Rape and the Madness of Crowds

About a year ago, a 14 year-old girl was raped in a small Swedish town.  What came after the rape is simple to outline:  The town not only rallied to the support of her rapist, but eventually drove the girl from the community.

The rape has been investigated both by representatives of the Swedish Government and by private journalists.  None of them deny the rape happened.  In fact, even the rapist himself does not deny the rape happened: His confession to the police is on record; he has been tried in court; he has been convicted.  There seems no legitimate doubt the raped occurred.

Yet, despite those facts, most of the town folk have all but systematically denied the girl understanding, compassion, and even justice (by driving her from the community).  For instance: When the girl reported her rape to her school's principal, her principal responded: "You file a police report if you want, although this is not a prioritized case as no serious crime has been committed."

The principal then went on to remark: "Guys do this kind of thing, you have to get used to it."

That "conversation" was not only witnessed -- and reported -- by the girl herself, but by a member of the school staff who had accompanied the girl to the principle.

The principal by no means stood alone in his bastard treatment of the girl. At one point, 2000 people from the town and its greater community had signed a petition to have the rapist's conviction overturned.  The town's immediate population is about 1800.

I will not attempt to report all that happened to the girl following her rape.   You can read a much fuller account of those events here.  I recommend that you do.

The story of this poor girl came to my attention when it was reported last month on an internet forum.  At first, many of the people on the forum questioned the report.  They could not believe what they were reading was true.  It was only after they had read several separate accounts that they accepted the accuracy of the reports.
I cannot prove it, but I suspect one reason the forum folk could not believe what they were reading is that the events happened in Sweden.  Many of us have come to expect such things to happen in places like Afghanistan.  But Sweden?  Sweden is not only a progressive society, but it has the reputation of treating women better than almost any other place on earth.  It seems improbable an entire Swedish town would almost to its last citizen ally itself with a rapist.

Of course, once someone gets his or her head around the concept that such events actually happened, and happened in of all places, Sweden, then the obvious question for him or her to ask is why did they happen?  And this is where it gets dangerous.

It gets dangerous because most of us -- perhaps even all of us -- seem to have a tendency to bullshit ourselves about these things.  That is, it seems human nature to at this point demonize the wrong-doers.  Or -- if we do not go so far as to actually demonize them -- we usually still find some way to think of them as "not at all like us". 

So, for instance, we decide the Swedish townsfolk must, unlike us, be provincial hicks to condone rape.  Perhaps they are even inbred.  Or maybe it's just that they are socialists. Everyone knows Swedes are socialists -- and some of us at least know what that does to your morals, right?  Regardless of how we explain the town's behavior, our "explanations" have one thing in common:  All of them insist the Swedish townsfolk are "not like us".

One of the problems with such theories -- besides the likelihood they are simply false -- is that they do nothing to prevent events such as happened in Sweden from happening again.  And again.

If the Swedish townsfolk can be dismissed as "not like us", then there is no reason for us to be further concerned.  Since they are not like us, and we are not like them, we need not worry that such events as happened in Sweden can happen here.  Indeed, the more alien to us the Swedes are, the less we need do anything to prevent ourselves from ever condoning rape.

That attitude would be fine if it were realistic.  But I don't think it is.  What happened in that Swedish town could have happened nearly anywhere.  It's not the Swedes who are to blame:  It's human nature that is to blame. 

I don't mean it is human nature to condone rape.  I mean it is human nature to often enough go along with the crowd.  One of the most obvious things about us as a species is that we are a cooperative social animal.  I even once heard it said by a notable primatologist that humans are the single most cooperative species of mammal on earth with the possible exception of meerkats. She went onto explain that our ability to cooperate with each other was crucial in our evolutionary success. We didn't have the biggest fangs, we weren't the fastest species, we were by no means the strongest: But, in essence, we knew how to overcome "problems" by ganging up on them.  The instinct to coordinate our behavior with those around us -- to go along with the crowd, if you wish -- is deeply bred into us.  All of us.

I think that's what happened in Sweden.  At least it seems to me a good chunk of what happened.  There almost certainly were other factors at play, but one of the biggest factors was "the madness of crowds".  Individuals joined together to turn a cruelly raped girl out of her own town because going along with the crowd is a human instinct.

I believe it is true that some of us -- a minority -- tend to be relatively less prone to join in with the crowd than most of us.  But I see no evidence to strongly suggest that many of us are without any instinct to go along with the crowd.  If any of us are, our immunity probably comes about as the result of some psychological disorder.

Yet, even if I am wrong to place such an emphasis on the role going along with the crowd might have played in all of this -- even if other factors were much more important -- I believe I am right to assert that what happened in Sweden could have happened mostly anywhere.  That is, the townsfolk's behavior -- no matter how ugly it is -- is a product of universal human nature, rather than unique to them.

Hence, I think a lesson to take from all of this is that we would be foolish to believe we ourselves would necessarily behave any different than the majority of the townsfolk if we found ourselves in their circumstances. If we ever find ourselves in a similar situation, then let us actively be on guard to do what's right, rather than find ourselves passively carried along with the crowd.  


