Updated: Oct 10, 2021
So, you’re on shift and out on patrol. You work on the rougher side town comprised of lower income housing projects and high crime rates. It’s midday in the middle of your shift during the summer, maybe you have your windows down and you decide to cruise along one of the streets in one of those neighborhoods. You see a group of kids, maybe 7 to 10 years old, playing basketball in the street and as you approach them in your cruiser they stop playing and move out of your way.
And as you pass them, you give a wave and a smile, with the intention of flexing that community policing muscle, but it all backfires. The lot of them give you the finger and yell “fuck the police!” But if you’ve been a cop long enough, even a few months, and specifically in lower income areas, you’re not all surprised by this. At least you shouldn’t be.
But nevertheless, it still leaves you saying to yourself, “these kids don’t even know why they’re saying that”. Now, this doesn’t go without saying that there are kids out there who are extremely perceptive to their surroundings and perhaps really do know why they’re shouting “fuck the police”, but for the majority, they are just imitating what they see and hear.
They live in a household where their parent (s), older brothers and sisters, older cousins, aunts, uncles, and other family friends constantly regurgitate their uninformed hateful rhetoric about the police because perhaps they’ve had a negative encounter or two. And let’s be honest, even the adults in the household are just as naïve and ignorant as a child can be.
The kids hear it constantly at home, and then when they’re with their friends in the street, who also live in similarly structured households, they regurgitate that rhetoric amongst themselves and it becomes one big ignorant mob mentality. And the next thing you know as a patrol officer, you’re being told to fuck yourself by a group of kids. But it’s not just children in lower income, high crime neighborhoods who are vulnerable enough to fall prey to that mentality.
Take another example of upper class, sheltered college students, who perhaps have never had a negative encounter with a cop or have never even had an encounter at all, who, in extreme cases, fall prey to and join up with the ideals of far-left organizations such as ANTIFA or BLM. They then walk around their college campus protesting injustices they’ve never actually witnessed, only saw or heard about it in propaganda-based news. They then graduate to wearing masks, hiding in the safety of the large number of people with similar agendas (an actual mob), and begin burning property and physically attacking those with opposing views in order to oppress and shut them up…all in the name of being anti-fascist (go figure).
It gets so out of control that in the grand scheme of things, when everything comes to a head, and damage has already been done, no one even really knows why they’re protesting or rioting to begin with. They claim that it was all in the name of destroying fascism, protesting police brutality, homophobia, xenophobia, President Donald Trump etc. But when you stop to ask them to provide examples of what injustices they’ve actually witnessed or incurred causing them to react so violently; they can’t give you an actual answer (see video below). So, why did they do it in the first place?
Answer being, the “Mob Mentality”. So, what is the mob mentality? To me, I can tell you for certain that it’s the failure to be an individual, free thinker who absent mindedly adopts whatever ideological influences of a certain identifiable group they see around them in order to either feel a part of something bigger than themselves, to be a part of some sort of perceived majority, to feel accepted by said majority, or to feel the safety in numbers of others with like minds, and without formulating their own opinions first. It’s the fear of being different and perceived as naïve, stupid, ignorant, or, according to liberals…wait for it…a racist! That’s the best way I can define a mob mentality.
But let me pump the brakes before we get too carried away dissecting other groups of people with differentiating opinions or beliefs than us because, after all, we also have to dissect ourselves to keep us in check. Whether you want to agree or not, we too as police officers, succumb to mob mentalities from time to time.
Small example: you’re sitting in the roll call/read off/muster/squad room (which ever you call it) bull shitting with the rest of your shift. The conversation then devolves into ring of shit talking about other officers behind their backs, whether It be about a mistake they made, or what an asshole a certain supervisor is, etc. But for the sake of the scenario, say someone starts talking shit about an officer whom they personally claim is a horrible officer for whatever X, Y, or Z reason. Someone else then chimes with their story about that person, and then another, and then another. You on the other hand, do not personally know the officer in question or have ever seen them in action.
But because you heard a firsthand account from, three or four people, you adopt the opinion that the officer in question isn’t to be trusted backing you up or for whatever other reason. But the truth is that you only heard one side of the story, and have no proof that whatever actually occurred happened the way they said it did. Perhaps the story you heard was just an isolated incident (people can and will make mistakes from time to time, that doesn’t mean they need to written off completely).
So anyway, then it begins. You dread ever having to ride a call with that said officer, and might even regurgitate the gossip you heard from those first officers to other officers without having any real personal knowledge of how that actual officer is. But then the day comes where you do ride a call with the officer in question and see them in action, and they turn out to be quite impressive and reliable. You then realize that you spent so much time being negative and spreading gossip about someone without actually knowing them and formulating your own individual opinion about them, so instead you’ve missed out on getting to know someone who turned out to be admirable.
I’ve been the officer in every situation of that scenario. I talked gossiped about another officer (like an asshole) who I personally thought was trash because of an isolated incident, I’ve been the officer who heard the gossip about someone I didn’t know and formulated an opinion based off other officer’s (mob) encounters, and for all I know, I’ve probably been the subject of gossip myself and have proven those who didn’t know me wrong, but I don’t know that for sure.
