In the Crowd
by Gergely Berces
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
In language class the teacher went on with the material they had been learning since first grade, Freespeak. Freespeak was, by definition, the unofficial language of the world, incorporating all official ones. Though technically not official, Freespeak was usually the only language that did not offend laws regarding discrimination, marginalization and intolerance, including the various clauses in legislation determining the criteria for Hate Speech.
Today the class was taught how Freespeak remained a language under constant development, with everyone, regardless of even age, for fear of age discrimination, having a say in its future alteration and expansion.
Seeing there was a lot of time before the end of class, and the interest this topic had garnered from the class, the teacher decided to delve deeper, explaining some of the primary methods through which the language could be edited.
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not so much the adding as the erasing of words from the dictionary of Freespeak that occurs. To identify words meriting of deletion, we use the ‘trigger’ criteria, meaning if any persons are proven to be triggered — in other words, filled with hate at being offended by a particular word — that word is erased from the dictionary and prohibited from use.”
Prompted by the perverse curiosity written on the students’ faces, the teacher produced a long list of banned words, most unreadable and incomprehensible to the class. “Just don’t say them aloud, that might constitute crimes of varying magnitudes,” the teacher warned.
“These are the very definition of anathema,” Fred sputtered, triggered by the fact that these words had triggered others before him. The rest of the class followed suit in condemning and denouncing the strings of letters and expressing the collective offense they took from them.
Jason alone was undisturbed by the words. Even those he could understand, having probably been put on the list quite recently, did not bother him. What hurt him deeply, though, was the hypocrisy of it; diversity being expunged for diversity’s sake. A word he had heard long ago entered the boy’s consciousness: dictatorship. It was rarely used, its meaning fading from collective memory, yet it resonated strongly within his mind, synonymous with evil.
Was this how dictatorship, evil worked; with the corruption of an idea in such a way that it would come to contradict and subsequently exterminate itself? If so, then, in light of what was unfolding around him, Jason surmised, evil is a product of the Crowd, and not of the loner. But is not the loner in the evil crowd a tiny evil cogwheel himself? No, Jason hoped, the loner is unblemished, and the evil he is forced into is just an alien product. If not, all hope is lost.
Jason came to another conclusion in language class, of which he was more certain; the power of language. He realised that if he were to ever become free of the Crowd, he must learn to speak of himself and for himself. With this, Jason determined to visit the public library down the street during lunchtime and look through all the out-of-date dictionaries in hope of finding the first-person pronoun he longed for.
* * *
Filled with excitement for the coming adventure, the quest for himself, the rest of the language class and the coming break flew by, leaving only history class, another one of Jason’s favourites, before lunch time.
The history teacher, teacher Maple, began the class as per usual, asking the class to summarize the last lesson. The students just stared ahead blank-faced, the circulating social current being one of confusion and failed remembrance.
Jason, as never before, felt himself completely impervious to the classroom crowd’s will, and did something he had never before: he raised his hand. Quite startled, herself, at the sudden change in Jason’s habit of staying silent during class, as well as a strange shift in his overall countenance, the teacher beckoned for him to speak.
“Last class we began discussing contemporary history, or more accurately, the end of history.”
“Correct; and why do we refer to the present and future as history’s end?”
“Well, the progression of history has been defined by our differences and the resultant struggles between conflicting ideas, rooted in intolerant and rigid definitions of identity. Our neo-free world order has, however, eradicated all intolerance and the conflicts that spring out of it, rendering the further recording of history obsolete.”
“Very good, class,” said teacher Maple, “and now we will learn exactly just how our neo-free world order came to be.” Taking out a heavy textbook she went on: “Today we will examine the background of the rise of neo-freedom, with an emphasis on its necessitating factors and the methods of its imposition.” Teacher Maple looked up at the class, making sure they were paying attention then, opening the textbook, she continued:
The ending of history and the establishment of our neo-free world order can be traced back to the onset of globalisation and its effects. As the world became increasingly interconnected, contradictory ideas encountered each other and came into intimate, protracted contact with heightened frequency.
Because of the elaborate web of contacts spanning the globe, these contradictions were no longer bilateral but multilateral in nature, with each identity demanding the elimination of all others for its validation. This led to the Identity Wars, a string of non-linear armed conflicts not between states but ideologies, races, genders, professions, generations and religions.
Nor were these conflicts fought between two major camps as in the past, but rather, the intolerance of each identity forced a free-for-all brawl of global stature. Strategic objectives were unorthodox as well; not necessarily oriented at victory but, instead, at the maintenance of constant war, with goals such as achieving self-definition, economic stimulus, freezing bureaucratic processes, changing the value of certain goods and services, or simply the testing of new military hardware.
It was in the wake of these incessant, anarchic wars, that the need for a unified, peaceful world became evident, as well as the need for a way of life to accommodate this utopian world order. Intolerance, xenophobia and a natural disposition towards treating violently what is foreign were identified as the roots of conflict.
It was concluded that society needed reorganization into a single, cohesive whole. To this end the most powerful warlords and politicians came together and put Operation Crowd into effect, sparking a holocaust against the individual self, creating a new type of human, homo socialis, a being so synchronized to its brethren that its own particular identity mattered not. Thus we were born to inherit Earth as a superior species, living freely in harmony, unrestrained in acceptance and compassion by our evil egos.
