I’m reading Jon Ronson’s latest book, a tour of the twitter-fuelled renaissance in public shamings by a self-righteous mob.
Along the way there are, as you’d expect from Ronson, some wonderfully bizarre historical excursions. One looks at Gustave le Bon, grandfather of the study of “crowd psychology”. Le Bon was a wannabe intellectul in late 19th-century France who, after his previous works were deemed too racist and sexist by the Parisian elite (!), finally made his name with a diatribe about the madness of crowds. Then success got to his head…
The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind was, on publication, a runaway success. It was translated into twenty-six languages and gave Le Bon what he’d always wanted – a place at the heart of Parisian society, a place he immediately abused in a weird way. He hosted a series of lunches – Les Dejeuners de Gustave Le Bon – for politicians and prominent society people. He’d sit at the head of the table with a bell by his side. If one of his guests said something he disagreed with he’d pick up the bell and ring it relentlessly until the person stopped talking.
There’s something horrifyingly believable about this. You’ve finally made your way into the elite, and the immortals are begging to join you for dinner. What a power trip to be lord and master of the entire assembly, free to silence anyone who displeases you.
[there’s more here, in the unlikely event of anyone wanting to delve into the sordid history]