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Physical, virtual crowds influence individuals’ behavior in many ways

Last week, a congressional communications director resigned after getting blowback when she criticized President Obama’s daughters on Facebook for their supposed lack of style and inappropriate public behavior.

The aide, Elizabeth Lauten, was even more contemptuous of their parents, accusing them of not respecting “their positions very much, or the nation for that matter” and blaming them for their daughters’ failings.

It seems odd that a “media-savvy” communicator wouldn’t realize that her words could go viral and that, not only Obama’s supporters, but anyone who thinks respect for others should be the starting point of our public discourse, might disapprove of her tone.

Her online behavior, however, might not be just an individual choice, but also a symptom of crowd behavior. We all belong to crowds, even if today they are often geographically dispersed and virtual.

Members of these crowds talk to each other, support each other’s opinions and prejudices and make us feel like the crowd has our back.

It may be that in Lauten’s crowd, flagrant personal criticism of people in other crowds was no big deal. Other crowds were objects of inside jokes, not to be taken seriously.

Now I’ll put on my German scholar hat. In 1960, Elias Canetti [1905-1994] published a book-length essay called “Crowds and Power”. Canetti won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981.

A Sephardic Jew, he was born in Bulgaria, grew up in England and Austria and wrote in his fourth language, German. He fled Vienna when the Nazis took over in 1938.

Canetti wrote that in crowds, humans get relief from their inborn fear of contact with what is foreign or “outside”. A crowd creates an “inside,” an emotional refuge.

Crowds get charged up and discharge this energy, often violently, on non-members or the objects that symbolize them.

Canetti mainly meant physical crowds: soccer spectators, rioters and Nazi meetings. But virtual crowds are also strongholds of belonging and they are potentially much bigger than physical crowds.

Crowds can be spontaneous or partly controlled. Sometimes they can be positive, not destructive, but they are always irrational and reckless.

Maybe Lauten thought she could discharge her spite and still have her crowd’s backing.

Maybe she wished more to belong than to show contempt, but found out that members of crowds, especially virtual ones, can be easily sacrificed.

The dual role of individual and crowd member helps explain how someone can sincerely deny being personally prejudiced while speaking or acting in ways that reinforce divisions.

In the United States we like to believe each act is an individual choice, not representative of larger power structures.

The policeman was protecting himself, not his crowd. The writer was expressing her personal opinion, not her crowd’s.

But as we observe and participate in the virtual and physical crowds that are defining themselves after the events in St. Louis, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere, we should ask who belongs to which crowd and where that crowd gets its power.

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