Extraordinary Mass Delusions
Our viewing of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT tied in nicely with my reading of Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The author’s interest in the phenomenon of public shaming, which seems to have migrated from the medieval stocks to Twitter, leads him to explore ideas about deinviduation, and the behaviour of crowds. He traces many of our assumptions about mobs and riots to The Crowd, a book by Gustave Le Bon, who wrote at the time of Napoleon III and first propagated the idea that mobs have a kind of group madness, are in fact possessed by a force which does not dwell in any one of them but infects them all.
Unfortunately, Ronson discovers that Le Bon was a racist, a misogynist and a colossal snob, even by the standards of the times, and his beliefs did not really result from scientific research, so much as prejudice and a desire to ingratiate himself with the powerful. If the mob is motivated by a kind of mental illness, then any grievances they are protesting can be ignored as irrelevant.
Ronson never gets as far as a complete theory of what is happening in mob actions — he suspects that the London rioters never reached his house because he lives up a steep hill, and each riot participant made a sane and reasonable decision not to riot uphill. This is an interesting way to consider it, with interesting implications, but it’s too far off-topic in Ronson’s book for him to pursue much further.
It seems to me that a riot or a vicious public shaming creates a kind of anomie, where participants see others misbehaving and being popular for it, and their worst instincts are given a license to run riot. It seems that we mostly don’t live by a moral code, but by a sense of what we’re told is OK from moment to moment, and what we think we’ll get away with. In this sense, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Ronson explores in detail (and complicates nicely), is less relevant here than Milgram’s obedience experiments.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT climaxes with mob violence on the streets of London — author Nigel Kneale received some criticism for this at the time of the TV version, since the Notting Hill Race riots were of recent memory. Kneale’s vision of an ethnic purge was inspired by the attacks on black Londoners by racist gangs. His intentions were misunderstood, rather wilfully I think. But he has been seduced by Le Bon’s popular notion of riots as a manifestation of primitive impulse, a plague of savagery that sweeps through a population. Since the Martian madness of the series and film is tied to race memories buried in the human unconscious, it could easily be connected with the xenophobe’s view of the Notting Hill riots as an eruption of primitive instincts, a reversion to type.
I think the scene where a vaguely Jewish-looking man is stoned by the possessed mob shows clearly the kind of savagery Kneale is concerned with.
By the time of the final Quatermass TV series of 1979, Kneale is perhaps a little more conservative. As with his channelling of Le Bon’s ideas in Quatermass and the Pit, here he ties real sociological happenings to a science fiction explanation, connecting youth protest and his own, violent extrapolation of the hippy movement, to an alien force manipulating our minds. On the other hand, the young person’s perennial argument, that the old have got it wrong and made a mess of the world, is shown to be entirely justified. Kneale, like Quatermass, positions himself between the rebels and the authorities, a lone voice crying in the wilderness.