Point being, even as cops, we are no better at avoiding a mob mentality than the mobs that oppose us. But since we’ve established that we are no better, we can now learn and practice how to rectify our impulsive notions, and establish our own thoughts about a topic, or a person, or a situation, etc. How so? Well, of course, I’ll say philosophy. Which now leads me to the topic at hand.
I was asked this week on Instagram to give a stoic, as well as, cynic approach on mob mentalities. Before I start spewing what stoic philosophers have said, I’ll tell you my own approach, and the answer is short and simple: do not give into the mob, formulate your own thoughts and opinions on the matter first, and if they align with what others are saying, then sure, add into the conversation positively. And to put an ancient Stoic touch to this thought, let me quote Cato:
“I only begin to speak when I am certain that what I’m about to say isn’t better left unsaid.”
Meaning, if you don’t have anything positive to add the conversation, then do not say it.
But let us now go into what the Stoics actually thought of the mob. First, let me start out by saying that the Stoics believed the universe to be a whole, and that everything within it (humans, animals, plants, atoms, etc.) are all a piece of that whole and, in a way, connected to one another in that we all play a specific pre-destined, shared role in living within the universe, and that our connection to one another and living for one another was according what was natural. Now say what you will in believing that in 2020, but that’s what the Stoics believed and its apparent when you read Marcus Aurelius.
With that being said, although they believed that we were all made for one another, and that we are naturally social beings, who should also live a life in public service, the Stoics warned against conforming to a mob. Seneca said it specifically in letter VII to his friend Lucilius:
“you ask me to say what you should consider particularly important to avoid. My answer is this: a mass crowd.”
And although that sounds vague, he does go onto explain that reason as to avoid it, and he states it matter-of-factly:
“I never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with.”
This is because Seneca was really self-aware as any good Stoic, or any other person of virtue should be. He realized and actually stated in this same letter that there is always going to be at least one person within the mob who will make some sort of vice or other negative entity seem attractive to you, and the larger the number of people you are around, the greater the chances there are of you being blindly influenced by their rhetoric or rituals.
He ends this particular letter by saying this:
“retire into yourself as much as you can and only associate with people who are likely to improve you, and welcome those who you are capable of improving.”
Meaning simply this: think for yourself and rely on yourself to guide you in your Way, and only associate with those who can add to that Way, or others who you can add to their Way.
Epictetus taught similar ideas. Although, from my readings, he was never specific about saying “avoid the mob”, but he was big on examining the impression outside influences impose on you and then forming your own. Specifically, he said in the Enchiridion:
“So, practice saying to every strong impression you receive, ‘an impression is all you are, and by no means what you appear to be.’ Then test and assess it with your own criteria.”
Now to get to what the Cynics thought. As I brought to light in a previous blog, stoicism was founded on a lot of the core principles of cynicism. It’s been said that “the only difference between a Cynic and a Stoic is clothing.” That’s because Diogenes, the most recognizable Cynic walked around naked all the time. This was because the Cynics, like the Stoics, were minimalists in that they didn’t believe in owning a lot, or placing a lot of value on possessions.
The reasons the Cynics took it to such an extreme was because they didn’t believe civility and order to be a natural part of life like the Stoics did. They believed that civilization only complicated the matters of our animalistic instincts and made it harder to achieve eudemonia (bliss or happiness). As you can probably tell, with all that being said, the Cynics were more than just avoidant of the mob, they despised it. Diogenes actually stated:
“The mob is the mother of all tyrants.” (Think of any dictator in the 20th century).
Now to end, the part that you probably want to know most, more than what the stoics thought of the mob, is how do you personally deal with a mob mentality. And that answer lies in one of the core fundamentals of stoicism, and that is: you cannot control what happens in the world outside of you, only how you react to it. If you want to be offended or disgusted with a mob whose views attack yours, then that is on you. As Epictetus said:
“If something succeeds in provoking you, remember that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”
The best way to react is to educate. Explain to the mob or someone in the mob the error of their ways. Show them where they are mistaken. If you’ve done your research as a free-thinking individual, you should be able to make a compelling argument as to where they are ignorant. As police officers, we should be doing that anyway; educating, not arguing. Arguing is for the courts. And if someone doesn’t want to accept the hard facts that you’ve presented, then you should become indifferent to them. They are the ones who have to bear the weight of refusing to be uneducated, not you. Another good Epictetus aphorism:
“When someone in an argument hardens to stone, there is just no more reasoning with them.”
Remember that it is easier to give into the mob mentality than to be a free thinker. This is because when it comes to the mob, they essentially do the thinking and the research for you, all you have to do is blindly agree and you’re in. Being a free thinker means you have to do the research yourself and actually put in the work to examine and form your own opinion on a matter. Keep this in mind the next time you take someone else’s word on something, or give into false gossip. Free thinkers are the enemy of tyranny.
And as always, control your own perceived chaos.
Epictetus. (2008). Discourses and Selected Writings (Penguin Classics ed.). (R. Dobbin, Ed., & R. Dobbin, Trans.) London, England: Penguin Group. Retrieved 2019
Seneca. (2004). Letters from a Stoic. (B. Radice, Ed., & R. Campbell, Trans.) London, England: Penguin Group.