The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

It’s Tuesday, November 1st, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

What Can Explain Such Panic and Mayhem? Massive Street Party Turns Deadly in Seoul

It was supposed to be a social coming out party on the streets of Seoul because over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, this kind of celebration wasn’t possible. The occasion was Halloween, which until very recently wasn’t even a part of the calendar in the Korean culture. But nonetheless, Halloween 2022 in Seoul, Korea is not going to be remembered for a big party but for an absolutely tragic death toll. As of this morning, that death toll was over 150, about another 130 or more injured, some of them seriously injured. The death toll was almost certain to rise.

And also, you have the rise of the temperature in that nation. Politically, people are demanding an answer. How could this have happened? Where did the government fail? What policies were not applied? Who’s responsible for this? But you also have the emotional temperature of that nation, which is now running very hot, especially given the fact that so many of these victims were so young. So many of the casualties were teenagers and young adults. They were not distributed evenly when it comes to gender. That might tell us something about the distribution of gender in the crowd. It might tell us something about the fact that young men were able to escape more quickly and more effectively than young women. The death toll as of this morning, about two-thirds teenage girls and young women. And this includes also several people from multiple nationalities who are not Korean at all but were there in in Seoul, South Korea for what was expected to be a vast street party.

And the numbers are huge. Officials acknowledge that they had predicted about 100,000 persons on the streets of this one neighborhood in Seoul. That raises the huge questions why were not more crowd control protections put in place? Some of the questions about this particular tragedy defy the imagination because one of the most important questions is why did it happen? What caused it? How did it start? And it turns out that as details are coming out, there are few satisfying answers to that question.

Reporters for The Wall Street Journal tell us this, “New details that emerged the day after the incident suggest that some of the people packed into the small alley began to shout at the crowd to go forward, others screamed to push back. Within moments, people began to fall and the crowd began collapsing on itself down the sloping side street. Hundreds of people were crushed.” You had a narrow passage way and a sloping street. And evidently, the press of the mass crowd got to the point that some people said, “Step back,” some people said, “Move forward.” In any event, you can understand that the situation broke up, devolved. It eventually dissolved into mass hysteria. And that mass hysteria turned out to have deadly consequences.

Now shortly, we’ll see that there is a particularly dark turn to this story coming out of Seoul, but let’s just deal with what happened and why it is so important to so many to try to explain it, to try to give a cause and track the actual development. Well, for one thing, this kind of incident needs to be prevented in the future. And the huge question of political and moral responsibility in South Korea is obvious, and that is that if you had the prediction by authorities that there would be 100,000 young people on the streets, why was it more attention given to crowd control?

There were about 200 police officers assigned to the crowd, but it turns out that many of them were effectively operating as a vice squad, they were not really giving attention to the management of the crowd. You’re talking about a young crowd, you’re talking about a very dense crowd. And in one sense, if you look at the graphics that show this narrow street, it’s almost like the narrow end of a funnel. When you put human beings through that kind of compression, it’s not only a physical challenge, it turns out to be a psychological challenge as well.

Thinking about this in worldview perspective, the first thing we immediately come to is an understanding of the very real grief experience by so many in South Korea and beyond. We’re talking about human beings made in the image of God, young people who were, in the main, amazingly healthy. And they were attending what they thought was going to be a mass party only for it to turn out to be an incident of mass mayhem that led to death.

First of all, we understand that the mass grief experience there is absolutely legitimate. We have parents who have lost their children, we have siblings who’ve lost brothers and sisters, friends who have lost friends. But also, as we’re looking at this, we understand that at least a part of what it means to be made in God’s image is that we are analytical creatures and we’re moral creatures. You put the analytical part and the moral part together, and that means that there is a moral imperative to try to understand what took place. We want to understand. The question why? is one of the most pressing and urgent of all human questions. Sometimes it is simply not given to us to know why, but it is given to us to be the kind of creature who wants to know why.

But I also want to turn to something that seems to be absolutely lacking in the global conversation about this incident, and that is the issue of the crowd itself. And in worldview dimensions, it raises some absolutely massive and vexing questions. The big question is this: Why is it that human beings act differently when they’re in a crowd than when we are not? It turns out that that is a highly predictable pattern. You put human beings together in a crowd, you make the crowd even larger, you make the crowd an issue unto itself, human beings find themselves saying, thinking, feeling things that alone might never have happened.

It turns out that when we are as human beings in a crowd, there is a temptation and a susceptibility to act and to think differently, even to perceive differently than if we were alone or in a much smaller group. There is something that is simply defined as a distortion field when it comes to a crowd. And it was in the 19th century in the English speaking world that many people tried to understand how exactly a crowd was to be defined. Why does a crowd act differently now?

