Emotional Health

Mobs, Bullying, and American Values

An especially personal op-ed in The New York Times last weekend poignantly illustrated how an insecure individual can be caught up in the process of hate.

As a young boy, Said Sayrafiezadeh felt insecure about being the child of Iranian and Jewish parents living here. Enrolled in an art class with mostly American, Caucasian kids, he joined with them in ridiculing another boy of Middle Eastern descent in the class. At first he ignored him, but when the other kids began to tease him about his funny name and other differences, he joined the mob. He explains that his insecurity about his differences made him want to distinguish himself from the outsider, and how joining the dominant group was irresistible to his younger self. Even when the wise teacher tried to reason with him, he could not resist his feelings. He writes,

“There is, of course, much to consider about the role played in all this by the ignorance of my 9-year-old self, about my easy capitulation to groupthink, about my desperation to somehow undo what I had been born into. But standing there with my teacher kneeling in front of me, a look of disappointment etched across her face, I was neither interested nor capable of being in touch with any of that. I was propelled by something far more fundamental and intoxicating and disturbing, something that could not be argued away with the use of reason: It had felt good.”

When people band together, it is known that they will behave in ways that they might not when acting as individuals. It is almost as if they surrender their allegiance to themselves and their values in an effort to feel the strength of the group. This was detailed in a book published in 1895 by French sociologist Gustave le Bon called The Crowd, still considered one of the most important works in the history of social science. Psychologist Stephen Reicher summarizes that

“(Le Bon) . . . argues, when we get together in a crowd, we literally become submerged in the crowd, we lose our individuality. Because individuality is the basis of our judgments, of reason, we become subject to contagion, we can’t resist any passing idea or emotion, and moreover, because we have lost our rational, conscious personality, we regress to something more primitive, something more brutal . . .roughly he says ‘it will be noticed that the characteristics of crowds, their fickleness, their emotionality, their incapacity of reason, is reminiscent of inferior forms. . . (of behavior) . . . It’s a view that you see every time you see collective behavioral riots.”

Le Bon’s point was that though people in a crowd may think they have a common viewpoint or a common enemy, what they really have is a common emotion: fear.

Bullies are essentially cowards trying to conceal and deny their own fear. The Internet has made it much easier for bullies to hide in cyberspace while hurling their insults, and in recent years the effects of social-media targeting have been devastating. Dr. Andrew Adesman, the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York said, “It is estimated that 20 percent of suicides in teens and young adults are due to bullying, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this age range.”

Increased awareness of these forces has led to schools and communities taking steps to fight it, with some encouraging results. Though institutionalized bullying, as seen in the Jim Crow South, may have lessened, its roots are deep and, like the worst weeds, unless we are careful it re-emerges quickly.

Joe Biden, writing in The Atlantic this week, says that we are engaged in “a battle for the soul of this nation.” He continues,

“The giant forward steps we have taken in recent years on civil liberties and civil rights and human rights are being met by a ferocious pushback from the oldest and darkest forces in America. Are we really surprised they rose up? Are we really surprised they lashed back? Did we really think they would be extinguished with a whimper rather than a fight?”

But the former Vice President feels that the force of American values is stronger and deeper still, and, with energy and vigilance, they will win the day. He writes, “We have to remember our kids are watching. We have to show the world America is still a beacon of light.”



Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Mary F August 31, 2017 at 10:00 am

    Yes, our kids are watching. And the takeaway from the past presidential election and the current administration so far: bullies win.