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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.