Mob Violence

By Abel Merawi

MobSeptember 5, 2019 ( -- A discussion on mob violence or aggression takes a different route than violence on an individual level. The later requires distinct case studies or psychoanalysis for each individual. However, mob violence requires an integration of psychological and sociological analysis. For a better understanding, it is important to raise some core questions regarding the mob: Can a mob be rational or is it mostly driven by emotion? Or is it a combination of the two? Can the individuals in the mob continue to act autonomously or do they succumb to a collective mentality guided by others to act like a machine on auto pilot? Does the one (the leader of the mob) continue to guide them, or do they form a collective meaning through a singular interpretation of the leader’s rationale, which may lead to a misunderstanding beyond the leader’s control?

History has been witness to voluminous atrocities committed by the mob or the crowd. Religion and ideologies have also affirmed this truth by bringing uprisings. The cruelty of the mob in persecuting religious leaders and scientists throughout history is a very good portrayal of mob mentality. A rational basis for collective violence seems to be lacking. The mob acts with impulses that are mostly ignited by the desire to uphold the status quo. A questioning mind is the basis for understanding the true nature of any act and its consequences, yet this is the one element missing from the mob. The individuals that constitute the crowd sacrifice this element that makes them truly human in order to conform to the mob. The crowd has room only for the semi-human, for the submissive, for the one who fears freedom to the point of abandoning the rational mental faculty.

Socrates announced for his judges and the people that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is a disgrace for human beings to be so wild and irrational, especially when one’s own life as well those of others depend on their judgment and act. How an individual sacrifices oneself and/or others for an unexamined collective idea is absurd. It becomes even more absurd when the act of the mob threatens the very existence of the mob itself. The irrationality of a mob raises a question on the individuals, who are assumed as or expected to be rational.  

The inhumane judgments taken by a mob is hard to be made by individuals who even constitute the mob. The case of riots, revolutions and violent protests are exemplary to this truth. A person who could not even imagine killing others, looting or burning down whole villages, or committing genocide seems to do those very atrocities when inside a mob. The fact that the inhumane act is not done for personal benefit, but rather for the crowd makes it a valid rational for the individual in the mob. Through the ages, demagogues and dictators understood this behavior better. They invariably assemble large crowds, the bigger the better, for they know leading a crowd to heinous acts is far easier than leading an individual to the same.

The frequent excuse of politicians and the various officers serving them is that they were ordered or the system required them to act wrongly. A police officer or a soldier who tortured and killed people claims that he or she was ordered to do the act and blames officials who gave the order. A corrupt official in one regime condemns the system when another regime overtakes power by blaming his or her acts on the system. These examples clearly show how the individual plays the role of a machine or a robot when he or she is part of a mob.

There are various reasons why the individual abandons autonomy for the sake of becoming mechanical, the primary reasons being the fear of freedom and the desire to belong. There are plenty of people who dread freedom because it requires being responsible. The burden of freedom can lead to seeking others that would simply give orders, who take the blame if it goes wrong. Thus, the individual ends up belonging to a crowd made up of individuals with similar state of mind. To ‘belong’ is to become an object or property of another – it is to stop being human. The crowd in which the individual seeks refuge may form its ‘grand value’ based on a leader, an ethnic group, or a sect.

The mob may begin with a value which it desires to protect at all costs without examining the underlying reason. At other times, it may begin with a real cause such as an oppression that has weakened its collective existence. Yet, in the process the oppressed group may end up being an oppressor. Paulo Freire in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ stresses this point that the oppressed imitate the behavior of the oppressor when they become free, which shows why the group that was oppressed enjoys oppressing upon possessing power. The socialist revolutions in many countries that resulted in different forms of oppression, such as the French revolution and others after it, prove this point.

The leader of a crowd may not necessarily be a leader in human form. The leader could just be a spokesperson to an idea the crowd holds dear at face value. This value could be ethnic conflict, historical grievance, a religious cause, or an institutional ideology. The leader may at first genuinely lead the crowd in showing them the value they should protect and sacrifice themselves and others to achieve their goal. The way this value is interpreted in the mob may result in a misconception of the ideal. It is also true that the road travelled to attain this value could bring more disaster than the attainment of the value could justify. Machiavelli was wrong in saying, ‘The end justifies the means.” If our freedom comes at the price of enslaving others, then our means are not justified by our end. Being oppressed or oppressor are results, the fight should be against the idea of oppression. Thus, it is the task of the leader to not only show the value but also to show the road that should be taken to realize it.

As long as a certain group perceives another group as a rivalry, the aggression of the mob could not be quenched. The individual should welcome the independence and freedom that makes it human. Such freedom should not be sacrificed for the sake of any mob. The individual in a mob is dehumanized when the fear of individual freedom and responsibility becomes overwhelming to the extent that becoming an object and belonging of a group leader seems a better option.

Rational thinking is not a choice but an obligation to any human being. The mob robs its members of critical thinking and domesticates them. Erickh Fromm in The Nature of Violence states, “It does not matter whether he is really threatened; what matters is whether he is convinced of the threat, and this depends upon the degree of his dependence on his leaders, his suggestibility, and his lack of critical thinking.” The mob should not sacrifice its members and the assumed antagonists by neglecting the value of individuals as human beings. Søren Kierkegaard in ‘The crowd is Untruth’ states, “…to honor every individual human being, unconditionally … is the truth.” Therefore, it is the task of each and every individual to rationally decide the value of life.     

We will end our journey by showing the evil of the mob in an extract from Daniel Defoe’s A Hymn to the Mob:

That Freedom's thy worst Slavery,
From that first Hour thy Chastity's destroy'd,
And all thy Right to Government made void,
Nor can thy Claim to Common Sense remain,
But Public Lunacy distracts thy Brain;
The Glorious Name of MOB's no more thy Due,
Monster becomes thy Title now,


Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for He can be reached through this form.

Other articles by Abel Merawi:

Living the Truth as a Human Being

Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others

The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them

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