Frye on Mobs, the “Tantrum Style,” and the “Growth of Conservative Violence”

Gabrielle Griffords warns Sarah Palin about the “consequences” of putting people in “gun sights”

Clearly, the one thing that would put an end to all hope for genuine social advance in our society would be the growth of conservative violence: the effort, with the aid of a hysterical police force, to trample down all protest into that state of uneasy quiescence under terror which is what George Wallace means by law and order. As the recent Chicago fracas showed, there can be no real doubt that such counter-violence would be much more directed at radicals, even of the most peaceful kind, than at criminals. (“The Ethics of Change,” CW 7, 349)

All the social nightmares of our day seem to focus on some unending and inescapable form of mob rule. The most permanent kind of mob rule is not anarchy, nor is it the dictatorship that regularizes anarchy, nor even the imposed police state depicted by Orwell. It is rather the self–policing state, the society incapable of formulating an articulate criticism of itself and of developing a will to act in its light. This is a condition that we are closer to, on this continent, than we are to dictatorship. In such a society the conception of progress would reappear as a donkey’s carrot, as the new freedom we shall have as soon as some regrettable temporary necessity is out of the way. No one would notice that the necessities never come to an end, because the communications media would have destroyed the memory. (The Modern Century, CW 11, 24)

Once a society renounces violence as a means of resolving its differences, controversy and discussion provide the only means of social advance. Where we have two separating camps of commitment, advance through discussion is paralysed, because all arguments become personal. The argument is seen only as a rationalization of one side, and its proponent is merely identified as a radical or a reactionary, a Communist or an Uncle Tom. (I do not see much force in this last epithet, by the way: Uncle Tom, who was flogged to death for sticking by his principles, seems to me quite an impressive example of non-violent resistance.) The continuing of the paralysis of discussion, in breaking up meetings, shouting down unpopular speakers, and the like, congeals into a mood of anticipatory violence. (“The Ethics of Change,” CW 7, 351)

In all societies there is a built-in tendency to anti-intellectualism. Sometimes this is maintained by a state-enforced dogma, as it is in the vulgar Marxism of the Soviet Union or the still more vulgar version of the Moslem religion enforced in Iran. Sometimes, as in North America, it is simply part of the human resistance to maturity, and to the responsibilities that maturity brings, the instinct to stay safe and protected by the crowd, to shrink from anything that would expand and realize one’s potential. It is this element in society that makes all education, wherever carried on, what I just called a militant enterprise, a constant warfare. The really dangerous battlefront is not the one against ignorance, because ignorance is to some degree curable. It is the battlefront against prejudice and malice, the attitude of people who cannot stand the thought of a fully realized humanity, of human life without the hysteria and panic that controls every moment of their own lives. Words like “elitism” become for such people bogey words used to describe those who try to take their education seriously. At the heart of such social nihilism, this drive to mob rule and lynch law that every society has in some measure, is the resistance to authority. (“Language as the Home of Human Life,” CW 7, 588)

As long as man’s fear of life is deeper than his fear of death, there will always be a tendency for society to degenerate into a mob, moved only by prejudice and hysteria and hatred of the individual. According to Christianity God himself was a victim of such a mob. We are not in a cosy white and black melodrama: we ourselves are involved in crime and corruption. There are millions of people who admire what we have, and fully intend to get it, but don’t particularly admire what we are. Their pressures and others may increase the fears of our own society, and people are not at their best when frightened. What one “does” with a university education in the modern world is to return to one’s community and devote one’s life to trying to build up a real society out of it and to fight the mob spirit wherever it is. Creating such a society is the main meaning and purpose of human life, and your specialized preparation for it begins here. (“Speech at a Freshman Welcome,” CW 7 280)

A group of individuals, who retain the power and desire of genuine communication, forms a society or community. An aggregate of egos is a mob. A mob can only respond to reflex and cliché; it can only express itself, directly or through a spokesman, in reflex and cliché. A mob always implies some object of resentment, and political leaders who speak for the mob aspect of their society develop a special kind of tantrum style, a style constructed almost entirely out of unexamined clichés. Examples may be heard in the United Nations every day. What is disturbing about the prevalence of bad language in our society is that bad language, if it is the only idiom habitually at command, is really mob language.

