The Growth of the Passion

We live in an age of post-truth, fueled by social media. This is unique to our times, right? Nuh-uh! It’s all been done, and to give you an eerie sense of deja vu, we present an excerpt from The Psychology of Jingoism by John Atkinson Hobson, published in 1901. Read the full thing and tell us if it doesn’t send a shiver of recognition up your spine.

In order to realize the nature of present-day Jingoism, as distinguished from the national war-spirit in earlier times, attention must be given to a complex of new industrial and social conditions which favour the growth of the passion.

Foremost among these is the rapid and multifarious intercommunication of ideas rendered possible by modern methods of transport. The mechanical facilities for cheaply quick carriage of persons, goods, and news, signify that each average man or woman of today is habitually susceptible to the direct influence of a thousand times as many other persons as were their ancestors before the age of steam and electricity. That people move about more freely and quickly, and are brought into personal intercourse with many more individuals, and of much more varied sorts, is perhaps the least important of these changes from the psychological standpoint. More important is the internal nature of the large-town life which absorbs the large majority of the population of the most advanced industrial countries of today.

The physical and mental conditions of this town-life, for the majority of its population, are such as to destroy strong individuality of thought and desire. The crowding of large masses of work-people in industrial operations regulated by mechanical routine, an even more injurious congestion in home life, the constant attrition of a superficial intercourse in work or leisure with great numbers of persons subject to the same environment— these conditions are apt to destroy or impair independence of character, without substituting any sound, rational sociality such as may arise in a city which has come into being primarily for good life, and not for cheap work.

The bad conditions of town life in our great industrial centres, lowering the vitality of the inhabitants, operate with peculiar force upon their nervous organization. It is true that the cerebral stimulus of town life has its gains, and, in certain instances, may feed true individuality. But normally it educates a surface smartness, an alertness of manipulation of ideas within a narrow area of interest and experience; and as the environment is largely similar for larger numbers, a similarity of character and life is bred in it.

Moreover, the strain of adaptation to the many complex changes of external environment is, for those absorbed in the constant, struggle for a livelihood, so grave as to impose a nervous wear and tear which is quite apparent in the features of a town population, and which marks them out with tolerable distinctness from country folk.

In every nation which has proceeded far in modern industrialism, the prevalence of neurotic diseases attests the general nervous strain to which the population is subjected. This condition of the national life is fraught with two results. The resistance of the individual mind or will to suggestions from a neighbouring mind is weaker, and the common routine of city life to which all alike are subjected affords a common basis of appeal from mind to mind. Whatever, therefore, be the mode by which mind is conceived as operating upon mind, by argument, persuasion, or suggestion, every facility for effective acceptance is provided.

The neurotic temperament generated by town life seeks natural relief in stormy sensational appeals, and the crowded life of the streets, or other public gatherings, gives the best medium for communicating them. This is the very atmosphere of Jingoism. A coarse patriotism, fed by the wildest rumours and the most violent appeals to hate and the animal lust of blood, passes by quick contagion through the crowded life of cities, and recommends itself everywhere by the satisfaction it affords to sensational cravings. It is less the savage yearning for personal participation in the fray than the feeding of a neurotic imagination that marks Jingoism. The actual rage of the combat is of a different and a more individual order. Jingoism is the passion of the spectator, the inciter, the backer, not of the fighter; it is a collective or mob passion which, in as far as it prevails, makes the individual mind subject to a control that joins him irresistibly to his fellows.

This possession is facilitated by the sort of education which prevails among such peoples as our own. A little knowledge is most dangerous when it supplies the material and the instrument of unreason. A large population, singularly destitute of intellectual curiosity, and with a low valuation for things of the mind, has during the last few decades been instructed in the art of reading printed words, without acquiring any adequate supply of high formation or any training of the reasoning faculties such as would enable them to give a proper value to the words they read.

A huge press has come into being for the purpose of supplying to this uneducated people such printed matter as they can be induced to buy. Most of this matter consists of statements, true or false, designed to give passing satisfaction to some simple for some low sense of humour, or some lust of animalism. Some of it, however, is designed to induce a conviction or to rouse a feeling which may affect conduct.

