11 October 2010

The Herd Instinct Revisited


The criticisms of the herd instinct might appear so common that they start to sound rather cliche nowadays. Though we are often reminded how it may strip us of our true identities, we still tend to be reluctant to detach ourselves from the bondage to the masses and establish our "i-confirmation". If the mass values are cordoned off questions, it is because they are deemed too implausible to be the targets of scrutiny. To start doubting the commonly accepted beliefs is to risk overthrowing the indisputable fact that great minds are scarce, that we are unlikely to be the pioneers of previously unknown truths.

Perhaps our tendency to follow the flock lies in the anthropological fact that we are all social animals. Rather than exaggerating the gravity of free will, our existence is actually critically dependent upon the existence of others. We can only be intelligent if others possess the same level of reasoning abilities. We can only be humorous if others are funny enough to get our humours. Small wonder why Aristotle remarked that friendship is essential to wellbeing.

However, humans are no machines. How seldom we may prefer to be obedient drones rather than creative originals. But how then might we solve the conflicts between the herd instinct and individuality? How might we discover our own identities if we are continuously forced to burden ourselves with the heaviness of inhabiting the same mentality? Is it impossible to reconcile mass values with our unique selves?

Mass values, at one level, might be easily regarded as deluded versions of truth, yet at another level they reveal something more than meets the eye. Mass values may be considered in the same light as fashion or wearing make-up. The quest to search for a decent pair of high heel shoes or a certain kind of mascara from Bobbi Brown provokes our philosophical sentiment to understand who we are. If we have a desire to understand ourselves, it is perhaps because identity is an inherently complicated, obscure notion, that one can bear various identities in different stages of life. Why do we have different identities? It's because we constantly succumb to new experience and are forced to harbour new visions about ourselves. Confused, we are therefore liable to adopt the suggestions forcefully made in the clothes and cosmetic section of a magazine to fit in a socially recognisable form. Similarly, the herd instinct works in the same mechanism. Unsure who we are, we need to surrender to the masses and begin our process of soul-searching.

Though I might have been charitable to the herd instinct, we should not deduce from my previous line of argument that the accusation against the flock is largely undeserved. To acknowledge the merits of the masses is not to legitimately consign them to respectability. Whatever sympathy we may have for the masses, it seems far from being inaccurate to generalise the herd between two acerbic notions commonly associated with them, namely, stupidity and ignorance. If stupidity and ignorance are the hallmark of social eminence, how might we tender the mass values as something valuable to justify the lifelong search for our souls?

The solution perhaps lies not in struggling to break free from the herd, but rather, in educating the masses. Much of the criticism has been focused on the individual self, but hardly there's any criticism focusing on the masses as a whole. What is valuable in educating the masses is that there are values perhaps the entire human race should hold dear to: democracy, science, emotional sensibilities etc. However democratic we may get, even in the most democratic society, there are never enough democratic participations, most notably, voting. To refuse to vote is to refuse to participate in the promotion of common wellbeing. Who could disagree freedom is desirable? Who could disagree science is the most reliable agent to civilisation? Perhaps only the exceptional few seem to suggest the otherwise.

The herd instinct might not muddy our identities as it tends to suggest. But the major criticisms against the flock push us into a baneful direction where we might hardly progress. What's important is the education of the masses instead of the other way round. How many years before the mass values might actually become praiseworthy?

W

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