A Flock of Starlings

One Easter holiday in 2012, I visited one of the five Buddhist holy mountains in China, Emei-Shan.

As you might expect from secular China, the spring equinox is not seen-in there as it is here.  Chocolate effigies of Pagan egg-laying rabbits are gone.  The crucified and resurrecting Christ, donkeys and palm leaves are ne’er to be seen.  The Chinese version, it turns out, is the ‘sweeping of the tombs’ festival, where people are meant to clean out the tombs of their ancestors in ritual manner.

What they actually do, however, is exactly what most people in the West do at Easter – ignore the symbolic rituals marking the start of spring, and go on a nice weekend break.  This, in China, brings a set of problems not encountered in the west which arise from the logistic considerations of 1.2 billion people deciding to go on holiday on the same day.  And on this particular day most of those 1.2 billion people, as it would seem, had also decided to visit the Buddhist Holy Mountain Emei Shan.

I would urge all of you to stay you criticism of the public transport in whichever part of the world you are reading this, until you have endeavored to take a coach to a Buddhist Holy Mountain in China when several thousand people in a room not much bigger than small church also intend on catching the same coach as you.

The entire building, from wall to wall, was a solid mass of flesh.  My arms were pressed so tight to my side that I couldn’t put my hand in my pocket.  The pressure was such that, to stop the fire exits bursting open, the station staff chained and padlocked them shut (Health & Safety not being a concept yet to filter down to the farther reaches of the land of the orient).

Being six foot two inches tall, a good measure higher than the indigenous population, I had a unique view of the chaos.  There was a life to it; waves rushing across the room, crashing against the barriers and walls like ocean swells against the rocks.  I’d heard the term crowd-surge before, of course, but I’d never experienced it – the feeling of complete and utter helplessness, the knowledge that one trip, one fall, and I would be immediately trampled by fifty people who had no more power to stop it than I did.  I realized that it wasn’t an ocean swell that I was reminded of.  It was a Tsunami.

And then the mood changed.  I don’t know when it happened.  I don’t know why.  But it spread from person to person in an instant, sparking between the bodies like a thought dancing between the neurons of a mind.  One moment the surge was good tempered, and the next it was sinister.  One moment there were smiles and good-natured cheers – the next there was silence, apart from the rustle of thousands of bodies in close friction, creating a dense white noise that filled the tiny gaps between the flesh.

A small handful of people at the edge of the mass took the initiative, pulled themselves clear and snuck around the barriers to get onto the nearest coach.  The Chinese in Sichuan being of a particularly laissez-faire disposition, the security gazed on indifferently.

Several of the crowd, though, did not.  Shouts erupted; bottles were thrown.  A few angry bodies at the front rushed the coach, and like the tip of a wave brought those behind with him.  They crashed over the coach, pulling the driver and passengers out, who then vanished under the surf and were pulled away by the current of hundreds of sweaty, grasping hands.  We did not see them again.  We didn’t see anything more, in fact, we had seen enough.  Thankfully we were near the back of the crowd, and with some well-placed elbows managed to fight our way to the calmer waters away from the station.

Here, word of what had now become a riot was carried as a whisper from person to person.  But with each murmer it lost its’ force, until the violent crash of waves against the rocks had diminished to the gentle lap of waves upon a beach.

In the English countryside in Autumn, if you’re lucky, you are treated to an ethereal sight.  As the sun sets, black clouds begin to rise up above against the rusty sky.  They swell like smoke from a forest fire, slow and fast, bulging against the pattern of the wind.  And then they dance.  They rise and fall, expand and contract, swooping and changing direction in seeming defiance of natural law.  Shifting shapes in the sunset, they seem like one enormous living, breathing behemoth.  But they’re not one, they’re legion.  A legion of starlings, returning to roost; coordinating as one with no central nervous system, no leader, no purpose.  They create this complexity and beauty with nothing but three simple rules:

  1. Stay within a fixed range of the starlings nearest to you
  2. Avoid collisions
  3. Respond to external threats

And with that, a flock is born.  When you see a lone starling flying through the dusk it is processing any number of individual bits of information as it swoops and rolls in the half light.  Navigating its way home, hunting for a meal, flirting with lady starlings, searching for nest material, navigating obstacles, planning routes, looking out for predator.  In a flock, there are three bits of information to process and they over-ride the individuals more natural urges, to keep the flock together.  This behavior is hard-wired, and has been carved into the starling mind over millennia to ensure that the flock, and thus the individual, is safe from predators.

It’s the touch-paper that lights race-riots in America, demonstrations against banks and war across the West, that sparked the Arab Spring which changed the world when one desperate Tunisian market trader set himself on fire.

Back at my coach station in China, we are not so different.  At what point did my flock become a riot?  As soon as one single person, in the right position, at the right time, responded to a perceived threat.  One point of external stimulus, one trigger, seen by one person is enough for them to change their behavior and that behavior to spread as fast as a thought across thousands of people.  Without any warning, without any conscious decision by any individual, a cheerful crowd going on their holidays has become a rioting mob and not one person inside it knows how it happened, when or even why.

We are not so different.  In large groups of people, powerful instinctual urges kick in that force us to conform to the behaviour of others, for very good reasons – to be different, to be isolated, is to be eaten. To not respond to a threat in the same way as those next to you is death.

When confronted by an angry mob, pack or gang you are not dealing with the behavior and judgment of an individual.  You are dealing with a de-centralised nervous system with no decision making ability, just response to stimulus.  If you are the victim in this dynamic, the stimulus is to hunt.

This is the danger of large groups. They, and the individuals within them, don’t sing the same song as the victim and their behavior cannot be predicted in the same way as an individual’s.  The only way to get a member of a group to make rational decisions about their actions is to separate them, physically or psychologically, from the group.  Riot police call this kettling, but it works as well with a small gang as it does with a baying crowd.  Don’t wait for an attack, instigate against the individual who glues the group together, the pack leader, the one whose gravity keeps the rest clustered around him.  Influence him – with ferocity or fear, bargaining or bludgeoning, whatever works for you or the situation – but focus on that one in your conflict de-escalation and you’re not trying to subdue many, but one.

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