JOANNE McCARTHY: Hiding among the mob

THE scene was Bondi Beach, September 24, 2000. The time, 9am. Around me people were shouting. I was shouting. The man on the sports ground in front of us was strutting and shouting.
Shanghai night field

Suddenly we were on our feet with our hands in the air, then back in our seats again. Laughing.

We’d met the challenge. We hadn’t broken the Mexican wave.

In front of me now is the ticket from that day – $105 for seat 15, row 7, aisle 109 of a Sydney Olympic Games beach volleyball session. Photos show at some point I watched a rather improbable match between Portugal and – seriously? – Switzerland.

Anyway, there I was, part of a mob on a glorious day doing what mobs do best – enjoying being with others who were enjoying the same things.

Everyone talked with everyone. Photos show I was with people from around the world. All shapes, colours, creeds. The only constants were hats, sunnies, zinc swipes and grins.

From memory there were 123,000 Mexican waves that day which were almost as entertaining as the beach volleyball.

Were we, as a mob of many thousands, up to jumping up and down with our hands in the air for hours?

That was our challenge, as clear as day and without any discussion.

Who started it? I have no idea, but it didn’t matter.

We were at the beach volleyball on Bondi Beach during the Sydney Olympics and our job was to watch the event, laugh, shout, take photos, talk to people about how great the Games were, and maintain the Mexican waves.

When people bailed from exhaustion and the wave faltered there were good-natured shouts, but others further along would keep the wave going.

I can’t hear the words beach volleyball these days – and I wonder how the Swiss team is going? – without thinking of the Mexican wave.

And I can’t bear to think of what Adam Goodes has been enduring on too many sportsgrounds in Australia, and for much too long, without thinking of the mob mentality of crowds – the good, like at Bondi Beach, and the appalling, turning against an Indigenous man.

There is a whole branch of psychology dedicated to crowd behaviour, and a whole sub-branch dedicated to why it took so long for science to consider how individuals can act very differently when part of a crowd.

It’s worth looking at as public debate about the treatment of Adam Goodes has become mired in claims and counter-claims about whether it is racist or not, and Goodes has indicated he is considering immediate retirement because of it.

In crowds we can be anonymous. When individuals believe they will not be called to account for their actions they can – and I stress can – be more likely to do things they would otherwise refrain from doing.

In crowds you can feel that you don’t have to take personal responsibility if things go wrong – and again I stress that you can feel that way, not that you inevitably will.

Clearly, crowds of people gather every day, around the world and in most diverse situations, without suddenly running amok.

There is no inevitability about crowds turning rogue. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists last year used brain scans to show that some individuals are more susceptible to the negative aspects of crowd behaviour.

The MIT group scanned the medial prefrontal cortex of people’s brains, which light up when we think about ourselves, or self-reflect. Self-reflection is tied to our sense of self, which in turn determines our moral compass.

The scans showed that while in groups, the medial prefrontal cortex in some individuals was more inactive than others, meaning their moral compass was more likely to be challenged than others.

A subsequent part of the study, during which people were asked a series of questions about moral judgment both as individuals, and while they were competing in groups, backed up the scans by showing that those with less active medial prefrontal cortex areas showed the least goodwill.

Other research shows that crowds can be dramatically influenced by the behaviour of individuals – both good and bad.

Which is the point here.

Whether individuals within those football crowds have booed Adam Goodes because he is an Indigenous man, because they wanted to fit in with the people booing around them, because they’d had too much to drink, because his sporting ability was an affront to their own sense of self, or for some other reason, by joining that booing group they’ve lost a part of themselves.

This issue – the treatment of Adam Goodes, an Indigenous man – is a test of each of us as individuals.

Are we in the group that stands by, silent, waiting for others to do something, or do we speak to people about why, in Australia in 2015, it is shameful that anyone is treated this way?

As Goodes said in his Australian of the Year acceptance speech, it’s about the choices we make.

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