Prepare Yer Self Mateys, CaptCliff is going to attempt the near impossible by becoming serious for a moment. I’ve been thinking about the ubiquitous “mob mentality” and about human violence. I’ve alluded to the subject in an earlier blog note about the London riots last summer, but that was a paltry observational essay dripping in self righteousness and convenient condescension toward the young and restless. Hooligan behavior among rabid soccer fans, Canadian NHL sore losers, and discontented Brits on school break doesn’t quite cut the muster in explaining the ever present human tendency toward becoming a swarming violent horde and rampaging fascist minded crowd. Even Freud’s theories and Stanley Milgram’s social psych experiments at Stanford pale and fail to satisfy my need to understand how and why (and throughout time) people “rise up” and then, when prompted by the right Hitlerian match, actually ENJOY the feeling of hurting and killing others or creating human scapegoats to burn on the altars of their hatred. I’m not just talking about the proverbial Jew in Auschwitz, Christian in the Roman Coliseum, black lynching, gay bashing, bullied preteen on Facebook or Private Pyle relentlessly harassed in the barracks until he feels the need to blow his own head off. All of these examples apply but still fall short.
We are human beings programmed to adapt and survive. It’s in our DNA. But there is something else lurking there in the shadows of our ancestral genes and neuro anatomy. The really “good” people reading this will say they dont know what I am talking about. They will say that they, unlike myself, do not feel a reflexive sense of envy, jealousy, resentment or greed when “others” get the job promotion or pay raise they dont, lose more weight, have nicer cars and/or seem to have charmed lives even tho they may or may not be much bigger assholes. Conversely they will deny ever feeling the sense of twisted pleasure or Schadendreude when others screw up in life and snicker as we drive our little go carts past the smoking wreck of somebody elses life. We all just are trying to “get by” as the Motown song goes. But what if they (the ones with the mean streak or green mile of envy down their back) or, even I, were suddenly “put in charge”? What if every other Joe schmo and his loser brother looked to CaptCliff for direction and gave me the temporary title of “Reich Fuhrer” or “Generallisimo” or even uber Russian oligarch for a day? Would I become surprisingly comfortable with not only a dacha in the country, a shiny new BMW, several mistresses and more specifically a private firing range where people I dont like get used as cannon fodder or for target practice? My brain could even adjust itself, under such unusual circumstances, to the intriguing notion that I might be some kind of “supreme being” and therefore, by logical deduction “you are not”. I can even imagine thinking “whats mine is mine and what yours is mine”. Its sort of like the Saddam Hussein version of Forrest Gump. The same kind of power hungry henchman or hedge fund manager seems to eventually show up to rob people blind and/or purify the race and /or instruct somebody else how to do it. Whether it is a corporation or country there seems to be a tendency towards a general loss of “humanity” and compassion towards others who have either less or more, which is by my calculation…. just about everybody. So, some seemingly random everyday schmuck with charisma and oratory skills, whether it is Qaddafi , Goering or Gordon Gecko gets handed the responsibility for human life and other peoples livelihoods on a silver platter and inexplicably, like Hannibal Lecter decides to dine on the guests rather than on their own nicely plated goose and good fortune. Even these scenario have at least some social and economic explanatory power, as we all know and accept the fact that power corrupts. Why else carry around gold plated pistols or a riding crop with inlaid precious metals? Historically speaking there is even some ultimate karmic reconciliation or morality lessons to be learned as the hunter often ends up becoming the hunted, the ruthless hedge fund manager becomes somebody’s bitch in prison, and the deranged leader of mice and goose stepping geese in formation often become the cooked goose on somebody elses monogrammed dinnerware.
However, all of the above doesnt even begin to help me negotiate the idea of a surging crowd with or without pitchforks, drunk on killing and maiming innocents, full of bloodlust and temporary insanity which only later subsides into circumspect silence and pronouncements of “I didnt know” and “I was only following orders” and “I guess I didnt pay attention when the rest of the class was reading the Lord of the Flies”. I realize that we are all animals of some form or fashion. I accept that we all have base features and rather banal primal instincts and desires. Science suggests we are more vicious chimp then we are hippie-ish free loving bonobo. I know we are morally and ethically held together loosely by neurochemical glue, wires, axons and dendrites of higher and lower emotional reactions and limited impartial intellect. We all have psychological tipping points that are much closer to a short fuse on an IED and less like our Ipads or smart phones programmed artificial intelligence. Still, I cant fathom the millions of ways homo sapiens have figured out to hurt, rob, steal and especially kill other human beings, and then, especially, not feel too bad about it. I tend to feel bad about everything, my divorce, my kids pain and suffering, my personal failures, and most especially by all those I have hurt in the process of becoming a so called adult. I hope, like Woody Allen, that I’m not a member of that kind of “country club”, the one that accepts me for my innate privileges and pernicious tendencies. In that case, I’d rather stand alone on the ship’s bridge and steer her toward a distant port called the Painful Truth.
Cliff Mazer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and humorist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He blogs on Facebook under the alter-ego of CaptCliff