Now, why the 19th century? Well, it’s because of urbanization, the rise of big cities, cities such as London. And in the streets of London, in the streets of Paris and in the streets of other newly highly populated cities capable of crowds, when crowds gathered, sometimes it was absolutely explosive. And furthermore, even when it didn’t turn violent, it often turned weird. And even people leaving the experience of having been in the crowd wondered why exactly did I cheer when everyone else was cheering? Why exactly did I feel angry when the crowd felt angry? I didn’t even know exactly what they were angry about.

In 1841, an English-speaking writer by the name of Charles McKay wrote a book on Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. That last part, the madness of crowds is what draws our attention. But it is noteworthy that when Charles McKay wrote this book, he was putting together extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Sometimes, those things actually go together. The Madness of Crowds, the last part of the title of McKay’s book, related to the fact that in this new urban environment, when masses gathered together, they appeared to act in ways that could only be described as mad.

A more sophisticated treatment came in 1895 when another European thinker, in this case Gustav Le Bon, wrote a book on The Crowd: A study of the Popular Mind. Now, given the experience of crowds and even rebellions, riots and worse on the streets of Paris, we can understand why Gustav Le Bon was very interested in asking that question.

And Le Bon came up with a very interesting analysis. He said that when you think about the human mind, you need to think also about human minds. You have one person talking to another person, you have one mind talking to another mind, interesting rational things happen. You add a third mind and a fourth mind and a fifth mind and you can still have something of a conversation. You add up thousands of minds, and here’s Gustav Le Bon’s point: At that point, the crowd, oddly enough, seems to take on, you’ve heard this phrase before, a mind of its own. This is where that expression comes from.

Now, Le Bon was writing from a secular viewpoint here, but we understand he’s actually really onto something. When you have a crowd, especially a mass crowd gathered together in tight space, you have the opportunity for something like a crowd mind to emerge. And in that context, individuals, the individual consciousness, individual minds seem to melt into this massive crowd.

Now, the 20th century just affirmed this reality. Horrifyingly enough, in the videos you can see, the news reels of Nazi Germany with these mass crowds, the Nazi ideology intentionally gathered together crowds because in a crowd, persons would accept claims, political theories, political messages that they would not accept if they were alone or in a much smaller group. This became one of the keys to fascist power in the 20th century. You could get people to do what you wanted them to do more easily if you had 100,000 of them than 100 of them.

Something else that is noted by those who are watching the crowds, in the context of the crowd, individuals tend not only to lose their identity, a crowd includes just a gathering of anonymous people. Who knows with whom you are gathering in this massive crowd? But it’s also true that the crowd begins to lose inhibitions. The situation, the context of being crowded together with other human beings means that you are not so polite as you would be in a smaller context. You are not so generous as you might be in another smaller context. You are not even thinking so clearly as you might in a smaller, less crowded context. You get into the crowd, you may actually get so confused you do not operate on the basis of the same reason, rationality, even moral instincts by which you would operate in any other context. The crowd turns out to be an extraordinarily dangerous reality.

We think of this also when we consider the fact that a piece of advice that parents have had to give to their children, in particular young adults and adolescent children, is don’t go along with the crowd. Just don’t do what the crowd is doing. Now, that’s one thing if you’re talking about a neighborhood or a peer group, say an adolescent group at school, it’s a very different thing. If you’re talking about 100,000 people in a very small neighborhood with narrow streets in Seoul, Korea. That is a far more dangerous and volatile context. And don’t we all know it now.

Part II

‘The Madness of Crowds’: Why Crowds Seem to Have a Mind of Their Own

There’s something else here from a worldview perspective, and that is the fact that human beings crave order. Disorder makes us panic. There is something about a situation in which we don’t know up from down, left from right, and we don’t know what’s going on. It turns out that that does not lead us particularly in the context of a crowd to a rational analysis. We better figure out what’s going on here. This is going to be interesting. Instead, what is more likely is a form of mass movement and a breakdown of order in what can only be described as emotional panic.

This turns back to something else. In a fallen world, it turns out that we need a lot of structures of order. And that’s why there are very legitimate questions being addressed to law enforcement and business leaders and political leaders in South Korea. You predicted 100,000 people; who was preparing for this.

You might also have this in mind when you find yourself in the context of a large crowd. Say you’re a part of multiple tens of thousands of people trying to get into a big football game. You’ll notice you are being managed. You’re being managed in the way the modern stadium is built in terms of what’s called ingress and egress, how you get in, how you get out. You’ll notice that there is not a massive gathering space where people are invited to gather together in a crowd of 100,000 people. Rather, you are given a ticket with a number and an alphabet, and you are given a tier and you know where you’re supposed to go. And you are walking in areas that are intended not to make you panic, but rather to make you feel comfortable. And you find your way to your seat. And there are rows upon rows of seats. You have the experience of being in the crowd, and yet after the play is over, you sit down in your seat.

