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Dark Roast Double Shot: When Crowds Surge ….
It has today the ability to make its effect felt from sophisticated money markets to grass root level politics. So strong is its influence that the wisdom of the crowds is the reality for many.
Photo Credit : Dipak Shelare/Shutterstock
Crowds have arguably been a part of my embryonic memory. With many generations before me having surely witnessed and participated in misery or joy, one of the most fascinating interplays between the individual and the collective. I had my share of them too.
Crowds in tens that would be omnipresent in a land blessed with many bodies and scarce resources, struggling to find their feet in a nation independent after centuries of exploitation and subjugation. There would be crowds outside food stores that distributed rations, bus stands with rickety buses and impatient travellers, ticket counters at movie halls, the popular street food eateries, doctor’s clinics, walking in grief behind the cortege to the last resting place, the list was endless.
Crowds in hundreds coming together to celebrate in a land of perpetual festivals, on the street in pageants, in fairgrounds, on riverbanks, rushing to find a seat on a train, worshipping in shamianas in every neighbourhood, outside places of worship on auspicious days, getting together for a wedding feast, the ubiquitous political rallies in the dance of democracy, the protests against price rise or government apathy, the spontaneous response of anguish or anger to an incident. What really are hundreds in a land of a billion?
Crowds in tens of thousands, and its multiples, cheering in cricket and football stadiums, expressing the grief of a nation at the last rites of popular political and national figures or the spectacular supernovas like the Kumbh, Ganesh-Visarjan, Dusehra, Guru Parv and Eid. Hyperactivity and aggression were endemic to crowds. While most were benign there were those that turned violent.
I have seen them all. Jostled, cheered, fought my way to the front, got pushed to the back. So, why then do the crowds bother me today?
There were two kinds of crowds even then. Those that organically came together with the singular purpose of celebrating a social, cultural or spiritual event or to battle the travails of everyday life. These crowds would naturally come together and disappear almost ritualistically. The other crowds were those that were put together and managed to serve a purpose. Not always their own but of those who put the crowd together. It was a way of exerting pressure or challenge an existing power equation. When power comes in to play the stakes get higher. Over time the managers got better at what they did and their ability to use the power of the crowds to their advantage grew exponentially. And as with every tool in the hands of the human race both use and misuse was rampant.
Tomes have been written and published by intelligence agencies and intellectuals alike on how the practice of manipulations and sophistry over time to influence and manoeuvre multitudes of people has become a developed art and science.
As the bets got bigger so did the sophistication in the management of crowds. Psychological and sociological principles and practices came in to play and were utilised to effectively mould the behaviour of people. Used as much for a just cause as to spread anarchy and disaffection. Equally marshalled by governments as an instrument of covert war as by unconscionable greed of business interests. With the introduction of technology and the concomitant accelerated speed of communication and sharing of video content across geographies the scale at which the power of crowds can be unleashed has bucked a new high. It has today the ability to make its effect felt from sophisticated money markets to grass root level politics. So strong is its influence that the wisdom of the crowds is the reality for many.
A closer scrutiny of the composition of these crowds reveal many interesting layers and interactivity. At the core, are the believers in an agenda that they deem important to their lives and their sympathisers who may or may not have a view on the agenda but want to support the group due to familial or friendly ties. There are those too, who get carried away with the excitement of belonging to a group with high activity which gives them a sense of self-worth.
Then, there are those who support the group with money and means to up the game. Their agenda though is rarely the same as the original group. For them the energy and commitment of these people is a means to their own end. They are the masterminds. Slowly they move the crowd and the agitation towards their desired goals. As the controversy develops other issues unrelated to the original which have the ability to raise the emotional pitch are introduced. Demands that have little hope of leading to reconciliation are brought in. Fake news and content are communicated to raise the levels of stress and frustration to cause a precipitate event. Which then can become the centre of the agitation. And if the precipitate event creates a martyr then the passions are uncontrollable. Reason is lost and emotion reigns supreme. The original crowd is infiltrated with agitators who assume the decisive role to lead. The hidden agenda takes over the real one.
The epiphanic orchestra of social media and commentators interested in leaving their own lasting legacy on the issue now move in. Those who hadn’t the remotest idea of the issues involved become the most studied opinion leaders as the crowding of likes and retweets is the final umpire of the scoring. The lure to instant fame is so great that people across geographies and walks of life get sucked in.
In today’s inter-connected world this swell of emotion raised through many layers is the death of reason. The original crowd becomes a pawn in a larger game. And sometimes if they get exactly what they asked for they might actually wonder – what the heck have we bargained for?
Leaders in every walk of life should know that at times such as this they must act with caution and calm. Today everything becomes deeply personal and people lose sight of the end game. Their job is to help bring back that focus. There are times in every debate when you need a hiatus so that it doesn’t become just a war of words and egos. And reason gets another chance.
When crowds surge even when you think you have won you lose, because the price is just too high.
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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)