Friday, 1 November 2013

Why do crowds of vigilantes kill innocent people?

I was recently asked by journalists to explain why ‘mob mentality’ occurs. They were referring to the recent tragic killing of an innocent man by neighbours who accused him of being a paedophile. Though I don't know all the details of the case, I was able to comment on a parallel example I had investigated, the ‘anti-paedophile’ crowd events that took place in Paulsgrove, Portsmouth, in the Summer of 2000. What I found in that case was a series of contrasts in terms of psychological process between the dominant representation of the behaviour of the crowd and what actually happened. The dominant representation was one of mindlessness, stupidity and irrational brutality brought about simply by people being part of a crowd. The only alternative to this in the mainstream media was a version which attributed the brutality to the (working class) culture of the individuals making up the crowd – they were already uncivilized barbarians.

As part of the evidence for the supposed stupidity of the crowd, the media cited the fact that the local residents in Paulsgrove ignored information from police telling them that the people they were persecuting were not actually paedophiles. In actual fact, however, these locals ignored this police information not out of stupidity or mindlessness at all but because they simply didn't trust the police. They believed, on the basis of past experiences, that the police sided with paedophiles and others and against ‘the local community’. Where there was trust was within ‘the local community’. So when one local resident seen as prototypical, or standing for ‘the community’, said she had a list of ‘known paedophiles’ they trusted her account over that of the police.

But then, I was asked, why would people go to such extremes? Driving people out of their homes, even killing them – that isn't something perhaps that these individuals would not have done alone. What is it about crowds?

My answer is power. While the lone individual may have a set of beliefs according to which paedophiles are at large in ‘the community’, are dangerous and need to be banished or killed, it is often only in the crowd that they can put these beliefs into practice. When people are with those they trust – others who feel the same way as them and who they believe will back them up when they act – then they can instantiate their values. Shared identity empowers.

Finally I was asked about the beliefs themselves. Aren’t these unreasonable, even wicked? Well, I agree. The ideas that paedophilia is widespread, is primarily located in the ‘other’, is particularly associated with those who are ‘odd’ or ‘different’ in some way, the denial of the family’s role in child abuse, and the use of summary justice without hearing the accused’s defence – these are all deeply ideological. But that ideology is not a matter of crowd psychology and is not specific to collectives. It is a set of beliefs also held by many lone individuals. And in 2000, it was a very prominent individual, not a crowd, who promoted and legitimized these attacks on supposed paedophiles through a concerted media campaign. That prominent individual was the then editor of the News of the World, Rebecca Brooks, who is on trial today for phone-hacking.


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