As the history teacher finished her last sentence, the bell exploded into the students’ ears, absolving them of the duty of listening to the teachings of an obsolete science. Jason, although brought to the edge of his seat in interest, quickly gathered up his books stuffing them into his bag, and made for the library down the street.
At the library Jason dashed to the reference section, where he spent a good three hours rummaging through outdated dictionaries. After so much reading as to make him googly eyed, he at last stumbled upon a word defined as “used by the speaker to refer to himself or herself.”
“I,” the boy shouted in triumph. When pronounced, “aye,” the word echoed like an affirmation of life and of all its pleasures to be experienced as an individual. Although not defined as such, it felt like a superlative, expressing that the singular components of existence were of the highest order and above in value to whatever their sum may be.
For the first time in his life, Jason felt fully himself, conscious and reassured of his individuality. No longer did the Crowd define him, quite the opposite: from now on, he decided he would define his own crowd.
Checking his watch, Jason realised it was pointless to go back to school, as it had just ended. Jubilantly, he made his way to the underground metro station where he met Fred.
Immediately Fred recognize something was different about his friend, detecting an alluring, yet frightening foreignness. He had missed Jason after his disappearance during lunchtime, feeling himself diminished without another presence.
“Where were we?” asked Fred, sounding like he was not just wondering over Jason’s wherewithal, but also his own.
“I was at the library,” replied Jason. He was met by a blank stare of incomprehension and confusion.
“What is ‘I’?” came the bewildered question.
“Not ‘what’ but ‘who’,” explained Jason. “‘I’ is me, and you, but only to yourself. My ‘I’, your ‘I’, and everyone else’s ‘I’ is something unshared and sacrosanct, denoting one’s own existence before the existence of the crowd one constitutes.”
“But we are all the Crowd, and the Crowd is us. Without the Crowd we cannot be us, and cannot be free to be what we are,” Fred proclaimed with surety.
“No!” Jason exclaimed. “Everything we have been taught is wrong. Everything we are as a collective is wrong. Day after day, we are told we’re free, but freedom can only be had alone, as an individual. Freedom is being able to say ‘I’ and acknowledging that your ‘I’ is intolerant, vindictive, always seeking to be not just distinct, but superior to others.”
These words brought Fred to the edge of tears. “But we are free like this, together, where everyone is free to be unique with impunity. The only laws governing us, and the only values set in stone, are the ones serving the protection of this environment. This is our only shared ideology, and it makes us free,” whimpered the boy, wetting the ground with tears.
“This is precisely where we are so, so wrong. True freedom has an element of truth to it. True freedom means being free to abhor and oppose what is only unique because it is wrong. We have equated every idea and value and, in the process, have destroyed their purpose: truth. It’s as if we had been served all the world’s foods, then had our teeth plucked out.”
“This is unbelievable. Are you saying,” gulped Fred, fear substituting grief, pronouncing “you” as if the word, in the singular, was the name of the devil, “that instead of freeing us, being in the Crowd makes us all slaves?”
“No. It is not being in the crowd that oppresses us, but being of it.” Jason wanted to explain further, but was cut off by the shriek of an unusually obese man slipping and stumbling from the platform down onto the tracks.
“Help, help, save our souls!” sounded the hysterical cries of the beleaguered man, inciting the thin crowd of onlookers to great agitation.
Fortunately, the fat man had somehow avoided being electrocuted by the tracks, but to Jason’s eyes the unfolding scene looked reminiscent of that of the elderly woman’s death in the morning. The man was unable to climb out on account of his great weight, but the onlookers were so paralysed with visions of their own deaths and own personal inability to take the initiative, that no one was helping him.
Jason resolved not to be a docile bystander to the death of a fellow human being as he had been in the morning. Rushing to a handle on the wall with the word “Emergency” above it, he pulled it, de-electrifying the tracks. This would not be enough though, as the coming metro could already be heard, its pounding on the tracks ricocheting in the underground station.
Jason ran to the edge of the platform, trying to help the man up, but he was not strong enough to do it alone. He looked around at the throng of bystanders. No help seemed forthcoming, individual action having become a foreign and abstract concept.
“Hey, you,” Jason shouted, pointing his finger at Fred, “come help me save him.”
At first the rainbow-eyed boy appeared reluctant and indecisive. With each second, however, as the rhythmic pounding on the tracks became more and more amplified, something buried deep down, having slumbered for so long it might have even been dead, stirred in Fred. It was not just about saving the man about to be carved up and ground down to a messy pulp by the oncoming steel gargantuan like a pig awaiting slaughter, but also about saving himself.
Possessed by a force whose pressure he had never felt before, Fred approached the edge of the platform with unsteady steps, each footfall taking him farther and farther away from the sway of the meek crowd. As he joined Jason in lifting the man up from the tracks, feeling the press of flesh upon flesh, the boys were overcome by the same feeling, manifested differently in each of them. The feeling was that of liberation and self-validation, for there is nothing more liberating than saving another’s life.
As the obese man was lifted off the tracks, rescued just in time for the metro to thunder by without drawing blood, Fred exclaimed in triumph, “We did it!”
“No,” answered Jason, “not ‘we’. You and I.”
Copyright © 2017 by Gergely Berces