Conformism, Features, Free Speech, Must Reads, Spotlight

Herd Mentality

At primary school, I rarely played with other children. For me, playtime usually meant a walk around the edges of the playground, observing others and thinking to myself.

There were lots of reasons why I found it difficult to connect with my childhood peers, none of them particularly interesting or unusual, but I do sometimes wonder whether my early experiences have defined my temperament; I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I find many people frankly depressing.

Large scale groups make me feel particularly uncomfortable and I hate the idea of “losing myself” in a crowd. A crowd takes on a mind-set and a force of its own, one that’s both independent from and beyond the control of the individuals it contains. It gave us looting and destruction during what started as a protest about the death of a young man in Tottenham; it gave us the devastating online lynching of Justine Sacco for a misguided and poorly-worded tweet; it gave us the Salem witch trials.

Herd mentality – in all its forms, both ancient and modern – is probably the thing that frightens me most in the world.

That’s not to say that my failure to merge cohesively with a group has not caused me some anguish over the years – it can be a lonely existence. In recent times, it has meant separation from a group of writers with many values that I share due to my innate inability to agree with them on everything – or at least, to pretend that I do.

As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me. Until recently, I believed that the fight for equality would herald a new age of empathy, diversity and understanding. Instead, many of my previously liberal allies have been taken over by the cult of victimhood and a collective fear of rejection. Like teenagers, they constantly check in with each other to affirm whether what they think is acceptable – and who can blame them? The consequences of dissent are excommunication from the tribe.

Experience has certainly taught me that being part of a group is not in my nature, and broadly speaking I am proud of the fact that I won’t play ball for the sake of staying on the team. It may not be my most attractive quality, but it’s the one that will drive me to raise the alarm whilst everyone else stays silent; it also makes me the kid who will shout that the emperor’s got no clothes on.

Recently, I have found myself drawn to a range of people who describe themselves or are described by others as “libertarians” – only to find once again that there’s a hymn sheet of horrors that many seem to sing from. For example, according to most of the Americans that I have met online, to be accepted as a “libertarian” then I have to be in favour of guns. Lots of guns. I have to agree that the act of carrying a gun is a liberating experience (I mean – what?) and certainly that it’s none of the government’s business. Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic, including the majority of our own police force), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”.

Another commonly displayed “libertarian” approach that I struggle to respect is the puerile desire to offend, bolstered by the dubious claim that this is somehow a noble and worthwhile antidote to the equally tedious culture of taking offence.

Certainly, I relish challenge and debate, and I also believe that free speech is more important than the inevitable risk of causing offence to some. As Salman Rushdie said following the horrifying attacks on the staff at Charlie Hebdo a year ago, “I … defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity.”

But in a recent article on what he has termed “cultural libertarianism,” Breitbart author Allum Bokhari has argued that “deliberate offensiveness plays an important role in the fight against cultural authoritarianism, … showing that with a little cleverness, it’s possible to express controversial opinions and not just survive but become a cult hero.”

This surely sums up the unambitious and self-seeking aims of those who make it their business to offend – preening contrarians whose sole function is to cause shock and awe, their tweets a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults and self-aggrandizement. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone’s personal liberty is furthered by such infantile sneering; yet swarms of supposedly liberal followers rejoice in this toxic effluence with excited applause, like an encouraging mother will celebrate her toddler’s first shit in the potty.

Maybe I am still that little girl on the edges of the playground, the one with the problem joining in – but as I stand at the periphery, I see the herd mentality all around me. At its best, it gives us a sense of solidarity as we strive for the greater good or find our feet in the world. At its worst, it gives us mindless thuggery, the kind of collective violence exemplified and explored in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.  On a mundane level, however, it gives us neither of these; it simply endorses mediocrity and prevents us from thinking.

So on balance, I’m happy on the outskirts.


Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. You can follow her on Twitter @emma_c_williams and visit her website to see more of her work.


  1. Sounds like you just haven’t found your herd yet.

    Good luck!

    Keep in mind: statistically, it is extraordinarily unlikely that you’re alone.

