Examination of the Unchained: What Makes A Mob?

Fallacious logic didn’t only affect European peasants. It has endlessly been used in the form of propaganda to fuel hatred or fear of various sorts, while often only telling half-truths in the hope that no one notices. The American Revolution is an excellent example of how such propaganda can be used to affect positive change, as newspapers were regularly published and shipped to many larger towns and cities, detailing all of the political wrongdoings that the British were supposedly (and, in many cases, actually) perpetrating upon the American colonies.[vi] As much as war was caused, and as much as the people were divided, entire swathes of them were mobilised, united by the common cause of maintaining their liberty.

[pulquote_left]There was no Pericles, exemplifying the democracy of the Western world by stepping up and trying to drive the energy somewhere. I suppose most people left their pitchforks at home, and hopeful onlookers mourned the near-dead art of oratory.[/pullquote_left]Is reason, then, the key to elevating a mob to a nobler category? It may be fair to say yes, but tentatively so, as the balance is precarious. Because protests and mobs are both typically large groups of people, they are subject to the peer pressure of the collective mentality. People often lose themselves, or part of their immediate, individual consciousness while in a group. This can lead to chanting and parading signposts around, or things can get far worse, very quickly. All it ever seems to take is the first rock that gets cast before dozens of others follow.[vii] Through a single act of violence, we hold within us the potential to turn a totally peaceful protest into a blood-lusted mob.

Unfortunately, such a show of legal force doesn’t always stop the escalation of events. Sometimes, rather, it is the catalyst that leads to the explosion of mob violence. What might have been anger teetering on the edge of a precipice then explodes, typically beginning with riots, police forces attempting to contain rocks and makeshift weapons and prevent damage to public areas, often shops owned by small-time business folk, and the ones who tend to suffer the most in cataclysmic events like these.[viii] The result stretches beyond protest signs, shifting into bad media reviews for whatever cause is at hand. And while not all riots start violently, they often end violently: a consequence of some subconscious, unspoken understanding humanity has absorbed over millennia.[ix] The language of violence is understood to be the governing force, above the law, because the law has never been able to entirely contain it. It is a simple equation of force, not in the same sense as physics and motion, but in relation to threats. A mob can protest, or it can riot and break little, harm no one, but still be put down by the same number of police or guards that an armed mob might warrant. It is a question of what is available at the time, more so than what might actually be necessary to keep the peace. It seems as though bigger is better, if only to intimidate further occurrences. Unfortunately, not all rebellion happens in the street, and not all naysaying can be put down with physical force. It can simmer in our homes, workplaces, music, television, films, or literature and be considered a non-issue, until it catches the attention of the right authority.

By this point, the song Angry People by the Barenaked Ladies (who are in fact neither naked, nor ladies, at least when they are on stage) has seeped its way into my head, and rather than chew up further words cataloguing the lyrics,[x] I’d rather talk about the development and mentality they describe. The song traces how an angry person starts off alone, but this eventually ripples outwards, consuming greater and greater numbers, reaching even into the world of happy people. The chorus in particular describes how angry people like, among other things, ruining happy people’s days. The lyrics, or our own minds, might lead us to envision individuals in isolated situations, but what’s to stop an onlooker, or retrospect, from characterising a mob the same way? Ultimately, it is true that mobs are typically angry, or at least frustrated, with some element of the status quo and they wish to upset it. The only real question is which side gets villainised and who is ruining whose day. And pointing fingers will only make things worse. After all, angry people get so sanctimonious.

Attitude is a necessary aspect of what makes a mob a mob. They’re probably angry. They have some sort of goal(s) in mind, and this will take often substantial change, they may or may not be pacifists, but are typically met with violence, if not deadly force outright. They are not always in the right, even when they think they are. The definition of a mob, or protest, and how the two vary relies on intent as it does the outcome — what starts peacefully can end in tragic violence, or it can revolutionize a nation. They can protest, they can riot, with signs or stones. Ultimately we have to be aware of one another, and how we can impact each other when we are part of a cohesive group, even if that group’s interests are diverse. And their struggle is twofold, first to attain whatever social justice they seek, and second to maintain a degree of control, to stay in good standing with the law where applicable, and to try and avert any further sufferings.

As encompassing as I am trying to be here, mobs stretch beyond mere words. They are global, historical, and modern all at once, though they are stigmatised in various localities for these histories and discriminatory conceptions. The question of whether or not they are good or bad is a complex one that deserves its own, much longer examination. Briefly, they are both, potentially at the same time — those for and those against may have opposing views on such a question. It is difficult to brush aside such a question, and even more so to make a statement about social change. While it may be safe to say that the majority are out for beneficial social change, many are out for more destructive purposes. But they are, above all, human beings who are struggling through the same diverse set of circumstances that the rest of us muddle through, day by day.


[i] ‘Women in Early Modern Europe’, Stormer (alias); FictionPress.com, May 9, 2005

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzMhU_4m-g

[iii] ‘Women’s March on Versailles’, Wikipedia, Retrieved July 1, 2015

[iv] ‘French Alliance, French Assistance, and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution’; Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State

[v] ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789’,The Avalon Project; Yale Law School, 2008

[vi] ‘The Market Place Of Revolution’, Breen, T.H..; Oxford University Press, 2005. See pgs 200, 247ff.

[vii] ‘The Effects of Mob Mentality on Crowd Control’, Hughes, Jill Elaine; Phoenix University, 2011

[viii] ‘England Riots: Which shops were looted?’, Rogers, Simon; The Guardian, December 6, 2011

[ix] Schley, Lacy, ‘Mob Mentality Can Take Over Protests or even Clearance Sales’; Northwestern University, 2012

[x] ‘Angry People’, as performed by The Barenaked Ladies; Barenaked Ladies Are Men, 2007