Here’s a question I often ponder–a conundrum for which I have no good answer.

I know literally hundreds of wonderful people. They will help their neighbors, pick up litter, donate to help the victims of hurricanes. They’ll take food to bereaved families, mow the lawn of an elderly neighbor. Actually, I know very few people who aren’t genuinely nice. Some are smarter than others, some are more obtuse or self-involved, but I really think most people are basically decent.

So why do those same people often behave so badly in groups? Why do people who would never intentionally injure a neighbor or co-worker support collective actions having no other purpose than to hurt a particular group of people? Why do people in crowds act in ways they wouldn’t individually?

The “good Germans” in WWII come to mind, although that’s an extreme example.

I’m not talking about injustice or suffering that happens at a far remove–there’s a limit to how many “causes” people can focus on or care about, and as Jon Stewart has put it, most of us “have shit to do.” I’m talking about the otherwise nice people who dismiss bullying at the local school with “boys will be boys,” who excuse brutality by the local police because “they” probably had it coming, ¬†who enthusiastically support draconian measures targeting immigrants, or who want to discontinue public welfare for poor people because “recipients are all lazy good-for-nothings.”

I guess I’m talking about people who are generally ready to help a fellow human–but who define “fellow human” to exclude a lot of people–people they would probably help if they lived next door.


  1. If I understood this, I’d understand many more things about the world.

    The comments section to the San Francisco Chronicle is overrun with people cheering police brutality, abusing poor and marginalized people and laughing at stories about their troubles, spewing contempt for those who protest government policies (unless it’s debt and health care reform), celebrating the capture of American citizens by foreign governments (the hikers in Iran brought out particularly ugly comments), making racist comments, and generally abusing people in the Bay Area who aren’t white, upper middle-class, employed, and free-market conservatives. The coverage of the Occupy movements in SF and Oakland by the Chronicle has been terrible and unbelievably slanted, but the comments are worse. The contempt in which some of the commenters seem to hold other people and Constitutionally-guaranteed rights makes me despair.

  2. I think it’s basically the same thing as why you don’t care much about what’s going on half way around the world. People just have trouble empathizing with an abstraction. Maybe it’s a school in your neighborhood, but unless you or someone you love is getting bullied; it’s still abstract. And, if confronting it also means that you’ll have to cross people or a person in your group who is not an abstraction, your mind is likely to keep the bullying as an abstraction.

  3. It is so common for people, in groups, to be lead by those speaking out of frustration and anger. It is as if people are more easily motivated to get up and march and organize behind causes with negative (or perceived negative) agendas or messages than positive ones.

    Think about the last time you went out of your way to compliment someone who took extra good care of you while you were dining at a restaurant, buying an item at a retail store, or when someone helped you out over the phone in a call center in some far off place. We don’t generally go out of our way to compliment good service or experiences because we expect them. When we don’t receive them, that’s when the tip amount decreases, we tell at least ten people by word of mouth, and we never go there again.

    It seems to me that this kind of expectation consumer culture has grown into how we help others and select our causes for which we will involve ourselves (truly and actually get involved, not donate a dollar and go back to watching “fill in your show here”). When we see someone truly hurting and something that truly offends us with our own eyes, we’re quick to help. If we have to walk a mile to do it, some of us will. But for that poor nice guy that lives miles away and doesn’t really impact us directly, that might just be a little too much for us to take on with our own lives and helping the couples others near by, etc. Shape the scenario out how you will… we place limits on what we give based on our actual abilities to provide, who’s watching us as we help others (based on the social impact it will have), how we’re impacted by who we help (what they may offer in return), and there will always be those who will do more and those who’ll do nothing.

    People in crowds seem to lean one of two ways especially in times of great disaster or need. They will either come together with solidarity and a sense of unity to help one another, or they will act like a large pack of wild animals without brains in their heads and will trample one another to death trying to exit a venue without regard for anyone but themselves as individuals.

    While self-preservation is human nature, I guess this blog entry and response beg the question… Can we truly embrace preserving more than ourselves in not just a crisis but in our daily lives as well? Are we strong enough individuals to embrace the troubles of those who are persecuted, ill-treated, or less fortunate and make those troubles our own? While we can never as individuals fix the entire world, we can start with one person and lead from there. If another person follows your example, and so on… major problems can be solved.

  4. Look at the hateful comments to this story, about elderly women in San Francisco who get food from food banks and then sell it for cash. I don’t condone their actions but I have no doubt that they are living hand to mouth. And yet the commenters excoriate them for their “greed.”

    You’d think that at least right-wingers could be logically consistent and praise them for their capitalistic cleverness, and for “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” But no, they just pile hatred and scorn on poor senior citizens.

Comments are closed.