Michael Moore galvanized the Occupy Wall Street mob last week in an “address” amplified for the mob by means of a “human microphone.” The human microphone has caught on like a sold-out Christmas toy with OWS mobs across America, from Atlanta to Chicago to Riverside, California (the closest OWS mob to me), where a small but doughty group of Hoos hollered with all their might last Saturday night.
The human microphone idea is simple. The crowd repeats each phrase uttered by a speaker, in order to amplify the sound and ensure the message gets across. If you’re not alone in being reminded forcibly of kindergarten, wait, there’s more. Check out the Chicago link above, and scroll down for the links to photos of “spirit fingers,” “peace guns,” and “point of process” triangle hands. These methods of communication remind me of nothing so much as the cues used by grade school teachers with their young charges.
“OK, second grade. We will walk single file to the lunch room. If we need to stop for another class, I will raise my right hand. The person behind me should raise their right hand and stop. Everybody else raise their right hand and we all come to a stop. Now, what do you see if we have to stop?”
“Your right hand!”
“That’s right. And what do you do if you see my right hand?”
“Raise my right hand and stop!”
“That’s right. Now, who has any questions? Yes, Grayson?”
“Miz Smith, when do we put our right hand down?”
People used to get their buzz over responsive yelling by attending football games. Communicating in code, with hand gestures, was something that was fun for a while if you were a Boy Scout or a Campfire Girl, earning badges and learning special, secret things. Bird calls, writing in hieroglyphs, spelling out cuss words in American Sign Language – kids can have a lot of fun with codes.
But we have no tribal memory, as humans, of a time when it might have been a good idea to give a say over our lives or our government to people who adopt the communication modes of childhood. That would just be stupid. The kid-level communicating is cute when kids do it. It’s creepy and weird when the people doing it have the bodies of adults – and aren’t in a comms-challenged combat situation like a SWAT Team, a SEAL team, or an infantry patrol.
The “creep” factor is the one that struck J. Christian Adams, who posted the video of the Atlanta human-microphone incident for Pajamas. (Jazz Shaw today highlights the same mob’s ignorant dismissal of John Lewis.) And there is definitely an element of mindless invigoration to it. It’s one thing to listen to a demagogue (or even just someone giving administrative instructions), registering the message in your brain but not doing anything about it, at least for the moment. It’s another kind of action altogether, to vigorously repeat everything a speaker is saying. Doing so generates a powerful sense of noisy assent for everyone involved. You’re not just there listening and thinking: you’ve sold out your critical thinking faculties, and agreed to convey automatically whatever the speaker wants to say.
It is, as Adams notes, the perfect incubator for a violent mob. The reliance on coded cues – rather than on reasoned debate – is another proto-mob feature. Ann Coulter’s latest book, Demonic, gives a number of examples of how mobs go into a frenzy over coded cues, interpreting them as pretexts for action in ways they would not if they were in a different, more measured – more explicit and articulate – communication environment.
When you’re five years old, there are a lot of circumstances in which the right thing to do is to ask you to suspend your reservations and critical thinking skills. For one thing, you don’t have very much of the latter. You don’t have much discrimination or judgment.
But in the adult world – the world of binding decisions, commitments, promises, ideology, political thought – the suspension of skepticism and rational, critical thought is fatal. There is no realm of politics in which it is appropriate for crowds to act as a human microphone. Politics is a tool, a method; it isn’t something that merits such a hold on us. It’s not something we can trust and give ourselves over to. A political movement, conducted with temperance and intelligent suasion, has its uses; a mob paroxysm is just an accident – and probably a violent and costly one – waiting to happen.