Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Plato, Deindividuation and the Christmas Jumper


Plato, as is usually the case, was onto something when he argued in The Republic that morality is not just a social construct. In the dialogue, Plato has Socrates repudiate Glaucon's assertion that anybody relieved of social constraints (in his example, by being in possession of a ring that conferred on its owner the power of invisibility) would no longer act morally. Socrates achieves this (8 books and a long digression into the workings of the imagined perfect state later) by demonstrating smugly that whilst societies have a social contract that we tend by and large to live by, this is not the basis for justice: the capacity for good and evil lies within ourselves. Pace Tolkien: the owner of the ring who chooses not to use it is not enslaved to his passions and therefore happier.  


A couple of Millennia later, Twentieth Century psychologists were interested in the mental state of people who indulged in antisocial behaviour. Following on from the ideas of Gustave Le Bon, many speculated about the concept of deindividuation. This is a supposed state of mind that can cause an individual to act differently when they perceive that nobody can identify them. It was speculated that this state of deindividuation might be induced when an individual was wearing a mask or was part of a large crowd. It was claimed that the concept could explain the losses of personal responsibility (the kind lauded by Socrates) that lead to incidents such as looting and rioting by crowds made up of individuals who never exhibited such behaviour in other circumstances.


So masks and crowds cause deindividuation - a state in which one does not feel responsible for one's actions. To this list, I would like to add a third factor: the Christmas Jumper.


In the Nineties, the Christmas jumper was a laughable object. Contemporary sources such as Harry Potter and Bridget Jones's Diary exhibit the wearers of these items as either nerdily unaware of how uncool they are or coolly ashamed to be wearing
it to please mum.

In the early Twenty-first Century, people started wearing them ironically. Hipsters scoured second-hand shops to get their hands on authentically gaudy ones. Then the supermarkets realised they were missing a trick and suddenly they were everywhere

About four years ago, alongside the usual tinsel ties and santa hats, I started noticing Christmas jumpers adorning the torsos of some of the office party pubcrawls that all bartenders dread at this time of year. 


And the behaviour of these crowds has gotten much worse. I put it down to deindividuation caused by wearing a Christmas jumper. The Christmas jumper bestows on its wearer the anonymity of the festive season - pubcrawling into pubs they have never been in before and are unlikely to revisit enhances the effect - before you know it, you have a pub full of middle-aged businessmen twerking and asking junior employees inappropriate questions about what they like to do with their thumbs during sex.  


During his digression about the perfect state in The Republic, Plato concludes that the state should be ruled by philosophers because they are the smartest guys around. This seems the tiniest bit self serving. I might as well argue that bartenders should run things because governments should serve the people and nobody has more experience serving the people than the bartenders. Actually that is a brilliant idea. My first decree: a ban on Christmas jumpers (tinsel ear-rings and elf boots still acceptable).

Merry Xmas!

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