What is high style? This is one of the oldest questions in rhetoric: it would almost be possible to translate the title of Longinus’ treatise, Peri Hypsous, written in the second century, by this question. As Longinus recognized, the question has two answers, one for literature and one for speech, or rhetoric. In literature it is correct to translate Longinus’ title as “On the Sublime,” and discuss the great passages in Shakespeare or Milton. In rhetoric high style is something else: something more like the voice of the individual reminding us of our real selves, and of our duty as members of a society and not of a mob. To go at once to the highest example of high style, the sentences of the Sermon on the Mount have nothing in them of the speech-maker’s art: they seem to be coming from inside ourselves, as though the soul itself were remembering what it had been told so long ago. High style in this sense is ordinary style—it can even be “low” style—but in an exceptional situation. In our society it is heard whenever a speaker, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, is honestly struggling to express what his society, as a society, is trying to be and do. It is even more unmistakably heard, as we should expect, in the voice of an individual facing a mob, or some incarnation of the mob spirit, in the death speeches of Vanzetti and Louis Riel, in the dignity with which a New Orleans mother explained her reasons for sending her white child to an unsegregated school. How, marvelled the reporters, did a woman who left school in grade six learn to talk like the Declaration of Independence? It was the authority of high style in action, moving, not on the middle level of thought, but on the higher level of imagination and social vision. The mob’s version of high style is advertising, the verbal art of prodding the reflexes of the ego, and telling it, in a voice choking with emotion, what our vision of society should inspire us to do: to go instantly down to the store and demand this product, accepting no substitutes. As long as society retains its freedom, such advertising is largely harmless, because everybody knows that it is only a kind of ironic game. As soon as society loses its freedom, mob high style becomes what is usually called propaganda, and the moral effects become much more pernicious. (The Well–Tempered Critic, CW 21, 352–3 )

We are social beings first and our individuality is a delicate, complicated process of evolution out of society. Anybody can remain a merely social being. He may be simply part of a conforming mob. The individual is not born an individual. He is born a member of a society, and all his individuality has its roots in that society. We still tend to think of society as an aggregate of individuals, and of the individual as somehow prior to his society. That is one reason why one of the central problems of our time is the fragmenting of the social vision, and it is greatly increased by the influence of fragmenting experiences like those of the news media, television, and radio—particularly television. These have enormously increased the amount of fragmented experience, which is forgotten or at best hazily remembered as soon as one has had it. (“Education and the Rejection of Reality,” CW 7, 428)

[T]here are two levels of social concern. There is a primary level which is instinctively exclusive, suspicious of outsiders, and very wary of any new developments from within. Left to itself, this primary level becomes a lynching mob, where every clearly defined individual, simply by being that, becomes a marked-out victim. Above this is a higher level of concern, reached occasionally by the professions and some of the trades, but much more clearly represented in the arts and sciences. The achievements of a society’s culture always have a quality of authority about them, however foul the anxieties of the society out of which they emerged. We return again and again, with the same shuddering delight, to the opening of Macbeth: “Thunder and lightning: enter three witches,” even though we know that these witches were contemporary with the most hideous and pointless tormenting of harmless old women. Perhaps the witches were put into Macbeth to amuse King James, who was an ardent and gullible supporter of witch-hunting, but the authority of the play is unaffected by that. However, this upper level of authority has no power: it is spiritual authority only, and is an ark precariously perched on Ararat when there is still no evidence that the flood is receding. (“The View from Here,” CW 7, 561)

George Orwell remarked, in commenting on the deliberate destruction of language in his horrible 1984 society, that the ultimate aim was to make speaking a purely mechanical gabble, like a squirrel’s chatter, involving no conscious thought at all. We can see such tendencies very clearly at work in all mob language, whether used by criminal gangs or by bureaucracies. (“Language as the Home of Human Life,” CW 7, 580–1)

To join the university of the world it is not enough merely to do one’s job and mind one’s business. To maintain the standards of culture is a fight, and a fight with enemies. It doesn’t take long to discover who the enemies are: they are the people whose vision of society is that of a mob, who are dedicated to hysteria, slander, persecution, segregation, and hatred. In some places the enemy has become so strong that the university of the world has been actually destroyed or driven underground. The institutions called Universities are still there: they still teach arts and science and train for professions and grant degrees, but their degrees are no good any more, because the essential social reason for producing them no longer exists. (“Convocation Address, University of British Columbia,” CW 7, 182)

This country [USA] has been shamed and sickened by a series of political murders, and all thoughtful citizens are trying to oppose the violence which seems to have inspired them. I don’t think that assassination, as distinct from private murder, is directly a product of belief in violence as such. I think it is a product rather of belief in publicity, a belief that the more outrageous an act is, the more it will do for one’s own interests. Hideous and psychotic as it is, assassination is a logical way of applying the principles of false knowledge. False knowledge is the most dangerous enemy of our society, and it is people like yourselves, who have been exposed to the real thing, who must fight in the front line against it. False knowledge leads to anarchy and despair, just as true knowledge is the life-blood of civilization. In the great things that man has made and thought, man still lives, for one more day at least, and while he lives they give his life a radiance beyond his knowing. (“Convocation Address, Franklin and Marshall,” CW 7, 323)