  1. It sickens me when innocent people are victimized and "the crowd" goes along with evil instead of doing what's right.

    If humans are inclined to go along with "the crowd" to do evil, then we must figure out how to get them to go along with "the crowd" to do good.

  2. This crosses paths with a thought that occurred to me last night: is the human instinct to demonize those of us who prefer our own company, and shun crowd dynamics, some sort of limbic identification of loners with predators? Most prey species herd together, most predators isolate within a certain range of territory. It was just a random thought, but it arose from a lifetime of bitterness about being misconstrued and genuinely villainized for preferring my own company and, worse in the public estimation, severely mistrusting any viewpoint presented to me as that of the majority. I just always knew somehow that this tendency to groupthink was dangerous; I remember reading a piece on the subject in Reader's Digest, of all things, called "The Cruel Crowd," and thinking: "This describes the school that I have to go to every day."

    I suspect that part of the problem, beyond a merely evolutionary bias, is that people find it safe to vent their own anger and meanness in a crowd situation and then step aside from owning it. The lure of this must be intense for exactly those people who want to believe that only other groups or nations have evil thoughts. Jung and the Shadow, und so weiter.

  3. I'm stunned in disgust. What a horrible situation. And he went on to rape another girl too, according to the report. And the community reacted the same way. Wow.

    As I try to make some sense of this, I can't help but think of a recent post by PrairieNymth called Rapests Are Not Monsters. Essentially, she points out how rapist are, for lack of better word, romanticized into a highly characterized, vile and evil person. So when the rapist comes in the form of a popular young man who is full of youthful charm, we have a hard time processing it. Our prejudices fight against the facts, and instead of opening to the reality that anyone could be a rapist, we turn on the victim. We say she said yes and then changed her story, or that she led him on, or that she deserved it, or that she was trying to attack her attacker's reputation for vengeance or some other purpose.

    With rape being so repugnant, the thought of someone falsely accusing someone of rape strikes us on a fundamental nerve, possibly even more so than rape itself. When you are playing with emotions of that polarity and depth, you are playing with dynamite. I think I can see how the mob mentality you suggest (which no longer requires an actual physical concentration of people, thanks to social media) could bring about these disastrous results.

    It's scary, because I'm not so sure I, or anyone else, could always resist when these core emotional strings are pulled. I guess our best defense is to be weary of any situation where we have a strong negative emotional response, to be sure we have the facts before we commit to an action.

  4. Sledpress -- You've given me so much to think about! For instance: Your remark that humans demonize those of us who prefer our own company. I think that is largely true -- and it reminds me of when Jiddu Krishnamurti discovered that he was being investigated by the FBI for no better reason than they were suspicious of the hours long daily walks he was accustomed to taking alone!

    Again, I agree with your point that the anonymity of crowds can make people feel it is safe to vent their anger and madness. That strikes me as something that might have been going on in the Swedish case.

    Thank you for some very interesting input!

  5. Ahab -- I think you are right that the issue is not to deny or try to change human nature, but rather to work within its confines in order to bring out the best in us.

    Once again, I am reminded of how wise you are.

  6. Wise Fool -- PrairieNymph's essay strikes me as quite insightful. And I think you are right to be reminded of it by the Swedish case. Surely, the fact the rapist was likeable played a significant role in the fact so many people denied he could have committed the crimes. That's a very good point.

    I am also intrigued by your insight that social media has expanded the scope of the "lynch mob". I had not thought of that, but you're right. Today, we see whole internet mobs coming down on people -- often for slight reasons.

    Last, I do not know what else we can do about our human tendency to follow the crowd other than to be prepared to be jerked now and then in that direction. And that is what is so frightening -- there is no absolute insurance that we ourselves will not become the mob.

  7. Paul -- I'm not at all surprised about that Krishnamurti story. Bureaux of Investigation and the like are composed of people who fear "loners." Isn't that the quintessential FBI narrative -- the identification and neutralization of someone who separates from the herd? In that myth, all us loners are the Unabomber.

    Re: Likable rapists. I believe there are some men who are good at making themselves likable and invest a lot of energy in it, to the point they just can't BELIEVE that a woman wouldn't want to have sex with them. So they go ahead and make her do it over her expressed objections, like your annoying Aunt Matilda who tells you how much she knows you'll love her rhubarb torte. In a corollary mythology the penis is a magic wand that can fix everything -- chronic pain, grief, a bad day at the office. Seriously. I suspect that the channeling of all male emotionality into sexual behavior (which is the only acceptable form of emotion in a certain paradigm of male character) contributes a lot to rape.

  8. Sledpress -- I think you're right that some men simply cannot understand why women would not want to have sex with them. In fact, I believe I meet men like that every now and then. They are certainly not in the majority of my acquaintances, but they never fail to amaze and disturb me.


Comments Welcome -- but no flaming. If you wish, you can email me at paul_sunstone@q.com