And to some degree, we have to remember that the ancient Romans had a lot of this right even when you look at the construction and architecture of something like the Colosseum. And we understand that if you invite a crowd, you take responsibility to manage that crowd, or at least to follow best practices in order to make the experience of the crowd not only most satisfying, but most safe.

By the way, going into a lot of these stadiums and facilities, you’ll notice the turns styles are there and they are operating so that you have to go through them in many cases, whether or not anyone’s taking your ticket or not. And it is simply a way of spacing human beings in an orderly way going through what might be a more narrow passage way but going through in a sequence with a certain amount of space, a certain amount of time between human beings. And if you think about it, you’ll understand the crowd is being managed. Well, if you feel manipulated, just also feel grateful because the pictures out of Seoul remind us of what happens when a crowd isn’t managed.

Morally speaking, the darkest issue to emerge in this very sad news out of Seoul is the fact that many people were deeply troubled, and we can only say appropriately so, because even after so many people had been killed and others were injured, and even as dead bodies were still on the ground in that neighborhood, so many bars remained open. So many people continued the revelry, they continued even to party around the dead bodies. That tells you something else about the madness of crowds.

One final thought on this. It is not just the existence of the crowd that is the issue, it’s the fact that the crowd was intended by design to be marked by disorder rather than order. Again, compare 100,000 people crowded together in a tight neighborhood with narrow streets and then compare 100,000 people sitting in seats in a large stadium watching an event. It might be the same number of people, it might be a crowd of the same size, but, as Gustav Le Bon would remind us, it is not the same crowd.

Part III

Is the Way to Stop Discriminating on the Basis of Race… to Just Stop Discriminating on the Basis of Race? Supreme Court Hears Five Hours of Oral Argument on Affirmative Action

But next we come back to the United States. At the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday, oral arguments in one of the most important cases in our constitutional context, and that is a challenge to affirmative action and to race preferences as even a part of the equation for admissions at prestigious universities. The two universities on the line in this case are Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

Now, this becomes very interesting because those two prestigious institutions of higher education in America are distinct because the University of North Carolina is a government tax supported institution. It is a public university. Harvard University, the nation’s oldest university, is a private university. But note, it receives and participates in massive amounts of federal funding. And so both the University of North Carolina and Harvard University come under what is known as Title IX and under the entirety of federal law, constitutional tradition and regulation related to operation on the basis of non-discrimination.

And when it comes to the issue of race, here, we have an extremely controversial and, if we’re honest, a very vexing situation. All of us is vexing because we do understand as Christians that there are massive moral issues swirling about here. For one thing, there is undeniably a legacy of racism seen in the fact that for many years, indeed for long decades, persons of certain minority identity, and that includes Black Americans, African Americans, they would not have qualified for admission. And you also come to understand that in the modern age, we’re not just talking about as you’re looking at, say, a college entering class at a prestigious university, you’re not just looking at two races that might be checked off on a box, you’re looking at multiple races and multiple ethnic identities. And then the situation just gets more complicated. We’re going to have to look at this more closely.

The oral arguments yesterday, and I heard most of them as they happened, well, they were absolutely fascinating. They were some of the most pointed and punctuated oral arguments both in statements made by counsel for the universities and the solicitor general, the United States for the Biden administration, and then coming from the justices, and that means all of them, including the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr. And the chief justice in this case is in so many ways both instructive and potentially decisive.

In the background to this is what is known as affirmative action. Affirmative action were plans largely put into place in the 1960s, and they were designed by those who put them in place in order, they said, to remedy a legacy of racial discrimination. And it came down to preferences, preferences on the basis of race. In order, the argument went, to remedy past discrimination and economic injury there would be a weighted admissions process whereby persons who had been in minority situations that were disadvantaged in the past would be advantaged in terms of admissions and other standing with the university in order to seek to remedy that situation.

But that runs squarely into another huge moral issue, and that is how exactly are we rightly to discriminate on the basis of race if discrimination on the basis of race is wrong? In other words, do we actually have two forms of discrimination, a right one and a wrong one? In this sense, it was many who identified as political liberals who actually found themselves making the argument that a form of racial discrimination was right insofar as it was a positive discrimination. In other words, if it was in favor of a formally disadvantaged group.

But the legal challenges to this came very quickly, and at least a part of that goes back to what may be remembered as the most significant 20th century decision by the Supreme Court of the United States. That would be the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled that school segregation on the basis of race is wrong. And basically, the Brown decision said, “Any discrimination on the basis of race is wrong.”

But still we’re stuck in this quandary. Is there a rightful form of discrimination and a wrongful form of discrimination? And it’s not just about college admissions, it’s also about employment context. And it’s not just about that, it’s about, say, patterns of voting regulations, all kinds of issues in which racial preferences come into question. And thus, for the better part of the last seven decades, this has been a very hot, a very urgent, a very inescapable issue in American public life.