There is a great difference between the lynching mob, which wants cruelty & feeds on the cruelty, & the crowd at a football game, who (if it’s a home game) can get worked up to yelling “kill that bum,” but, as soon as they realize that some perfectly ordinary & harmless person is really hurt, relax & become solicitous. Here the “mob,” though present, is boiled in an open pot, as it were, and lets off steam in free play: the individual continually asserts himself, & the mob continually dissolves. The lynching mob is in the sealed prison-furnace of hell, & the thing that seals it off is moral virtue. The tragedy, which is visualized & not performed, not work but a “play,” is actually a comedy in relation to the rite made foul by moral virtue, such as the public execution. Perhaps that was one of Montaigne’s points in the essay on cannibals: the communion-feast, though a degraded superstition because a physical & literal act, is not disgusting as the pharmakos-expulsion rite, the execution or the auto-da-fe, is disgusting. this latter rite is literally abominable, for it is designed to pretend that a human being is the opposite of a human being, something whose humanity is to be rejected rather than taken in. The opposition of principles is clear when we realize that those who regarded Christ as a pharmakos are precisely those excluded from communion in his body—and the thing that excludes them is moral virtue. I’m not saying that some very unpleasant emotions aren’t released even at a football game, or still more a wrestling match, but the point is that they are released: how else can katharsis take place? The real pharmakos, the excrement of humanity which has to be driven out, is precisely the moral virtue which Bradley insists the tragedy reinforces. Sacrifice is not a moral act. We see Othello marked as a pharmakos by his black skin; we see him marked as the most degraded of criminals by his murder of an innocent girl; then he dies & revives in us; we see that the real pharmakos is Iago, & yet not the Iago on the stage who has nothing to say, except take his bows after the curtain call, but the Iago-Jacob-usurper in us, the Spartan dog of the Selfhood. By externalizing Iago we recognize our own Iagoism: we don’t go to a play to hiss the villain, but to hear the villain hissing at us: to locate our own serpents. Hence the Malcolm speech I mentioned in Macbeth, put in because Macbeth really is a pharmakos, unlike all the other tragic heroes: Timon is the tragedy of the futility of the sort of tragic emotion based on moral virtue. (Notebook 8, CW 20, 152–3)

The aspect of Elizabethan imgn. [imagination] that revelled in public executions created the aspect of tragedy that Blake attacked, the lynching mob’s delight in contemplating pain, which means of course that the feeling is aesthetic in the perverted Schopenhauer-Kierkegaard sense.  This is the point of the epilogue to the Sp. Tr. [The Spanish Tragedy].  (Notebook 9, CW 20, 261–2)

In this third phase of the history of language, it’s important to remember that exactness of language depends entirely on the strength of the social consensus, not on anything the individual user of language can do subjectively, though it’s essential for him to do his share.  In an audience of experts words can mean much the same thing to all; in its demonic parody, the lynching mob, such words as “Jew” in a Nazi mob mean the same thing in the sense of likeness: similar reflexes are triggered off. (Notes 54–5, CW 13, 305)

My five modes, as I say, are actually seven modes.  The top one is existential enlightenment through the oral tradition, transmitted by people like Socrates, Pythagoras, most founders of religions, including Jesus & Buddha in their aspect as human teachers, the gurus of Yoga, bodhisattvas, & others of whom one feels that they do not write.  The response to such teaching is the sacramental act.  Twentieth-century examples would be Gurdjieff and (in part) Wittgenstein.  The bottom one is demagoguery and jargon, & the response to it is the mob rite—lynchings, wars, parades & the like. (Notebook 18, CW 23, 268)

In A Vision, human life struggles upward to the complete subjectivity of phase 15 and downward to the complete objectivity of phase 1 without ever attaining either. The struggle upward is said to be toward nature and the struggle downward toward God, but the completely natural phase 15 is supernatural, and at phase 1 “God” occupies the place of death. What is really at phase 1 is the mob, the undifferentiated mass of a late civilization, the mob to which “Church and State” have been reduced in Yeats’s time, according to the poem of that name, and which every great man, or at least every great Irishman, has despised. The “primary” mob is Yeats’s Satan, the accuser of mankind. It accuses by making the standard appeals of slave morality, the appeals to conscience, equality, and altruism. In short, it inspired the guilt-ridden political activism of Maud Gonne and the Gore-Booth sisters.  The dragon that kills the hero is, ultimately, the mob that drags him down, as the Irish mob slandered Parnell, attacked Synge, and murdered O’Higgins. (“The Top of the Tower: A Study of the Imagery of Yeats,” CW 29, 299)

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