The simplest form is the trade advertisement, whereby one, who is known to be an interested party, recommends his own goods and, by continually repeated suggestions, produces a belief which influences the public to purchase his wares. If the vendor stood in the market and recommended his goods viva voce, his spoken word would carry far less weight. The appearance of hard truth imparted by the mechanical rigidity of print possesses a degree of credit which, when the statement is repeated with sufficient frequency, becomes well-nigh absolute.

No evidence is essential: the bare dogmatic statement, though emanating from an admittedly interested source, produces conviction and moves to action. How great a power is here placed in the control of a commercial clique or a political party, or any body of rich, able, and energetic men desirous to impose a general belief and a general policy upon the mass of the people!

This power of suggestion through print acts mainly upon the individual when it is intended to convey some simple sort of information as shall influence private conduct. But where the appeal is primarily to the passions, and statements are ‘published’ in order to influence public conduct, the power of the press attains its zenith.

Any slight tendency of more reasonable folk to question the accuracy of sensational matter obviously designed to inflame the general mind is overborne by the common pulse of passion which sways them as members of a crowd. The terse, dogmatic, unqualified, and unverifiable cablegram is the most potent form of this emotional explosive: it purports to place the mind of the million in immediate and associated contact with the distant sensational event in such ways as to quench all cavil or question; its meaning, heightened and expanded through the sounding board of the press, settles down irresistibly upon the public mind.

This is the ideal mode of suggestion— a short, sharp voice of mysterious authority acting simultaneously upon millions of minds whose interaction of passionate sympathy gives it speedy vogue in common talk, and implants it in the small stock of recently acquired impressions. Consideration of this process explains how a dramatic fiction thus implanted is able to survive the most complete exposure, even when the contradiction is conveyed through the same channel as the falsehood. Further analysis of mass-psychology, disclosing the inhibition of comparison and normal reasoning processes, will explain how the most contrary suggestions of fact or feeling can be held simultaneously by the same persons, who have yielded their individual judgment to the sway of a common passion thus prompted and informed.

National hate finding sensational expression through war is the best emotional material for the operation of these forces, and the possession by the passion of Jingoism of the massmind of a people intellectually disposed like that of Great Britain presents a subject of incomparable interest for psychological study.

One word in conclusion of these introductory remarks. I have distinguished the spectatorial passion of Jingoism from the cruder craving for personal participation in bloodshed which seizes most savage peoples when the warspirit is in the air.” Jingoism is essentially a product of ‘civilized’ communities, though deriving its necessary food from the survival of savage nature: it presents therefore a number of more complex moral and intellectual problems for consideration. Its force, dependent, as we have seen, upon the submission of the individual will and judgment to collective suggestion, will vary with the resistance offered by trained reason and firmly rooted individual convictions applicable to the issues concerned in the suggestion.

The rapid and numerous changes in the external structure of modern civilization have been accompanied by grave unsettlement of the inner life; a breaking up of time-honoured dogmas, a collapse of principles in politics, religion, and morality have sensibly reduced the power of resistance to strong passionate suggestions in the individuals of all classes. Hence the common paradox that an age of universal scepticism may also be an age of multifarious superstitions, lightly acquired and briefly held, but dangerous for character and conduct while they hold their sway.

Among civilized peoples, those of Western Europe and of the United States are at the present time, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before, destitute of fixed and clearly defined convictions upon root issues of ethics and politics. Their education has, among the better educated classes, been instrumental largely in producing scepticism and fluctuating dilettantism, while among the masses it has produced a low curiosity and indiscriminate receptivity. This general unsettlement of habits and principles implies in individuals a collapse of standards of thought and feeling, a weakening of individual responsibility in the formation of opinions, and a correspondingly increased susceptibility to Jingoism and other popular passions in the several shapes which they from time to time assume.

About the author

John Atkinson Hobson

John Atkinson Hobson (1858 – 1940) was an English economist, social scientist and critic of imperialism.