Thursday, February 03, 2011

"It Isn't Fair, It Isn't Right," He Screamed, and Then They Were Upon Him

Montaigne wrote in his Essays about witnessing a killing during the salt-tax riots in 1548 in Bordeaux. In Sarah Bakewell's telling:

A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town's lieutenant-general and governor—thus the king's official representative—was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city's massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.

...In this case, Montaigne thought that Moneins had failed because he was not sure what he was trying to do. Having decided to face the crowd, he then lost his confidence and behaved with deference, sending mixed messages. He also underestimated the distorted psychology of a mob. Once worked up into a frenzy, it can only be either soothed or suppressed; it cannot be expected to show ordinary human sympathy. Moneins seemed not to know this. He expected the same fellow-feeling as he would from an individual.

I imagine most people who strive for authority and power over others, whether spiritual gurus or political leaders, instinctively know this lesson. A mass audience does not permit indecisive weakness. Make up your mind, plant your feet, and right or wrong, don't allow yourself to be swayed. In most instances, though, the best and healthiest stance to take toward life is probably a lighthearted skepticism -- "I'm not sure, but I guess we'll find out." Don't get too attached to your conclusions, don't develop tunnel vision, don't let your impulses carry you away. But when it comes to our leaders, we demand and expect confident assertions followed by decisive actions, even (or especially) when the stakes are highest. No one respects Hamlet-style waffling here. He who hesitates in order to calmly reflect is lost. Don't think, just act.

I just find it interesting to consider how often the most power accrues to those least given to introspection and judicious caution. Wait, did I say interesting? I meant terrifying.