Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi. He was most known for editing the magazine Navi Kshitije and rendering Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon in Marathi. He felt an urgent need to sew two seminal texts, which urge the "individual" to think before surrendering or subscribing to a popular view, a wider group or a mass movement. Patil, a witness of people's movements of 1960s and 70s in Maharashtra, showcased the global instances from Europe and America, but only to underline the local relevance. He didn't name the actors in the Indian social discourse, but the contemporary realities came alive as he shaped Zhundiche Manasshastra (Mob Psychology). The book's earlier editions (both out of print) have been appreciated across generations.
Shirsat retrieved the manuscript from Patil's family and published it afresh under the aegis of Sadhana, so as to bring home the hysteria of our times. The interesting aspect of the publication is its relevance over four decades. It rang true in the pre-Internet times when Patil translated it. It applies even today when a minor monsoon alert can create a social media scare; a rumour about a certain community's COVID-19 susceptibility can spark riots.
Shirsat points out a fun fact about the book: the reader doesn't ever see his or her reflection in a mob or crowd. The reader rejoices over the irrationality of beliefs, chuckles over popular notions and superstitions, expresses concern over hasty generalisations, but excludes him or her from crowd behaviour. Similarly, readers identify with Hoffer's thesis on rigidity of mass movements and their blind followers. But, no mass leader or movement driver ever acknowledges the malaise in their own organisational structure. Neither political outfits, nor social organisations nor groups espousing a cause, ever show the readiness for introspection. "They point fingers at each other's rigidity, like the Left leaning movements will sneer at a dictatorial Shiv Sena, but not comment on the fundamentalism in the CPI," he adds.
Shirsat says the new book bares all forms of rigidity, even the veiled hidden versions witnessed in pro-people seemingly democratic liberal movements. The book accounts for all forces that shape the popular mind—the propagandist tools used to lure a believer; and in turn how the believer then becomes an invisible, insignificant speck in a crowd, devoid of thinking powers.
Zhundiche Manasshastra describes crowd behaviour in clinical details. First, a crowd constitutes people from varying backgrounds, who at one point were quite different people. As a collective entity, the crowd prefers to act under an order or a diktat. For instance, a linguistic or caste group, a student body or a profession-bound rights group feels threatened by the contents of a book, and immediately obeys an order to burn the text. They congregate in a public square and burn the book, thereafter threaten the writer at his/her doorstep. They are visibly angry, barbarian, short tempered and beyond dialogue; they are also naive to believe any theory/plan of action that supposedly promotes their cause, which is why they are eager to take orders, almost as one does in a hypnotic state. In current-day India, there is no dearth of such groups, which can swing into action over a religious or community cause. Even when they indulge in arson, they have a moral reason; when they abuse a public/private person on Twitter, they have a rationale for the trolling.
It is interesting to note that since subtlety of words doesn't work with crowds, mass leaders feed them with black-and-white, often loud and figurative, rhetoric. Provocative imagery is the choice for all seasons. Rulers, past and present, manipulate the crowd's capacity to derive energy from images and symbols, like a roti, a pool of blood, slain soldiers, and underprivileged children. Le Bon points at Roman general Mark Antony's instigated action against the murderers of Julius Caesar. By pointing to his corpse and reading out his will, Antony made a powerful emotional appeal. The rise of religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Islamism can also be traced back to "the direct or indirect consequences of strong impressions produced on the imagination of the crowd."
Hoffer's True Believer educates the reader thoroughly in the imagination department. It is amusing to see how all mass movements—pro-people, destructive, global, local, militant, non-violent, gender-oriented— cast a spell over the majority. They create a sense of urgency in which the believer forgets his or her personal loss and works towards a higher moral mission—the kind of mood set in Hitler's Germany or the Soviet Union taken over by the Bolsheviks. A movement gives the people a devil to hate, more so when people are bored, listless and frustrated. The movement doesn't solve their financial crisis, but makes them conscious of the forces responsible for the misery. It is the same logic by which the opposition in any election blames the ruling power for the penury of the public. The public believes in the logic and also the promise of ache din.
Zhundiche Manasshatra is a showcase of the "men of words" who influence the popular mind and prompt them into action. It awakened me to the poignant slogans, mottos, clarion calls that have impacted my mind over the years. At one point, I had joined Baba Amte's Bharat Jodo Andolan, the second coming of Mahatma Gandhi's Bharat Chhodo call. The college goer in me was deeply influenced by the Knit India magic, a positive cementing force that aimed to integrate the nation. There was a time when I loved PM Rajiv Gandhi's "Better a brain drain than a brain in the drain," which spoke so much about his open globalised approach. While Gandhi faded in history, "brain drain" came to be called "brain reserve".
Going by the observations in Zundiche Manasshatra, I was taking stock of Aam Aadmi Party's role as a wordsmith, an innovator of original slogans in contemporary politics. In the documentary An Insignificant Man, which catches AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal in candid private moments before winning the 2013 Delhi Assembly Elections, one can see how his common man looks and oratory appealed to the masses. Kejriwal's close aides/image advisors were worried about his lack of physical appeal. But,
the popular mind appreciated the lack of a smile. A capital gain that was.
Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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