    • Satoshi N says

      On a different note, is very unlikely that you share the same set of values with anybody else. We’re more or less unique even when we end up behaving in similar ways.

  2. Chris says

    Loved the article and I truly agree with everything said. You are not alone feeling like you do. People are often shallow and follow childlike and immature leaders and are often simply following the path of least resistance to get benefits. In many ways, adults are like children in that way.

  3. It is really hard to stay away from the herd without getting crushed. The advancement of social media has made it very easy for the “like minded” to form group and grow into herds. Scary!

  4. I’m amused by the spectacle of this writer, who claims to disdain the herd mentality, making a majoritarian (and authoritarian) appeal against the libertarian position on firearms. She starts off good but drops the ball spectacularly (though I >kinda< see where she comes from when she calls out the culture of offence-for-its-own-sake adopted by some libertarians).

    • Do not get your comment on weapons. Weapons destroy sociaties. They don’t make your live more secure. The right to carry weapons has little to do with being libertarian or not.
      I mean, except you live in a failed state, in a a society of barbarism.

      • “Weapons destroy sociaties. They don’t make your live more secure.”

        I guess you’re in favour of seeing armies and police forces disarmed? I can sorta get on board with that.

        Oh, wait… the gun control you probably favour relies on enforcement by these people doesn’t it?


        • Chris Ham says

          Looks like you’ve gone into the “infantile sneering” mode as described in the article. How predictable.

          • Or maybe, Ham, by not clapping along like a seal, I’m much more in tune with the general (attempted) sentiment of this piece than both the author and the other commenters here?

            Still, you seem rather intent on missing the point – how predictable!

      • In any case, my point was that, for someone who claims to disdain herd mentality, Williams seems all too eager to appeal to a majority (and authority) to give her assertions weight, writing:

        “Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic, including the majority of our own police force)….”

    • BarryG says

      Libertarianism in all but very rural areas could only exist in a super high trust society in which weapons would be superfluous and shunned.

    • Mike says

      Actually, in the USA the majoritarian position is that of individual gun ownership.

  5. Oh, I think you are not up to date at all! WE do no longer call it herd mentality!

    We call it “swarm intelligence” these days.

    Never mind. I completely agree.

  6. René Milan says

    “Every time I try to propose a different line of thinking (held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic, including the majority of our own police force), I am simply told that I’m “not a libertarian”” – be proud of it, Emma. You have not even covered the worst aspect of libertarianism which is serving as a justification for corporate greed, ruthlessness and disrespect for life.

    A very good article, thank you !

  7. Libertarianism means that you can do as you please so long as you harm none. Owning a gun harms nobody. Carrying a gun harms nobody. Shooting paper, steel targets, etc. harms nobody. Shooting animals for food is simply a more responsible form of the butcher counter. Being libertarian means I accept that you may engage in any or all of the above. It also means I accept your choice to be opposed to all of them. If you’re in favor of government restriction of any of those activities however, you deceive yourself if you consider yourself libertarian. (I had to laugh when super liberal Bill Maher used to call himself “libertarian.”)

    • BarryG says

      Any densely populated area will quickly be filled with rules. “As long as I don’t hurt others” is a loophole a mile wide. It means regulations on cars, exhaust, noise, machinery you can operate, carbon limits, vaccination or stay home and so on … sort of like our current society.

      There is also the problem of enforcement.

      The real problem isn’t rules but that rules accumulate and stick around. What we really need is a “balance of powers” party that attempts to impose an ever evolving dynamic balance between too little and too few rules/government.

  8. Don’t be a label…you are an individual. It seems like you may be seeking some group to join, some umbrella label to rest under. Although I loosely consider myself a libertarian, I also loosely consider myself a lot of things! The key word there is “loosely”.

    I am a free man, and as long as I remain free, I’m going to think how I want, do what I want. I suggest you continue to follow that path, it has suited you well until now, right?

