The trustworthiness of crowds

​I’m with Derek Sivers; music is best enjoyed alone.

I sometimes talk about this with Molly. I say, “I prefer to sit with a cup of tea, headphones in, and listen to the music in my study.” She says, “But it’s soooo much better live.” My witty retort: “No, it’s not.”

For as long as I can remember I haven’t liked crowds or groups. Forgive me the melodrama, but I can think of a thousand better ways to spend an evening than at a concert, surrounded by thousands of people, all jostling and hollering. And I shudder at the thought of going to a festival. Or attending a big sports event in a city.

Not that I haven’t been to festivals and events and concerts. I have, just not as a paying customer. I’ve worked at them, doing security. I’ve also learnt a bit about group psychology and read books like Left of Bang which have given me some insight into situational awareness and threat detection. The combination of this is the reason I don’t like groups or crowds. I don’t trust them.

I’m not a complete cynic. I trust and have great faith in individual human beings. But lots of individuals together do not maintain the qualities of individuals. Individuals together become something different, a being with deplorable and dangerous tendencies. 

Of course, I could just be over-reacting. Maybe I’m mistaking an internal insecurity for an external problem. Maybe crowds and groups aren’t the problem. Maybe, just maybe, my discomfort in crowds is a consequence of under-confidence, or self-consciousness, or some other neurotic twitch. And maybe, this malfunction in my character has caused a sort of confirmation bias; I feel uncomfortable in and around crowds, so throughout my life, I’ve gathered together evidence to support this notion and pushed away all that counters it.

But I don’t think so. I think my distrust of groups is accurate and correct. Why? Well, the fickleness of the crowds of Antiquity come to mind. When I read Thucydides, Herodotus et al. I was astounded at how the populace alternated between reverence for their leaders and revulsion, at how their leaders were built up and torn down by the undulation of mass emotion. The people swayed between celebrating them and attempting to murder them. 

Another example is inspired by my study of the Second World War and Nazi Germany. In the Germany of the 1930s, there were many public demonstrations which foreshadowed the fate of the Jews. Men, women and children were assaulted in the street, shop windows were smashed, and Hitler gave speeches that left tens of thousands of people in a frenzy, screaming “Heil, heil!” and shuddering with rage at the insidious worldwide domination of Jewry. Spoken person to person, Hitler’s words would’ve been discovered to be as base and stupid at their root as they seem on the surface. But he did not speak his deformed thoughts to individuals. He mixed them up with his own psychotic, confident, swaggering aura and fed them to salivating crowds, who dutifully got on their hands and knees and licked them from his palm.

This is a matter of the mind, and naturally, it’s very hard to untangle. Are my beliefs about crowds based on experience, insight, understanding, impartial observation and a sober examination of all evidence? Or are they a consequence, a twisted multiplication, of my own biases and insecurities? I don’t know. Both? Just as a mirror can’t see itself, I find it hard to tease apart insight and involuntary bias.