One day, about 40 years ago, I found myself in a group of people doing something that scared the crap out of me. As I look around me now, I feel the same way I felt then.
I went to college at Penn State, a burgeoning mass of 30,000 students sequestered in the heart of the mountains and, as we used to say, equally inaccessible to all parts of the state. The student body was diverse because it drew people from both urban and rural parts of Pennsylvania, eastern and midwestern, and students from around the country and around the world. But it was also uniform in that the population of the campus and the small adjacent town of State College were students, professors, dining hall workers, and a bunch of random pizza joints and bookstores. The median age was of the people in a 3-mile radius was probably 20. In the winter, it was snowy and freeze-the-inside-of-your-nostrils cold.
One winter night, about 9:00, there was a commotion in the hall of my dorm. (I was in one of the few co-ed dorms, but all the guys were on one wing, and all the girls on the other.) I poked my head out and heard guys talking about heading over to West Halls and having a snowball fight. In the way of college enthusiasms, a scrum of about 100 guys rapidly coalesced and started heading west. We picked up groups from other parts of campus on the way; word had spread through some sort of magic telegraphy. There were several hundred of us by the time we got there.
When we reached the courtyard of West Halls, we started bellowing. The dorm opposite us was a brick building a few stories tall, and filled with women. Yellow light streamed out of the bathroom and hallway windows into the courtyard. Women began to appear at the windows, and a few of the guys started lazily throwing snowballs at each other. We had an audience.
Someone decided it would be fun to throw snowballs at the dorm. In a matter of seconds, dozens of snowballs were flying at the brick walls. My arm wasn’t nearly good enough to even hit the building, but there were a lot bigger and stronger guys there who were doing a pretty good job hitting the walls a couple of floors up.
Somebody’s snowball hit a window. And then somebody’s snowball broke a window. The scrum had now become a mob, and the sound of breaking glass seemed to inflame it. As the hail of snowballs headed towards the women in the windows, I began to feel very sick. Who were these people? What were they doing? Was I a part of this?
I was too young and scared to say anything. Looking back, the idea of my nerdy little self taking on a few hundred other guys seems impossible. I sort of slunk away, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to be part of that mob.
I’m 58 now, and most of those guys are about the same age as me. Now they’re state legislators, CEOs, parents of their own college students, citizens. Do they remember that night with shame, or fondly? Are they the same people now that they were on that night?
What mobs do we belong to now?
The mobs of 2017
We call the mobs of 2017 the Women’s March, the Alt-Right, coworkers, Red Sox fans, the Tea Party, Republicans, Democrats, Americans.
We still gather in bunches and shout, but we gather even more online. We get our blood up. We don’t throw snowballs, we throw words . . . mostly. We egg each other on; we demonize the other side.
The glass is starting to break, and it worries me.
The moment that shocked me into awareness as a Penn State student was the moment when I realized there were people on the other side of those windows, and they were probably going to get hurt. I have been unreasonably suspicious of groups ever since. It’s efficient to make yourself part of a group and push for group action, because it allows you to delegate your thinking and morality to others. That always worries me.
Mobs hurt people because they don’t think of the others as people. Are Muslims people? Are homosexuals? Jews? Patriots fans? Russians? People on welfare? Trump voters? Once you lose your empathy for others as people — or even believe that the people in your group deserve more than those people, you can justify almost anything.
Have you heard the glass shatter? Is someone in your mob throwing insults, snowballs, or rocks? Is it you? Are you going to say anything, or are you going to slink away as I did 40 years ago?
Think a second. Who are you hurting? Is that ok?
Mobs exist. The conditions that make them exist — greed, fear, ignorance, lack of empathy, and the online tools that bind us together in groups — are only getting stronger.
Wake up. Think. Resist.