Thursday, December 29, 2005

Mob Violence and Fallen Nature

The good Dr. Veith is blogging about the severe beating of a black man by a mob of teenagers. His point is that people will be shocked that their neighbor boy could do such a horrible thing. There are a couple of psychological principles to point out here: One is called diffusion of responsibility, which occurs whenever there is a crowd of any sort. There is a terrible story of the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 that was witnessed by at least 38 of her neighbors and lasted for over half an hour, but no one called the police or tried to stop it because everyone thought someone else would. The other is called deindividuation, which is a sense of losing one's identity in a crowd. These established social psychological phenomena are sometimes used to defend people's behavior while in a group. My own take is that the "nice boy" next door is the facade and the violent mob member the reality. People are likely to obey social rules when they know that they will be identified and get in trouble if they do not. But these inhibitions drop away in a crowd, when someone thinks that their own contribution will not be noticed.
I though about this a while back when there was a beer-throwing incident at the Browns/Jaguars game. The next day there was a shot of an easily identifiable fan on the front cover of the newspaper. Imaging being that guy. You were just doing what everyone else was doing. But someone was aiming a camera in your direction. We did the following exercise in one of my classes: I handed out index cards to every student and asked them to write down what they would do if they could do anything physically possible (no flying) without getting caught or identified. Answers typically fall into the sex, violence and stealing categories. Of course this little demonstration is designed to draw out the illegal and immoral rather than the wholesome (although one of my students thought not getting caught would be a great tool for evangelizing in hostile places). The point is that we are fallen, gravely so.
This is also why I am reticent to take the "I didn't mean it" defense when someone says something cruel or hateful. Even if the Christ didn't say that "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" I would still be suspicious of the origin of words that were somehow generated but not willed (more often, not intended to be spoken, but certainly held and even cherished in the heart.)

Lessons? I can think of a couple:
1. Knowing about the diffusion of responsibility effect can help you fight it - when you see an accident, remember that others are NOT likely to help and may NOT have called the police, so you should do it. I'm sure the victim would rather the police be over-called than under-called.
2. In groups do periodic "I am me" checkups, especially if you are susceptible to losing yourself (do you get so mentally and emotionally involved in a movie that you forget that you are sitting in a movie theater?)
3. Don't trust your heart as far as you can kick it - when the conditions are right, the evil that has been there all along will come jumping out. Search it, squeeze it, doubt it, even ignore it, but never trust it. (By heart here I refer to intentions, affections and the will largely.)


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