Now, the current case is having to do with Harvard University and the University of North Carolina go back particularly to a decision by the Supreme Court in 2003 known as the Grutter decision. And, as in so many previous decisions, the Supreme Court was split and it tried just to find a middle position, a position in which it said that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race period except when it’s not maybe.

In 2003, the court simply came to a very awkward and divided decision by saying it would be wrong to discriminate on the basis of race, but maybe it’s okay when it comes to college admissions to consider race as one factor among others. Now, the question that the court has decided to address right now, now is whether or not even that simply comes down to a form of insidious racial discrimination.

And thus you might say, “Well, who is harmed here?” And the who is, well, qualified candidates who, without that formula, would themselves be admitted to Harvard or the University of North Carolina but are not because of the weighting given to certain groups based upon the university’s assumption that it is morally right to tilt the scales at least a part in favor, at least in a part of the admissions process because of racial or ethnic identity.

In the course of the oral arguments yesterday, you had exchanges such as the point at which one conservative justice simply said, “Well, what about when someone has just a bit of racial or ethnic identity in the family background?” Because you also have another situation. Justice Alito, pointing to this problem said, “Well, you have one box that says Asian, but that would include both someone from Japan or China and someone who might be coming from Afghanistan, someone who is a refugee from the war in Afghanistan.” Justice Alito simply shot back, “Well, the box Asian actually doesn’t tell you much that’s interesting. You don’t know much of anything simply because of someone checking that box.” But nonetheless, it becomes a big issue.

And this is where Edward Bloom, who’s the man behind both of these cases and some previous cases along similar lines before the court, this is where, writing yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, he made this astounding assessment, “In the Harvard case, students for fair admissions revealed that the college is penalizing Asian American applicants in favor of whites, Blacks, and Hispanics by engaging in racial balancing, over emphasizing race and rejecting workable race neutral alternatives to achieve racial diversity. Students for fair admissions expert presented to the courts a hypothetical case of an Asian American male with a 25% chance of admission. Changing the applicant’s race to white would increase his admission’s chances to 36%, leaving all factors constant. Changing this applicant’s race to Hispanic boosts his chances to 77%, while changing it to African American would boost his chance of admission to 95%.”

Now, at least a part of what we’re looking at here is that there is real brokenness in the world and there is real sin in this world, and sin comes with consequences. Here’s a Christian admission: Some of them defy any human calculation about how exactly to remedy the situation because for one thing, we’re not dealing with the people who are doing the discrimination, say, in 1955 or 1968, we’re dealing with 17-and-18-year-olds today applying for admission to two very prestigious universities. And of course, this isn’t just about Harvard and UNC, it’s about the entire system of both affirmative action and racial preferences.

Something else for Christians to understand is that it becomes virtually impossible to understand how you would actually apply some form of positive discrimination without negative effects. You’re talking about a limited number of seats in the applicant class to Harvard University, and so a seat given to one person for this reason means that someone else is not going to get that seat.

The statistics offered by Edward Bloom and others point to the fact that the weighting of the applicant on the basis of race becomes decisive in such a way that there is a particular advantage for one group while there is a particular disadvantage for another group. I believe the chief justice of the United States is absolutely right when in a previous case he responded to this kind of logic with this: “It is a sordid business.” It is a sordid business. Once you begin to say that we will exercise racial discrimination in a positive way rather than in a negative way, you are still making decisions on the basis of a preference that is essentially based in race.

And it’s worth noting that, as Justice Alito pointed out, those categories of race are entirely artificial when it comes to looking at a global situation of humanity. What exactly does Asian mean? If it includes both Afghanistan and Japan and you’re talking about culture and you’re talking about ethnicity, that one box identified as Asian isn’t even particularly helpful or interesting. Again, I come back to the chief justice because on this issue, he has in the past been emphatically clear, as in one case he made very clear that the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

The goal of diversity has to be broadly defined, including many different human characteristics, it can’t simply come down to race. Although, of course, race is a part, ethnicity is a part of that equation. And Christians understand how to honor that. But when it comes to racial discrimination, discriminating for one person means discriminating against someone else. In a limited world, that’s just inevitably so.

The conservative justices on the Supreme Court yesterday were very effective in leading the attorneys arguing for the policies of Harvard and UNC basically to admit that they were discriminating on the basis of race, at least in terms of the relative weighting of issues to be considered in admission. They had to admit this entire case comes down to their determination to continue the practice.

And on this point, I’ll simply conclude by going back to the basic logic that in the past has been affirmed by the Chief Justice of the United States. I’ll simply paraphrase it this way: The only way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race. We’ll expect to hear this decision from the Supreme Court. It’s going to come with vast consequences. But we’re probably going to have to wait until next June to have the ruling.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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