The most frightening book I ever read

The most frightening book I ever read was Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence by Bill Buford.

Buford was an American living in England in the 1980s.  He became fascinated by British football hooligans, and how, by assembling suddenly in large numbers, they were able to overwhelm the forces of law and order, and engage in unconstrained property destruction and violence.  He hung out with the hooligans long enough to be accepted, and began to identify with them.

The frightening thing about the book is that Buford showed there is such a thing as a crowd mind.  He found that members of a mob can cease to be individuals, only units of a mob mind.  He experienced this himself, and found it to be extremely pleasurable.  He enjoyed the feeling of having his ego dissolve in the mass, of being free from the constraints of civilization, of individual responsibility, of giving himself up to adrenaline and the thrill of the moment.  His ego dissolved into a larger consciousness. It was a kind of evil mysticism.

Buford was not the kind of person you would think of as a thug.  He was the editor of Granta, a respected British literary magazine. He was, on the evidence of this book, a fine writer, with good self-insight and honesty.  If someone like him could get caught up in mob violence, even temporarily, then nobody is immune.

His book was mostly reporting and not theorizing, but he had some suggested thoughts.  One was the high unemployment in Britain at the time. Men whose identity was based on being “working-class” were without actual work.  Another was nostalgia for World War Two.  Buford at times thought that the hooligans found mob violence, particularly when directed against foreigners at World Cup tournaments, as a substitute and next best thing to an actual war.

The way football spectators were treated may have been a factor.  You had to pay a premium for a seat on the grandstands.  The holders of the cheapest tickets were herded into pens in front of the stands. They were like livestock pens.  Spectators were so crowded together it was literally possible to be trampled to death.

So there was a crowd of men, pressed close together (and the British, like us Americans, are a touch-me-not culture), sharing the same enthusiasm and resentment, hearing the same shouts and reduced to the same body language and no doubt (I would add) influenced by the same pheronomes, the chemicals that influence emotions through subliminal smells.

But there is nothing in Buford’s book to suggest these men were slaves of circumstance.  They cultivated violent feelings and engaged in violent behavior because it was fun.

The nightmare of Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism was the possibility that the state, by means of brainwashing, terror and propaganda, could force human beings to surrender their free will.  What Buford’s book suggests is that, under certain circumstances, people might surrender without being forced.

Other books have helped me understand crowd violence and the crowd mind.  William Sargent’s 1957 book, Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brainwashing, describes the techniques by which the autonomy of the mind can be broken down.  Chris Hedges’ 2002 book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, tells of the appeal of war to a peaceloving liberal war correspondent.  For all its horrors, Hedges wrote, war is exciting; soldiers in battle experience an intensity of feeling and a bond to each other that they find nowhere else.

But the book that helped me understand best was the great philosopher Susanne K.  Langer’s uncompleted Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, whose three volumes came out in 1967, 1972 and 1982.  She sought to give an account of all aspects of human thought, from artistic creation to mathematical logic.  I connect her work with Among the Thugs through her ideas about empathy and sympathy.

Most people think of empathy as a more intense form of sympathy.  To Langer, empathy is a quality which humans share with animals, in which emotion is shared and communicated directly, while sympathy is an intellectual quality, based on imagining yourself in someone else’s place.

To illustrate, let me tell you of an experience when I was a business news reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester, N.Y.  One of the great contributions of Al Neuharth’s Gannett to journalism was his realization of the importance of graphics in conveying information.  In furtherance of that, we had a full-time artist, a young woman named Heather, assigned full-time to work with us.

It was a great pleasure to work with her because of her unfailingly cheerful, upbeat attitude.  She made an effort to understand the basic message of the news story and produced graphic illustrations that helped the reader to understand the story.  No matter how grumpy I was to begin with, working with Heather cheered me up.  Her positive attitude spilled over onto me.  That was empathy, by Langer’s definition.

Sometimes I wondered whether I could have such a constructive attitude if I had, in addition to a full-time job, a spouse and a small child to look after.  I think she was also taking some kind of college course.  I tried to imagine it, and decided that I probably could not.  That was sympathy, by Langer’s definition.

Empathy and sympathy are considered positive things, but in Langer’s definition, this is not necessarily so.  A lynch mob can’t get sadistic pleasure from the suffering of its victim unless it can imagine those sufferings; that is sympathy.  And the sadistic pleasure becomes a shared emotion below the level of reason; that is the kind of empathy that existed among Buford’s football hooligans.

That is the frightening thing about Buford’s book — not his descriptions of uninhibited sociopathic violence, but his account of the appeal of being part of a hive mind.

Buford’s book was published in 1990. I don’t know how serious a problem British football hooliganism is today. My impression is that tougher policing and better stadium seating have helped reduce the level of violence in England, while sports fan violence is a problem in all countries, including the United States.

Click on Football hooliganism for Wikipedia’s international survey.  Sports fan violence is a global phenomenon, not just a British one.

Click on Sports Riots: The Psychology of Fan Mayhem for an analysis in National Geographic of American sports fan violence.

Click on Riots on LA streets as Lakers win NBA basketball championship for an example.

The philosopher William James said that if the world ever is to have peace, it needs a “moral equivalent of war.”  I don’t think sports riots were what he had in mind.

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3 Responses to “The most frightening book I ever read”

  1. beyondanomie Says:

    Can across this article browsing psychology tags.

    Several psychological experiments have been done demonstrating the power of the hive mind, as you put it. It’s all about being given social permission to act in ways otherwise deemed appalling, even to the individuals now perpetrating the acts.

    Few people have sufficient integrity (in the sense of viewing themselves as separate, whole, discrete individuals) to resist the seductive attraction of being part of a collective, a unit, or any other identity larger than their own self. You could further extend that to arguments about how and why religions, political parties and adherence to families, social structures, etc, etc, continue to exist and thrive.

    It takes a uniquely strong mind to resist consistent and unrelenting social persuasion. Often those minds will be considered dangerous and/or unstable by wider society (of course, sometimes, they may be right to do so!)


  2. Perette Barella Says:

    For an amusing story of fan rioting, look up the Curse of the Colonel on Wikipedia.


  3. philebersole Says:

    The frightening thing about Buford’s account is not that he lost his inhibitions, but that he lost his identity as a separate personality. He personally didn’t do anything bad except vicariously enjoy violence. But the power of that vicarious feeling was so great that he no longer felt like a separate human being, but as part of a mass that was more than the sum of the people who made it up.


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