America Has Always Embraced “The Herd” Mentality
With the growing dominance of Social Media, is the herd mentality going to become a permanent fixture in our daily lives?
The “herd mentality” has always been prevalent, in times of perceived social crisis, in America. The Oxford Dictionary describes the herd mentality as the tendency for people’s behavior or beliefs to conform to those of the group to which they belong.
The recent frenzy regarding the removal of Confederate monuments is the most recent example of the herd mentality manifesting in America.
The Salem Witch Trials is one of the earliest examples of the herd mentality, or “mob mentality, taking hold here in America. Between 1692 and 1693 more than 200 people were accused of being witches, and 20 were ultimately executed. The socioeconomic strain of King William’s War led to an influx of displaced persons in Salem which resulted in quarreling families due to scarcer resources. The arguments between the residents of Salem was believed to be the work of the Devil. Accusations of witches and witchcraft spread like wildfire throughout Salem, with the wife of Cotton Mather, a respected minister in Salem even being accused of witchcraft. Finally Mather’s father, who was president of Harvard stated “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.” The Salem Witch Trials were effectively over.
Throughout the years there were more instances of the herd mentality that manifested throughout American History. I cannot go into detail on all of them, but several that come to mind are The California Gold Rush, the race to Kansas (Bleeding Kansas) over slavery from 1854–1861, and the Panic of 1893, which gave birth to the populist movement in The United States.
One of the most famous instances of the herd mentality was the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s. Many in the Federal government, as well as in cities across the country were convinced that Communists had infiltrated government and entertainment industry. The House on Un-American Activities was created and spearheaded by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Blacklists were created, and rumors of pro-communists infiltrators were spread through smear campaigns and hearsay. The spread of communism throughout the world fueled the hysteria of many citizens in this country, and many regular citizens, celebrities and politicians had to essentially take purity tests. The Red Scare hit its peak chorus with the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Aside from political events, there is an interesting subset of the herd mentality that is interesting to share in this country. That is the Christmas shopping season. Year after year, we see the latest toy craze that our youngsters “have to have”. It seemed to start with the “Cabbage Patch” kids of the 1980s, but has grown in intensity as the years have progressed. Various years have included Tickle Me Elmo, Beanie Babies, Furbies, video games and most recently Hatchimals. The desire to get the latest hot toy turns parents into frenzied maniacs. They fight over the last toy, line up for hours on end hoping to snag one, or they pay astronomical prices for one on the secondary market. Most of these toys are relegated to the dustbin of history within a month or two. The day after Thanksgiving is another classic example of the herd mentality that is associated with the Christmas Season.
Thanks to widespread use of Social Media. The last two years has seemed to provide us with an endless string of herd mentality incidents. Most of these involve issues of race, gender or politics. One can never be sure what the latest outrage will be. Internet hate mobs flock to posts that they disagree with. Pundits virtue signal on television. Perceived injustices of police brutality have fueled tensions through social media and has resulted in loss of lives, property destruction and an even more fragmented society. With the advent of smart phones, seemingly isolated incidents begin to compound and a larger narrative can be framed and constructed. Think back to Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. The herd decided that all police officers in this country were racist and out to get African American people. The Black Lives Matter movement was born. There were marches and riots in the streets and on July 7, 2016 five police officers were murdered in Dallas. There have been many other assassinations of police officers since the Michael Brown incident, in Ferguson, MO in 2015. All the result of the herd mentality.
The events in Charlottesville, Va on August 12,2017 ushered in a version of the herd mentality, perhaps unseen since the Red Scare of the 1950s. A group of White Nationalists, Ku Klux Klan members and other assorted unsavory characters marched in the streets protesting the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Tensions were high, as they were confronted by a group of protesters. Eventually, one of the marchers drove his vehicle into a crowd of protesters and killed Heather Heyer. This event has caused a chain reaction of herd mentality and mass hysteria unseen since the 1950s.
Cries of Are you a racist? Do you support the alt-right? Do you support Nazis? Are you sympathetic to President Donald Trump?, flooded America’s airwaves and social over the past week. There was an avalanche of politicians, pundits, celebrities, social media figures, athletes and average citizens who were suddenly given that same purity test, that was given to Americans back in the 1940s and 1950s. I’m guessing 98% of all Americans would disavow the actions that occurred in Charlottesville, but it wasn’t enough; suddenly 63,000,000 American citizens who are supporters of the Presidents have been lumped in with the 500 or fringe characters who marched in Charlottesville, and have essentially been put on trial.
The frenzy spread to the Confederate Monuments that are peppered throughout American cities. In an almost knee-jerk reaction there has been an outcry to remove any monument deemed offensive to any subset of Americans in the country. Average citizens have taken matters into their own hands and have began defacing and removing monuments. The frenzy continues unabated and has become the hot button issue in the nation. Cooler heads will not prevail until the next event triggers the mob.
We are currently in the middle of a mass hysteria/herd mentality cultural incident not unlike the many described in this post. None of us can tell when, or if it will end. Most likely it will be pushed to the back page of the newspaper when a new subset of people find something to become morally outraged about. Will the events in Phoenix tonight, at the Donald Trump rally, provide new material? Only time will tell.
If there is one takeaway from this, rest assured everyone will briefly check their outrage as Christmas season approaches and they will turn their herd mentality towards the hottest Christmas toy, if only for a few weeks.