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The January 6th hearings continued this week, so we took it as an opportunity to revisit how academics tried to explain the events. Many likened it to a kind of psycho-social pathology; terms like deindividuation, psychosis, groupthink, and mob mentality were thrown around liberally. This is basically crowd theory, a line of thought developed in the 19th century by French physician Gustave Le Bon.
However, Le Bon was a reactionary bigot. He feared the masses, derided popular intelligence, and condemned democratic rule. Plus, his ideas are largely discredited. Left wing scholars do not like Le Bon–at least not when it comes to understanding leftwing movements. Yet, when it comes to the right, something changes. Is it OK to apply reactionary ideas to reactionary movements, out of political expediency? We think no, because these ideas will end up inevitably being applied to movements for social justice. In fact, they long have been.
On this episode, we explore why academic always fear the mass, whatever the politics. First, social movement theorist James Jasper takes us on an intellectual journey — throughout the western philosophical canon, to Le Bon and beyond — revealing how publics have long been seen as irrational and emotional. Next, historian Joy Rohde takes us into the academic-military-industrial complex. The US military has played a major role funding these kinds of ideas, because they serve the interests of empire, white supremacy, and elite control.
——————FURTHER READING, LISTENING, & WATCHING————————-
- If the politics of emotions and social movements is of interest, you have to check out James Jasper’s book, The Emotions of Protest. Especially relevant is the appendix, which offers a wider history of emotions and rationality as it pertains to social movements.
- We highly recommend Joy Rohde’s book Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research During the Cold War, or the shorter encyclopedia article that offers a concise history on the entangled relationship of US empire and US social science.
- For more on the discredited work of Gustav Le Bon, check out Stephen Reicher’s work, including this tweet thread, and a BBC Radio 4 documentary that featured his work.
- Stewart Ewan’s classic PR!: A Social History of Spin focusses especially on how the ideas of Le Bon and others influenced Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations. Adam Curtis’ documentary the Century of the Self also tells this story, especially in the second part.
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Darts and Letters is hosted and edited by Gordon Katic. The lead producer is Jay Cockburn, and our assistant producer is Ren Bangert. Our managing producer is Marc Apollonio. Our theme song and music was created by Mike Barber, our graphic design was created by Dakota Koop, and we have marketing and video editing from Ian Sowden.
This is a production of Cited Media. This episode received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. It is part of a series of episodes on the relationship between activism and academia. Our scholarly advisors on this series are Professors Lesley Wood at York University, Sigrid Schmalzer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as Sharmeen Khan, Sami McBryer, and Susannah Mulvale.
Darts and Letters is produced in Toronto, which is on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.