The Dehumanizing Power of the Mob

6:00:00 AMUnknown

Real talk. Sometimes philosophical concepts and reflections seem somewhat disconnected from day to day life. Sometimes, the profound insights that we read in books remain inside the pages until we have the time and leisure revisit them.

Not so, my friend, with insights of Dietrich von Hildebrand.

I had just finished reading his essay on Mass and Community when I left for a weekend in St. Louis, Missouri this past week. Hildebrand spoke of how the individual human person becomes lost within the evil atmosphere of a mob, but reintegrated and restored in proper community. Interesting, to be sure. I did not give much thought to it, however, until I drove past Ferguson, the town which has seen an incredibly devastating uprising over the past several months. This was real.

The black community, protesting against what they believe is the unlawful murder of a young man by a police officer, have taken their cause to the streets. There have been marches on highways. Gas stations have been burned to the ground. Businesses have been robbed. There have been screaming protests in the streets. There have been gas bombs thrown into the lines of police officers.

It is incredible that these events are happening in the Midwest, not just in the conflict-ridden Middle East. Right in the heart of America, there is incredible violence. The whole country has become invested in the shooting of the young Michael Brown and the question of serving justice. The leaders of the Missouri communities are frantically trying to restore civility, and even celebrities have been tweeting about the glory of “standing up for what we believe in.” While the situation is obviously dangerous, the mainstream culture has painted a picture of the mob of Ferguson as a rally for justice.

What is wrong with this picture?

Hildebrand explains what is wrong: “A mass has a destructive effect on the human being as a spiritual person: it makes him irresponsible. The individual loses himself in a mass; he loses his head; he surrenders himself to something dark, intangible, and anonymous.”1 How true this is! The mobs of Missouri may be fighting for one individual’s “justice” and yet, their own dignity is lost amidst the violence, burning, screaming and  cursing. These pictures do not portray these people as a collective of individuals, equipped with fortitude and rallying together for the cause of justice and racial equality. These pictures evoke something much more unspecified and dirty: they are a mass of rage. As Hildebrand says, “A mass...robs each person of his individuality, categorizing everyone as ‘average’.”2 It is difficult to recognize a human face when it is covered with the mask of a rebel in the streets.

Hildebrand reflects: “A certain sensational atmosphere of the mass situation opens the floodgates to every illegitimate influence.”3 The crowds were sensational, alright. And the floodgates were burst asunder, literally, on the streets. The intense emotion of the crowd swallowed up the individuals present. Sadly, the voice of reason was snuffed out as buildings burned and windows smashed. More importantly, the name of the very man they were protesting to defend was drowned out when the chants of obscenity rang out through the public roads.

One simply cannot fight for the cause of justice while diminishing the dignity of any other human being. It makes no sense.

I do not know if the young Michael Brown was unjustly and unlawfully executed by a police officer. More importantly, I do not blame the citizens of Ferguson for their intense grief at the death of young man in their town, or for the anger they must feel in the face of violence that seems endless, or for the problem of poverty which never seems to be solved.

I do know, however, that the violent nature of a mob such as this violates the dignity of the human person. Hildebrand’s reflection on the disordered and impersonal nature of the mob convinces me ever more profoundly that violence is not the answer.

What can we have instead of a raging mob? The answer is a community. For “a community unites human beings as spiritual persons in an ordered, meaningful way and is a great support and help for its individual members in forming resolutions, in developing a readiness to perform heroic deeds, and in holding fast to one’s convictions.”4 A community is made up of persons, not masked bomb-throwers.

“Only the rehabilitation of the human being as a spiritual person, as a being with an immortal soul destined to eternal community with God, can save us from being dissolved into a mass and lead us to genuine community.”5 This total rehabilitation of which Hildebrand speaks obviously takes some hard work and deep commitment. We are still a long way off.

I think we can be sure though, that Hildebrand would take up a passionate call to this grieving town to put down their weapons, take off the masks, and pursue justice with integrity. We can at least start there.
1) Hildebrand. Mass and Community. Page 323.
2) Ibid, Page 323.
3) Ibid, Page 323.
4) Ibid, Page 324.
5) Ibid, Page 326.

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