Rumour, Fear and the Madness of Crowds

Scanning TV and radio yesterday was like watching a mob of yokels milling around a railway crossing waiting for a train wreck.

The rush was on to be the one to deliver the first, worst, and most bad news about a world-wide stock-market crash and a new global financial crisis,

For some commentators, their ghoulish excitement was so ill-concealed they were practically drooling as they strained for the first rumble of wheel on steel.

Today, so much news is not news, it is speculation; pre-news if you like.

Enough speculation, and god knows there is more than enough of it, creates news; it makes things happen.

Some people have worked out that many major events that sweep society are not driven by fact or reason, but by rumour, fear and the madness of crowds.

Not enough people, unfortunately.

Take any opportunity for misfortune or catastrophe, add a few dubious experts, apply heat, stir continuously and, voila, the sky falls!

“See, we told you so!” chortle the commentators like a ghastly Greek chorus.

The mob as an organism

There is a point at which individuals linked by circumstances, accidentally or by design, give up their individuality to be totally absorbed by the mob. The Borg in Star Trek was a cosmic example.  They no longer think or act or reason as a person, but exist solely to serve the mob.

I saw it once. It both fascinated and frightened me.

A Hong Kong night in 1981 or 82:  my wife and I together with another couple were walking in Central district. We were leaving, or possibly enroute to, or even between Christmas/New parties.  From somewhere in the streets lining the canyons between tall buildings came the sound of many voices. Not happy, holiday voices, more  a chorus, deep and course, swelling and ebbing.

I was curious but pretty much ignored it. Not so my companion — or his Chinese wife.

He froze, like a stalked animal, head scanning side to side, jaw slack, his usually pink cheeks now chalklike.

This was odd, I thought. All the more so for a man who was an experienced officer in Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Actually that was exactly what made his behaviour not odd at all. For one thing a requirement of his position was fluency in Cantonese. For another was that he had been a uniformed cop during the lethal riots of 1966 and 1967.  He had heard that sound before.

“Come on! Quick!” he urged and walk-ran in the direction of a multi-story carpark. As the four of us reached an intersection we could plainly see a large crowd less than two blocks away. Close enough for, let’s call him Tony, to comment “Mostly young, no women, come on!”

We did.

The lift seemed to take an age but eventually opened on the appropriate floor. Half running to Tony’s car, the sounds had become more of a roar.  Over the parapet in the street below we glimpsed the swarm, undulating, swelling, joining, moving quickly — as one.

Tony was very proud of his Alfa-Romeo, even though it was a modest saloon and always seemed to have some finicky thing that needed fixing. I had once seen him bring his sweet and gentle wife to tears after she  confessed to acquiring a small scratch in an unavoidable traffic incident.

You wouldn’t think so now.  Even if Tony bothered to look for his parking ticket, it wouldn’t have mattered. He had not stopped to pay it on the way in.  The Alfa’s Pirellis yelped  loudly on the smooth concrete as he charged the barrier, smashing it open and steering hard into the tight spiral ramp to ground level and out into the street.

The news next morning told of the violence; cars overturned, some incinerated; shop fronts vandalised, injuries among both innocent and guilty and the police. No fatalities as best I recall.

On reflection I am pretty sure we all could have got safely clear that night with far less fuss and drama, but Tony knew that sound and its possible consequences. He responded from calm analysis of the situation and weighing of options? Uh-uh. Instinct? Perhaps. Fear based on past experience — his own or anecdotes of others?

That fits.

Whatever the reason I will now remember for the rest of my life that other-worldly sound and the sight of hundreds of individuals becoming willing cells in a powerful and frightening mass mind to wreak what havoc it will.

That takes me pretty much back to the beginning.


Posted on August 8, 2011, in broadcasting, media, politicians, television and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. shaolinsybarite

    There is aerial footage taken by a British army surveillance helicopter in the late eighties in Belfast, of a crowd surrounding a car occupied by two British soldiers – out of uniform – who had become caught up in an IRA funeral. The killings are remembered as having been particularly brutal, but the relevance to your post on the madness of crowds is this: the BBC’s Panorama showed some of the footage, from the point when one of the corporals fired a warning shot in the air out of the window of the car. The mob, thousands strong, had been completely surrounding the car, right up against it. At the moment of the shot, the crowd pulled back instantaneously, and Panorama froze the footage a few seconds later. The crowd had retreated in a near perfect circle, as if it had been drawn with a compass. You can read the account elsewhere, if it interests you – I looked for any record online of the footage without success – there had a buildup including an attack on a funeral a few days earlier, which didn’t mitigate what happened but went some way to explaining the crowd’s mood. The killings were gutchurning, even now more than twenty years later, but that circle was chilling, and demonstrate your phrase mob as an organism.”

  2. Cathy Netherwood

    Good greif I do not remember this riot at all and I’m pretty sure I was there at the time. What was it all about?

  3. This from Wikipedia and pretty much as I remember it:
    A riot broke out in the early morning of Christmas Day, 25 December 1981 in Central, Hong Kong. In a minor road accident, a car driver accidentally hit a pedestrian, soon arousing unrest among the youth in the area and eventually evolving into a riot. 11 were injured and 7 cars were damaged. The police deployed the Police Tactical Unit (PTU) to disperse the crowd. At 5 o’clock in the morning, the riot subsided and 18 were arrested. On that day, the Hong Kong Government increased the number of policemen patrolling major business areas and kept cars away from the Central District.
    Another youth riot broke out on the New Year’s Day, 1 January 1982 in other areas.
    Hong Kong Government addressed the increasing “problems” on youths such as disobedience in school and the popularity of snooker and arcade games among the youth. The government channelled resources for the welfare for the youth.

  4. Zelda Cawthorne

    I was there that night in December 1981. Here is what I remember:

    The four of us were going to the FCC’s Christmas party and we’d just stepped out of Tony’s car in the Murray Rd Car Park, when I heard a strange sound coming from somewhere down Chater Rd – a sort of rumble that was growing lounder and louder. I couldn’t identify it, but some primitive instinct in me did and for the first and only time in my life, I felt a prickling at the back of my neck and realised my hair was standing on end.

    Moments later I saw two young gwailos in dinner suits and between them, a girl in a long white evening dress, running for their lives, while just behind them, was a howling Chinese mob. The girl’s dress has been ripped from one shoulder and there was a trickle of blood on her cheek. The expression on her face was blank. I thought: that’s what mortal fear looks like.

    The mob had almost reached them, when a van arrived and about a dozen policemen piled out and raced into the gap between the gwailos and the mob. If they’d come a few moments later, there would have been carnage on Chater Rd.

    I still wanted to go the Christmas party and so did Russell, but Tony was a gibbering mess and we went to his place instead. What a crap evening that was.

    • Great comment. The important extra details you bring out give the incident essential focus and edge. It was just like that. I wish I had recalled them when I was running out the item. Thanks.

  5. Zelda Cawthorne

    I’ve thought about it again. It wasn’t a Christmas party at the FCC, but the club’s New Year’s Eve bash.

  6. A timely blog considering the news in London right now. A good read Dad!

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