William A Gardner
Culture and Societies
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Relativism and the Madness of Crowds
Some years ago I read a book titled "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" which affected me sufficiently to never forget it. The author, Charles Mackay, was a Scottish journalist and in this particular book (originally volume one of three and published in the mid-1800's) he discussed crowd psychology and financial bubbles. The Tulip Mania of the early 17th Century, during which people bought and sold tulip bulbs at increasingly outrageous prices until the market for them collapsed, is perhaps one of the best known historic examples. Ordinary citizens made and lost fortunes. There was an apocryphal story about one gentleman who paid what was probably his entire family savings for one tulip bulb, taking it home for safekeeping until he could sell it at a considerable profit. Unfortunately his wife, who had not been informed of the purchase for good reason, found the bulb in the house and, mistaking it for a type of onion, cooked it for their supper. There are many periods in history when emotion and crowd psychology leave logic behind and it is presumptuous, if not arrogant, to believe that our current society is insulated from this phenomenon.
One example of crowd behaviour is seen in mass hysteria and riots. In such cases people who are normally law-abiding average citizens can lose all inhibition and rationality while engaging in extreme, and usually destructive, behaviour. Later they often regret their actions and aren't even sure why they exhibited such joy and rage while pursuing a questionable goal. It becomes the embodiment of the Nike slogan to "Just Do It". In one case where I witnessed a small example of such behaviour by youths and was able to interrupt it by pointing out the potential adverse result of their mischief, the participants seemed afterward almost as if they were emerging from a trance. The Vancouver riot of 2011 is another instructive example. There are many.
A less extreme type of crowd behaviour, although ultimately more dangerous, is termed Relativism. This philosophical idea is connected to Post Modernism and is gaining in popularity. Relativism is the idea that the world has, and should have, no fixed measures of moral, ethical or aesthetic value. In other words, the accepted reality of what is socially acceptable and right is and should be defined simply by what the majority in society thinks is acceptable and right. Under such a system, the rules which should govern society are little more than cultural conventions defined through group interaction and majority behaviour. There are no fixed points of social and cultural acceptability and value. When this is combined with the normal youthful desire to push boundaries and the group-think tendency of the "social mediaverse" the result is an inevitable slide toward those thoughts and activities that feel good and bring popularity and likes. If it feels good do it. Unfortunately the desire of youth to have no limits ultimately runs into the reality of actual physical, economic and moral limits with the resulting consequences and confusion about "how could this happen?" It is certainly not restricted to individuals. The financial crisis of 2008 had similar roots. If it makes money do it. We have not learned the lesson of no free lunch. Ultimately we all pay.
The reality encapsulated within our plugged-in social mediaverse becomes what the majority re-posts. It is even more powerful when the majority of mainstream media reflect the same views. We believe something because the majority affirms that belief. Once this proclivity is embedded in society, rationality based on clear thinking and a knowledge of history and human nature is no longer crouched aghast in the back seat. It is a shrinking image in the rear view mirror. We are abandoning the process of thinking, a process which is difficult and often lonely, for the pleasure of feeling and belonging. And it is this normal human need to belong, to feel that we are a valued member of the tribe or family, that has spawned the current wave of political correctness. Free speech based on rational analysis, even though it will almost certainly offend someone, has become the enemy. Yet we should have no right to not be offended by what people say. There is a price for freedom and progress.
Of course the evolution of society depends upon changes in behaviour and beliefs over time. The danger is not that such social evolutionary behaviour is unhealthy. Rather, with the speed and reach of social media combined with the current adulation of youth, we are in danger of adopting behaviours and social structures that historically have proved to be beyond dangerous. The problem with Relativism is that it is highly prone to producing bad results. One of them is the current move toward Socialism as a panacea for the economic malaise of western society. This despite overwhelming historical evidence of Socialism's inevitable slide toward Totalitarianism. The evolution of the society in which we are embedded depends upon the decisions we make today. And these decisions have real destinations and real limits.