Recently, I attended a special outdoor commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. A number of period tanks, artillery and landing craft were on exhibit, all of which were fascinating to behold.
Among this collection was a living relic, likely over 90 years old, whose advanced age did not prevent him from unwaveringly standing and captivating the audience with his own tales from the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
“I remember at night in the camp we used to shoot at birds in the distance for target practice,” recalled the aged veteran. “The funny thing was that often, instead of hitting the birds in the dark, we actually ended up shooting wandering Frenchmen, hahaha!” “Ha ha ha” laughed the excited crowd at the joke, except, it wasn’t a joke. Here was a man talking about accidentally killing people, and the crowd was laughing as if they had just seen Moe slap Curly in The Three Stooges.
I can understand why the veteran was able to take the story lightly—war had likely numbed him as it does so many others—but what about the crowd? Did they truly find it funny that innocent Frenchmen were getting mistaken for birds and shot to death in the dark, or were they just laughing because they felt that it was the appropriate social reaction at the time. I would argue the latter.
Everybody is, to some extent, an actor when it comes to social situations. We laugh out of politeness when somebody says something that’s supposed to be funny, and we exaggerate our sadness when somebody we have never met dies. I will illustrate both examples.
Scenario 1: You are in a grocery store staring at the shelf, calculating whether you should buy “Aunt Jemima” or “Log Cabin” maple syrup. Suddenly, your near-meditative state is broken by an elderly lady who bumps into you, causing you to drop the box of pancake mix you were holding under your arm. As you bend over to pick it up you hear the lady chuckle as she says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Gee wilickers, I am as clumsy as a clown today, aren’t I? Hahaha.” “Ha ha ha,” you artificially laugh back. You didn’t actually find anything funny in the situation, but you didn’t want to be rude, so you forced a laugh. (According to a recent study, it turns out that those fake laughs may not actually be fooling anybody).
Scenario 2: You are an insurance saleswoman meeting with a potential buyer at a restaurant. The buyer, a few minutes late, apologizes saying that his cousin has just passed away, and that he had gotten caught up dealing with that situation. Instinctively, you let out a groan of sadness to try and empathize with the buyer. Now, it is sad to hear about anyone dying. We are emotionally programmed to be upset when we hear that type of news, so you definitely feel some sadness. But are you really feeling as sad as you act? The answer is probably no, and there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot be truly distraught over somebody dying when you had no emotional bond with them. Imagine if you could—everybody would be depressed all the time. The point is, you had to probably act a little bit sadder than you were because it was the right thing to do at the time.
We all do things to socially fit in to some extent. In the two cases illustrated above, there is nothing wrong with that. Humans are social creatures who need company, and you’re not going to get company by being the hothead who glares at the lady who accidentally bumped into you or being the jerk who doesn’t offer support to others during times of grief.
However, there are times when this social instinct to fit in can cause us to do commit horrible acts, acts we would never have committed on our own. Let’s consider an extreme example first: The Holocaust.
Up until World War II, the Jews had lived in peace alongside their neighbors in Europe. People shopped at Jewish stores, borrowed from Jewish lenders and had coffee with their Jewish friends. Enter Adolf Hitler and the Jewish persecution. All of a sudden it became socially acceptable to hate Jews. People who had once gotten along with their Jewish neighbors now began to mistreat them to fit in with Nazi society. From the Nuremberg Laws, to Kristallnacht, to the final solution, it just got worse and worse. Ultimately, peoples’ failure to speak up against society led to the deaths of 6 million Jews.
The example need not be that extreme. Consider how nasty the audience gets on those live talent competitions like The X Factor or American Idol when somebody does not perform well on stage. Boo’s, shrieks, and taunts is all you hear. However, if there was just one person in the audience, I doubt he would criticize the person on stage as much. I bet he would say,”That’s ok, you tried your best,” instead of “You suck!” There is a safety in numbers, and people will act however good or bad they feel they can get away with socially.
It’s hard to go against social rules and expectations. In most cases those rules and expectations are there for a reason—we all have to somehow cooperate on this planet despite having billions of individual differences.
At the same time, individuality is something we sometimes desperately need to bring us back to humanity. A mob with thousands (or millions) of different voices cannot think on its own, and it loses that morality which is present in each of us as individuals. It becomes no different from a herd of cattle, hence the term “herd mentality.”
To avoid this, we must always maintain our individual sense of humanity and morality and realize when it is being compromised by a group. At that point, it may be necessary to either leave the group, or, more courageously, to try and bring the group back into the right. After all, it only takes one domino to set off a chain reaction.