Marching and Consensus

Consensus and Marching.

With the whirling winds of the zeitgeist whipping us all into a global emotional depression I was taken by an article in New Scientist (7/2/09) entitled ‘How to control your herd of Humans.’ Again another epiphany from the psychologists and neuro-scientists– apparently marching or dancing in large group creates both a sense of loyalty and a blinding sense of community – go figure. The article draws a connection with the huge political rallies and marches held by fascistic leaders and the kind of blind adoration and fantastical love such events stirred up in people. It also suggested such events could be used to the positive – for peace as well as war. Certainly some of the recent political rallies in the United States have these hallmarks – the savvy political leader is a preacher and the slogan’ Yes, we can!’ was an inspirational chant both uniting millions of people but also personifying a great unspoken hope utterly appropriate for the current political climate – Genius in terms of turning a negative to a positive.

 – I had only surmise that UK’s prime minister Gordon Brown’s swan song might be ‘No, we can‘t!’ – or ‘No, I couldn’t’  – again this is another example of the cultural differences between the US and the UK – the UK is a very secular country built from divisions whereas many of original settlers of USA were religious refugees fleeing Europe – they were already idealists in search of hope. My experience of both countries is that it is hard to be openly nationalist in Britain without being met with a certain derision or suspicion (football being the exception) whereas the Americans have a natural inclination to such sentiment.

But back to the article, it made me to think about some of the group events I’d attended and the psychological impact they’d had upon me. As an atheist humanitarian without children there hasn’t been that many enforced by religion, community or by law. But several came to mind – one was the huge ‘Rock against racism’ marches I attended in London in the 1970’s. Massive marches that stretched literally for hours in the streets. Completely peaceful, there was a strong overriding sense of being united on a simple spiritually satisfying premise – all men were equal – and as one marches chanting passed the barriers, glancing across at the watching pedestrians, one also has a strong sense of both inclusion and exclusion.

Rock concerts, festivals, sports events, more grimly standing in a Sydney street in 2001, having been out of the US for two months, watching the twin towers come down on a large public TV screen in the CBD surrounded by men in suits watching men in suits falling – another unforgettable occasion when the individual psychology suddenly becomes an collective one. In this case horror and grief.

But another far more recent occasion was a Leonard Cohen concert last year at the O2 stadium in London. Largest live music venue in the world we were close to the front and Mr. Cohen’s performance (as well as the backing band) was absolutely spellbinding; a truly inspiring mixture of prophet, poet, self-depreciating aging womaniser and most impressive of all  – utter humility. That 75 year old man had the audience eating out of his hand and there was overwhelming sense as I looked back out towards the darkened auditorium and the thousands of filled seats arching back (to the point of vertigo) into the shadows that we were all one swaying animal caught up in the grip of the same catharsis.  It was phenomenal that this one tiny man managed to create the sense that he was relating intimately to each and every member of that audience and yet, at the same time, throw them into a collective memory of past love affairs, poignant heart break and those rare life experiences in which we call upon our higher selves. Power indeed. Again, the lovely sense of belonging to a positive collective washed over me – and when (this was in the weeks before the Obama election) Mr. Cohen broke into that song the chorus of which runs:’ Democracy is coming…to the USA’ the whole audience spontaneously broken in cheers and applause.

Another great collective experience is the sports event. Interestingly enough the culture of this experience varies greatly from country to country. For example I was used to Aussie rules being very much a family event, one that women and children attend almost as much as the men. The Americans have a similar attitude toward baseball – which sometimes I feel is as much about the peanut guy as the game (especially if you’re a Padres fan like my family). No one writes better about baseball than Don DeLillo (Underworld is still his best book in my humble opinion). I’m not suggesting the Americans do not take their baseball rivalry seriously but I’ve never seen a police escort for the visiting fans at the stadium like I have at an English football.

The first time I went to an football (‘soccer’ to my US/Australian readers) game I was shocked at the multitude of men in the stadium, it seemed the women were far and few between (there are a few but they kind of come into focus later). It was as if the very stadium seats were sweating testosterone. Actually I suspect they were, because, until you get used to it, as a woman you initially have a kind of pheromonal response to walking into that mass of masculinity, which is one of apprehension. No doubt an instinctive survival response – re: attack, or worse…. Now I love it and I scream along with the rest of the men around me. But the difference as far as I can tell is that the English fans take loss and triumph intensely personally and all the frustration in their personal lives is imposed on the game. Hence the violence one feels especially when one thinks the refugee has unfairly ruled against your team or there has been fouls on the field. To my chagrin I, myself, have found myself swept up by waves of outraged aggression in such situations (for the record I’m a Chelsea fan).

The other occasions I’ve noticed the hypnotic power of certain group activities would be voice exercises with actors design to create group trust. We used to use them before performing. Any group chanting, humming or merely holding hands, eyes’ shut sensing when the group are going to shout together – is surprisingly powerful. As is any group chanting.

 But I have never experienced such dramatic collective waves of emotion in any other arena – theatre, political rally or festival as the football game.

No doubt this is already re-enforced by the surrounding iconology of the club and the sense of belonging; The tribes of Britain, so to speak – perhaps this is where English nationalism really lies.

Interesting the New Scientist article finishes with a conclusion of how dopamine (a feel-good reward chemical) is released more in the brain when we fall into group consensus in contrast to opposing it. An argument to acknowledge the importance of such individuals prepared to stand up and be a lone voice. Equally I would argue that there is a need for more group activities orientated to well being, higher self and peaceful communication as well as just celebration of just plain joy….Bring back some of the bacchanalian rites I say sans the tribalism.