THERE’S comfort in crowds. You know this because you’ve felt it too, whether at a sports match, a music concert or a political rally: that spike of adrenaline, that pounding of the heart, that warm, all-encompassing feeling that you are no longer a lonely and powerless individual, but instead, part of a greater, righteous whole. There’s a satisfying tribalism to it, encoded deep in our racial memory, a need to divide into ‘us’ and ‘them’ while surrendering our individual instincts to that of the pack.
We are hardwired for this as a species: we are social animals who instinctively gravitate towards groups and communities which provide protection, support and acceptance. In return, we subscribe to certain group norms out of fear of expulsion or rejection.
While this trait has helped us build societies and civilisations, when we apply it to scenarios of mob violence it is easy to see how an individual may get lost in the frenzy, committing atrocities that they would never dream of as individuals, but because they have found safety in numbers, they happily surrender their morality, even their very sense of self, to the mob.
Over four months after Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara was brutally lynched by a mob in Sialkot, an anti-terrorism court handed down sentences to the accused. Six people were sentenced to death and another nine were awarded life sentences while a few dozen others got away with shorter sentences.
Why do individuals succumb to group insanity?
Priyantha Kumara was falsely accused of blasphemy by the very factory workers he managed, and investigations quickly revealed that the real source of conflict was that Kumara was an efficient manager and hard taskmaster who expected the workers under his watch to put in the time they were being paid for.
Eager to be rid of him, some employees manufactured an accusation and, as is typical in such cases, a mob quickly formed and murdered Mr Kumara. That word ‘murdered’, however horrific it may be, does not paint the full picture of what was done to this innocent man and the pain and terror he suffered in his final moments; no part of his body was without wounds and every single bone in his body was broken, with the exception of his foot, and his spine was shattered in three places. Even then, the murderous mob wasn’t satisfied and proceeded to set his corpse on fire, with some posing to take selfies with this human bonfire.
The instigators usually have hidden motives and use the mob as a means to an end, but what possesses a crowd of hundreds to join in and make such a ruin of a fellow human being? Yes, it is true that we have seen such mob murder in the name of religion in the past, as in the case of Mashal Khan, and just two months after Sialkot, there was a similar, equally brutal, lynching of a mentally challenged man in Khanewal who was also falsely accused of blasphemy. So yes, we know that such accusations are an easy way to turn a crowd into a murdering mob, but it still does not fully explain why individuals who may otherwise be relatively reasonable when taken alone, succumb to this group madness when in crowds. Why is it that one dog may bark at you, but a pack is more likely to attack you?
There’s a science to it: neurological studies have shown that when individuals engage in group activity, the part of the brain involved in thinking about yourself becomes less active and a form of ‘groupthink’ takes over. And once you’re there, well, then it becomes easy to take actions you never would as an individual because you are now anonymous and unaccountable, a nameless neuron firing in the mind of the mob. Then there’s a question of peer approval as well: if the man next to me is shouting slogans, then I should shout louder. If the man next to me has cut off the ‘blasphemer’s’ finger, then I should at least get a few kicks in.
That basic mentality can be seen anywhere humans gather in numbers and in search for targets, and social media is a prime example of a thankfully less fatal manifestation of this very phenomenon.
How many times have you joined in the online abuse of an individual or entity simply because you saw that everyone else was doing it and didn’t want to be left out? How many times have you posted something, not simply because it was your opinion, but in fact to seek the approval of whatever group you wish to be accepted by? How many times have you stayed silent simply because you didn’t want the mob to turn on you? We react to lynchings like that of Mr Kumara’s with deserved horror, and naturally feel the need to distance ourselves from the vile creatures that commit such atrocities. But if we look a little deeper, if we are truly honest with ourselves, we may just find that we too are just a short step away from the madness of the mob.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2022