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Assimilating Grief-Stricken Florida Students Into the Mob Is Harmful

Students protest guns

The CNN town hall, where students who witnessed the Florida mass shooting voiced their frustrations, challenged politicians, and aired their grievances, was disturbing to watch. Not because of the horrific topic or the apparent trauma on parade, but because it showed us in loud, sarcastic, and bitter detail the power of groupthink.

Herd mentality runs on emotionalism and fear. It stands against reason. It is rooted in reaction instead of rational response. It is driven by instinct in the face of real or perceived threats to one’s survival. It attacks instead of engages. It is, as Robert Heinlein put it, “a hundred bellies and no brain.”

This is what we’re seeing in response to the evil actions of a single murderer in a Florida high school. Students, parents, and teachers (along with a community of political organizers ready and willing to corral them in a single direction) are reacting to a nightmarish event because they’re frightened. This is the germination of a mob.

Back in 1915, sociologist Wilfred Trotter wrote the Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War and explained why this gravitation to the mob happens: because we don’t want to feel alone and vulnerable. When we are faced with cruelty and fear, we become intolerant of isolation. Our response is to experience “an intense and active desire for the company and even physical contact” of other people, and when that communal support is propelled toward a political end to eradicate the threat, one’s power is increased.

The person who wants to be included in the herd becomes “aware of a great accession of confidence, courage, and moral power” that comes with group unity. It’s a power that is dependent on the mob, not on a person’s individual psyche, beliefs, or ability to cope. The threat “draws him to the herd in the first instinctive concentration against the enemy” -- whoever that is determined to be in reality or as defined by the herd:

In the presence of this stimulus even such partial and temporary isolation as was possible without it becomes intolerable. The physical presence of the herd, the actual contact and recognition of its members, becomes indispensable. This is no mere functionless desire, for re-embodiment in the herd at once fortifies courage and fills the individual with moral power, enthusiasm, and fortitude.

Every note of disunion is a loss of moral power of incalculable influence; every evidence of union is an equally incalculable gain of moral power.

This need to be empowered on the heels of trauma is intoxicating. It creates a mob high that removes discernment and makes individuals ripe to be manipulated and influenced by groupthink. It fuels disruptive behavior, such as cheers for gun control no matter the facts, a frenzied applause when a lone student stands before a distinguished senator and says “looking at you is like staring down the barrel of an AR-15,” and shouts of approval when this same teenager questions the maternal sensitivities of a woman fighting daily to protect our constitutional rights.