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SOCIETY AND EPIDEMICS
WHEN animals, on account of the great dangers that threaten them, begin to rove about in groups, in companies, in herds, and thus become social, such animals, on pain of extinction, must vary in the direction of suggestibility; they must become more and more susceptible to the emotional expression of their comrades, and reproduce it instantaneously at the first impression. When danger is drawing near, and one of the herd detects it and gives vent to his muscular expression of fear, attempting to escape, those of his comrades who are most susceptible reproduce the movements, experience the same emotions that agitate their companion, and are thus alone able to survive in the struggle for existence. A delicate susceptibility to the movements of his fellows is a question of life and death to the individual in the herd. Suggestibility is of vital importance to the group, to society, for it is the only way of rapid communication social brutes can possibly possess. Natural selection seizes on this variation and develops it to its highest degree. Individuals having a more delicate susceptibility to suggestions survive, and leave a greater progeny which more or less inherit the characteristics of their parents. In the new generation, again, natural selection resumes its merciless work, making the useful trait of suggestibility still more prominent, and the sifting process goes on thus for generations, endlessly. A highly developed suggestibility, an extreme, keen susceptibility to the sensori-motor suggestions, coming from its companions, and immediately realizing those suggestions by passing through the motor processes it witnesses, is the only way by which the social brute can become conscious of the emotions that agitate its fellows. The sentinel posted by the wasps becomes agitated at the sight of danger, flies into the interior of the nest buzzing violently, the whole nestful of wasps raises a buzzing, and is thus put into the same state of emotion which the sentinel experiences.
Suggestibility is the cement of the herd, the very soul of the primitive social group. A herd of sheep stands packed close together, looking abstractedly, stupidly, into vacant space. Frighten one of them; if the animal begins to run, frantic with terror, a stampede ensues. Each sheep passes through the movements of its neighbour. The herd acts like one body animated by one soul. Social life presupposes suggestion. No society without suggestibility. Man is a social animal, no doubt; but he is social because he is suggestible. Suggestibility, however, requires disaggregation of consciousness; hence, society presupposes a cleavage of the mind, it presupposes a plane of cleavage between the differentiated individuality and the undifferentiated reflex consciousness, the indifferent sub waking self. Society and mental epidemics are intimately related; for the social gregarious self is the suggestible subconscious self.
The very organization of society keeps up the disaggregation of consciousness. The rules, the customs, the laws of society are categorical, imperative, absolute. One must obey them on pain of death. Blind obedience is a social virtue.1 But blind obedience is the very essence of suggestibility, the constitution of the disaggregated subwaking self. Society by its nature, by its organization, tends to run riot in mobs, manias, crazes, and all kinds of mental epidemics.
With the development of society the economical, political, and religious institutions become more and more differentiated; their rules, laws, by-laws, and regulations become more and more detailed, and tend to crimp the individual, to limit, to constrain his voluntary movements, to contract his field of consciousness, to inhibit all extraneous ideas―in short, to create conditions requisite for a disaggregation of consciousness. If, now, something striking fixes the attention of the public―a brilliant campaign, a glittering holy image, or a bright "silver dollar"―the subwaking social self, the demon of the demos, emerges, and society is agitated with crazes, manias, panics, and mental plagues of all sorts.
With the growth and civilization of society, institutions become more stable, laws more rigid, individuality is more and more crushed out, and the poor, barren subwaking self is exposed in all its nakedness to the vicissitudes of the external world. In civilized society laws and regulations press on the individual from all sides. Whenever one attempts to rise above the dead level of commonplace life, instantly the social screw begins to work, and down is brought upon him the tremendous weight of the socio-static press, and it squeezes him back into the mire of mediocrity, frequently crushing him to death for his bold attempt. Man's relations in life are determined and fixed for him; he is told how he must put on his tie, and the way he must wear his coat; such should be the fashion of his dress on this particular occasion, and such should be the form of his hat; here must he nod his head, put on a solemn air; and there take off his hat, make a profound bow, and display a smile full of delight. Personality is suppressed by the rigidity of social organization; the cultivated, civilized individual is an automaton, a mere puppet.
Under the enormous weight of the socio-static process, under the crushing pressure of economical, political, and religious regulations there is no possibility for the individual to determine his own relations in life; there is no possibility for him to move, live, and think freely; the personal self sinks, the suggestible, subconscious, social, impersonal self rises to the surface, gets trained and cultivated, and becomes the hysterical actor in all the tragedies of historical life.
Laws and mobs, society and epidemics―are they not antagonistic? In point of fact they are intimately, vitally interrelated, they are two sides of the same shield.
Under normal conditions social activity no doubt works wonders; it elaborates such marvellous products as language, folklore, mythology, tribal organization, etc.―products that can only be studied and admired by the intellect of the scientist. When, however, the social conditions are of such a nature as to charge society with strong emotional excitement, or when the institutions dwarf individuality, when they arrest personal growth, when they hinder the free development and exercise of the personal controlling consciousness, then society falls into a hypnoid condition, the social mind gets disaggregated. The gregarious self begins to move within the bosom of the crowd and becomes active; the demon of the demos emerges to the surface of social life and throws the body politic into convulsions of demoniac fury.
1. "The Vast majority of persons," writes F. Galton, "of our race have a natural tendency to shrink from the reponsibility of standing and acting alone;' they exalt the vox populi, even when they know it to be the utterance of a mob of nobodies, into the vox Dei, and are willing slaves to tradition, authority, and custom."