Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I struggle with the reality that though men and women have the capacity for great acts of kindness, beauty, intelligence and sacrifice our actions often fall dramatically short of our potential. How does one explain the holocaust? The crusades? The flying of civilian planes into buildings full of innocent people? Are men and women inherently intelligent or not?

On a lesser scale how does one explain a host of decisions by political parties, educational and judicial systems or even denominations? Obviously something sinister is involved here. Scriptures call it sin. But how does sin and stupidity get such a stronghold?

I’ve read a little bit of James Surowiecki’s book, The Wisdom of Crowds. It’s a fascinating read. While at first I thought it might be contradicting to my opinions I think especially after reading some of the Q&A with the Surowiecki that in the end it’s congruent with the only conclusion I’ve been able to make:

In crowds the opportunity for stupidity is heightened.

The more we identify with a group the more we tend to forfeit our right to think critically. We become lazy. We worry about what others in the crowd think. We elect people to make decisions for us and we don’t bother to check out the facts. We all know this and yet, we fall for it time and again. So it’s worth repeating: Just because a crowd is for a particular answer doesn’t make that answer intelligent, right or honest.

On the contrary, maybe it’s more accurate to say wherever you find the crowd, intelligence and integrity decrease. (Eugene Peterson applies this little observation: Which promise is most likely to be kept? The one between the politician and thousands of people or the one exchanged between two friends?)

Kierkegaard said, “The crowd is untruth.”

Jesus said, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.”

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree? When are crowds appropriate or positive or honest?

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shawnmcq said...

Cutting me off for that last parking space, shoving me out of the way for that last little sample of cheese poppers, rear ending my back leg with their massive oversize cart while I wait in the endless checkout line. And finally, noticing a new dent in my car door from a shopping cart that someone carelessly let run adrift in the wind. Saturday morning...Costco.
"In crowds the opportunity for stupidity is heightened"
Enough said.

jtc said...

awe the old mob mentality. I definitely think people take on the ideals of a group and react in ways they would not normally act on their own (like in riots or the other examples you provided) ... the difficult question that you pose is why? to which I have no answer except to say that people want to feel a part of something, even when that something is ugly and toxic. We want to identify with others and be accepted, and that can be a dangerous thing.
The fact remains though that we need each other ... because (asI have read recently) the universe is done, the thing that is still undone, still in the process of being created, is history. and how will we help this grand design be written?

Jonathan Foster said...

yeah, like you said, maybe our identity comes too much from the 'crowd', the external and not from the internal.

i agree, we do need each other. and there are times when groups can be very helpful and positive. in particular when the group is generally diverse, decentralized, un-biased and not paying too much attention to anyone person's agenda. good luck on that though! most crowds, including churches, have all those going for them. so i guess in the end we gotta accept that people/crowds are 'broken' and we'll have to be change agents. apostle paul says, "keep on getting together to sing songs, hymns and spiritual songs." james says to "confess your sins to each other." encouragement and confession... two good things to counteract the aforementioned issues.

and shawn, cheese poppers are the best.

Anonymous said...

You asked when are crowds good? at a ball game when the cheering brings everyone to their feet in a chorus or giddy-ness that that long pass was caught by our guy and he is going to make a touchdown... or when the crowd cheers for that last second 3 pointer to put the team into overtime when the final game of the NCAA tourney is on the line... but, in these times we might not need a crowd... i can sit in my recliner and whoop and holler for that same deep pass touchdown and the game tying 3 pointer... but in a crowd where you can look around and see everyone else doing the same thing... it's just good... ever went to the older promise keeper gatherings in the stadiums?? 55000 men singing praises to the Lord... That my friend is good!!!

Jonathan Foster said...

anonymous, glad you said that because truly one of my favorite "crowd" moments was at a promise keepers when not only were there 50 thousand men singing but then they hooked us up satellite like to another 50 thousand somewhere else and we all sang together. that was awesome. thanks for the reminder.