    By the way: A (capital L) Libertarian believes in liberty. Freedom to do whatever one wants, yes, including carrying guns to the mf’ing supermarket, doing cocaine, worshipping Satan, having 6 spouses, …basically anything that doesn’t hurt or interfere with someone else.

    I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that very few people are TRUE Libertarians. Many of them would draw artificial lines, probably because of being Christian or otherwise adhering to some limiting belief system. In short, many of the people calling themselves that are really hypocrites, when it comes down to it….Go ask a group of self-proclaimed Libertarians about each of the things I just mentioned…it’ll be good fun, rest assured. Ask them “Why, exactly, is smoking DMT at a Satanistic sex orgy wrong? Isn’t that a form of liberty? Is anyone being harmed against their will?”

    When it comes down to it, anyone going under some label or another is actually just hiding behind that label and probably doesn’t fully support or believe every part of it anyways.

    So, you are ahead of the herd, and have been since childhood. Good going!!!! 🙂

  9. ‘…As a lifelong supporter of social justice, the new wave of “social justice warriors” and their denunciation of healthy debate has come as a horrifying shock to me….’

    As a writer, teacher and author, my cat gives me lots of inspiration, but is still sad I misplace modifiers.

  10. Both sides criticized seem to have moved into warrior extremist mode.

    Disturbing. No social progress will ensue from further polarization and fights.

  11. I’m with you all the way, one must sacrifice truth for the group, the group has determined that it is the larger more important entity with larger more important concerns. My dabbling in psychology and such seems to be showing me the horrible amorality of socialization in general. The group doesn’t seem to care WHAT we’re doing, only that we’re all pulling in the same direction.

    It’s a tangent perhaps, but you might like this –

    it’s only 700 words

  12. CuriouslyEnough says

    Okay this was a great start before it went veering tragically off the rails with the quite (comically?) hypocritical appeal to herd authority as a justification for preferring gun regulation (“…held by most sane individuals on this side of the Atlantic, including the majority of our own police force”). I appreciate the general sentiment but ummm, the emperor seems to be naked here (ironically). Also, as someone who has been a long time libertarian leaning person, I never knew until I just read this post that I champion offensive behavior nor that this was a common perspective of libertarian types.

  13. So the author are fighting for Social Justice Equality but wants at same time Diversity…amazing the schizophrenic disconnect.

    Libertarian!? Aren’t you aware how Marxist you are? precisely the contrary of being Libertarian.

    If you have Social Equality you can’t have Diversity.
    Diversity is the possibility of Difference, choosing other paths and ways. Discrimination: X is better than Y so i go with X. Disconnection: i want to go there, you are not enforced to come with me.

    The word of Freedom is NO.

      • Yes. Freedom doesn’t work well for everyone, starting with Stalinesque, Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler types and going down from there up to many bureaucrats.
        All these romantic puritans don’t accept people are different. And being different means choosing differently, having ideas that no one else have, advancing in a direction no one else went before.

        And that means disturbing the apple cart. So disturbing their own power.

        No one says that life will be good for everyone in Freedom. You can have diseases, you can make bad choices – part of being different- you can still be affected by other people bad choices.

        • Right. So as a born socialist, I have to wonder – what’s the point? Isn’t libertarianism a political idea, and isn’t it then going to get punted in the first round for ideas that attempt to improve things for everyone? Strikes me as an elitist, status quo sort of thing where those who are already enjoying a good dose of freedom get to lock it in on principle and never have to sacrifice any of their freedom for anyone else’s.

          It’s the wolves calling for more freedom while the sheep are trying to figure out how to protect themselves from the wolves.

          • The morality of an association is if that association is made freely.

            You say you are a “born”(!?) Socialist. Well you can be a Libertarian Socialist, if you make a Comune or what ever you want to call it with people that agree with you and you don’t use the violence of State- or any other organization- to impose your will on others.
            In recent times the situation that i remember were the Israeli kibbutz. No one was forced to it as far as i know.

            The issue with your non libertarian socialism is that you want to impose your will on me. But i don’t want to impose my will on you. If you want to be socialist with other socialists you can, it is your freedom, if it works for you and people you agree with i’ll be happy, you found your way. Instead you don’t allow me to not be socialist. You want to force me to be part of something i don’t agree. You reject conscientious objection.

