I was a good elementary school student. I wrote neatly and did my work on time. Year after year, teachers seated me next to badly behaving students to be an insufferably good example (although one of them then and still today inspires me). I went to school with kids very much like myself — safe, nurtured, suburban kids who had every reason to believe “work hard and you can be anything” was true. We were also, as schoolkids tend to be, crazily bored and itching to play.
One day, something erupted as recess ended. Although disenchanted with our oh-so-tedious blacktop playground, no one wanted to go back inside when the playground monitor’s whistle blew. Somehow an insurrection was stirring.
I’m not entirely sure how it happened. I’d been waiting in line for a turn on the swings with my equally bored friends. As we reluctantly gave up to go inside, we saw some kids closest to the building milling around instead of lining up. More and more kids began to do the same thing. A strange muttering seemed to rise in the air with dangerously enticing energy. Just breathing made it spread. I worked my way slightly closer to the front to see the teacher, whose yelling could barely be heard, abruptly turn and go inside.
This was unheard of. We’d never been left alone on the playground, not ever. The strange energy around us gained force. It felt like power, the sort of power kids never get. Then the principal, Mr. Page, stepped out. He was new to our school and didn’t know our names. He issued a stern command. I couldn’t make it out. He tried again. I still didn’t hear him, but even to a rule-follower like me it didn’t matter. A sense of our own power had fermented into intoxication.
Someone behind me pushed. Someone next to me pushed. Soon everyone, at least near me, started to push. It might be argued that kids were pushing each other to line up as we’d surely been ordered to do. But oh, oh my oh my, it was heady. And yes, I pushed too. It felt ancient and tidal, this pushing, as if we were caught up in something larger than ourselves. I got a glimpse of Mr. Page backed up to the brick wall, kids in front pushed against him by kids in back. His expression was one of utter surprise.
I usually write about moments of aliveness in an entirely positive sense, but this was aliveness too. The playground insurrection lasted no more than a few minutes. Everyone ended up marching indoors in abject chagrin. Every single child was punished by no recess for at least a week. I’ve forgotten if the revolt’s instigators were identified and got more serious punishments. What I remember is utterly abandoning myself to the sheer thrill of pushing. Stuck in routines, little control over what was expected of us, we may have been expressing a form of play that’s been called ilinx.
Sociologist Roger Caillois defined it as a category of games
“…based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.”
Melissa Dahl explains in the New York Magazine that ilinx is a “French word for ‘the ‘strange excitement’ of wanton destruction.'” She likens it to the way cats seem drawn to knock things over. Ilinx can be the mild thrill of intentionally slapping an empty water bottle off your desk or the rapturous state brought on by whirling, as mystics do in the Sema ritual (inspired by the poet Rumi).
Our playground insurrection might also have been a taste of mob mentality. Psychologist Tamara Avant defines it this way.
“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness. When people deindividuate, they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity. Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”
Mob mentality doesn’t have to be a negative thing. People participate in it when they stand up and yell at a sporting event. It’s also found in peace rallies and sit-ins, and has quite a bit to do with what’s called wisdom of the crowd.
Whether ilinx or mob mentality, on that long-ago playground my fellow students and I were just tired of being told we had to stop playing. We didn’t hate our teachers. We didn’t hate art class or gym or each other. We just wanted to express our frustration. We were, for the moment, having fun with opposition.
This may not be the best analogy, but I’m coming to think that the nomination of a man completely unsuited to become president of the United States is evidence of something similar. I’m not for a moment dismissing how dangerous a Trump presidency would be to the peaceful functioning of our still young, still not always morally upstanding democracy. Nor am I dismissing the obvious frustration of his supporters. I’m simply saying we need to stop pushing each other. We’re got more in common than we think we do.
A University of Maryland study compared Republican and Democratic congressional districts. In ten separate polls, people were asked 388 questions on what are considered highly partisan topics including abortion, gun control, and taxation. No statistical differences were found between red and blue areas.
For example, the Democratic party staunchly opposes cuts to the safety net and the GOP staunchly opposes revenue increases. However, the study reports, “when respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts.”
There was also no polarization found in topics such as immigration, climate change, health care reform, marijuana laws, and globalized trade. In an article titled, “Hopelessly Divided? Think Again,” Bill Moyers points out major areas of agreement found in the study.
- Climate change. Americans’ concern about global warming is at an eight-year high, with a record 65 percent of us now blaming human activity for rising temperatures.
- Gun control. Eighty-five percent of Americans — including large majorities of both Republicans and Democrats — favor closing gun-sale loopholes by enforcing background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
- Our federal tax system. Six in 10 of us believe that upper-income Americans do not pay enough in taxes, while 82 percent are bothered — either “some” or “a lot” — that corporations are not paying their fair tax share.
- The influence of big business. More than three-quarters of Americans believe that large corporations and a few rich people wield excessive and unfair power in this country. A whopping 71 percent of Americans across the political spectrum believe that the economy is rigged in favor of a few special interests.
- Special interests’ influence in our political institutions. Eighty-four percent of Americans think that money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.
Yes there are real divides on pivotal issues but let’s not forget we are in this together. Enough with the pushing already.