            And only with Socialist power levels- be either nacionalist, communist, democratic – any that has no secession rights – can oppression happen. Imagine if the slaves, the jews of Europe or any other people had the right to say NO to majority or minority that had power.

            The millions and millions of deaths in XX century where due to the desire to politically control people. It seems Politics is indeed a religion that came to replace all other religions. People believe blindly that politics can fix the world and in consequence gave extraordinary level of power to Politics. Including power to murder if that person has some different skin color, make a poem against the ruler, have a bourgeois haircut and so on.

            Instead most improvements on human condition has been due to technological evolution not politics.

            Libertarianism is the contrary of a locked down aristocratic society, you can build the next big thing because there is no state with enough power to law-freeze society and protect those that have the power. Even in current Crony Social Capitalism that we have it is difficult to not be put behind by events.

            Do you allow other people to say No to you? That is the millions deaths question.

            PS: i am European so i use State instead of Government like Americans usually do.

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  15. Christopher Hazell says

    One of the things I hate about identifying with groups, evident in the comments here even, is that it massively increases the amount of things you have to take personally.

    “She said libertarians revel in offensiveness! I’m a libertarian! How dare she say that I’m being deliberately offensive!?”

    “He said Social Justice Warriors don’t believe in critical thinking! I believe in social justice! How dare he say I’m not a critical thinker!?”

    The people complaining about libertarians or social justice warriors or gamers or bronies or who the hell ever don’t know you personally. They are not talking about you. Don’t take attacks on the label as attacks on yourself, it just leads to this:

    “I’m libertarian and he calls himself a social justice warrior. Obviously he hates everything I stand for!”

    I mean, if the two of you started actually talking, you might find out that you really agree with the evils of the drug war, but everybody knows libertarians and social justice warriors are implacable enemies, so why even bother talking?

    • Don’t agree. SJW are Marxists even if some are too obsessed to realize that.
      They only care about power to shut down others.
      A SJW don’t care about racism, women or anything else, that are just pretexts to signal virtue. It is power to rule they are after.

      It is Marxism.

      • Mike says

        Ummm, desire to control predates ‘Marxism’ by at least a decade if not some millions of years. Your 1950s anti-Communism is quaint, but inapplicable

    • An SJW is a person who, almost by definition, you can’t have a reasonable conversation with. They don’t care about anything but feeling good about themselves. Anything they do is to further their own narrative of ‘me as good person’, not to alter unfortunate realities of (racism / sexism / etc).

      Sure, they could be used as a rabid dog – point out a target and watch them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem at first glance, and frankly, when the rabid dog is already running loose, the most important thing is putting it down.

  16. Mike says

    “…preening ….their tweets a heady mix of clickbait, worthless insults, and self-aggrandizement.”

    Isn’t this the most perfect description of the entire Trump campaign! lol

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  18. perpippity says

    Part of the problem seems to me to be that the least thoughtful members of any group are the loudest, most self-certain and most newsworthy (in the realistic sense, not the sense of what newsworthy ought to mean). I consider myself philosophically libertarian, and I own guns, and people are sometimes offended by my opinions, some of which, not complimentary to minorities or women, they might slam as racist or sexist or whatever. But I can easily discuss things with people who respectfully disagree with me, and I think that going out of one’s way to offend anyone is useless– at best.

    I don’t know which libertarians you encountered, but most I’ve ever met are more like me than like them. I’m sorry you encountered the other sort. Any group can be the basis for identity politics at its worst, and any ideology can be and will at some point be corrupted.

  19. zimriel says

    So, to the eternal choice of “lead, follow, or get out of the way” our author here chooses to get out of the way.

    That’s fine. Not sure how this merits a whole blog-post to say it, where just not posting anything at all would have gotten the point across just as clearly.

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  21. I find it amusing she scorns herd mentality and then marches lock step with the police of all people. Not to mention the sneering backhand at us gun nuts.

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