Let me start by saying (a) that I am a fan of James Surowiecki and enjoy his writing and insight; and (b) I think he has a point in his ‘wisdom of crowds‘ thing.

Heck, the whole idea of democracy is based somewhat on the premise that large groups of ordinary folks can exhibit common wisdom.  As Lincoln once said, “God must have loved the common man … he made so many of them!”  I know that some of you read this and think of the current political environment and might conclude otherwise but over the long term democracy has served us … ok, it has served most of us … quite well thank you.

But the cold reality is that crowds can also be stupid.  Very stupid.  And crowds are particularly stupid when then face things that they find foreign, strange, and uncomfortable.

8527stupid-people-postersA recent case in point.  The Mississippi school district that canceled their senior prom rather than allow a lesbian to attend in a tuxedo with her girlfriend.  Yup.  You read that right.  Grown adults so afraid of a teen age lesbian couple that they canceled prom night.

I don’t think it matters what you think about gays and lesbians.  And I don’t think it matters what you think about teenage gays and lesbians.  You may believe it normal and a sign of a maturing, evolving culture.  Or you may find it unnatural and a sign of society going to hell in a handbasket.  Or somewhere in between.  Doesn’t matter.

That a school district would cancel prom over fears that kids might see two girls making out is just stupid.  Don’t Mom and Dad know that their children have already seen that and more on Fox?  Do they think that if they cancel prom gays and lesbians will disappear?  That their children won’t get ‘infected’?  Don’t they realize that this lesbian couple is already in their children’s high school?  That rather than make this go away that it shoves it in everyone’s face.

Crowds do bizarre stupid things when faced with cultural fears.

I know first hand growing up in Jefferson Parish Louisiana in the 1970s.  I attended a public high school that was ALL boys.  Yup.  Public school.  All boys.  Why?  Because after desegregation some of the white parents – let’s call them a crowd of white parents at the time – figured that while they may have to accept that their white children will have to go to school with blacks, they could make sure that their white girls won’t have to mingle with black boys!

And that was that.  High school was divided into all boys and all girls schools.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Conclusion?  Crowds can be dumb.  And it isn’t hard to find examples (can anyone say … housing bubble?).  So look around.  What crowds are you hanging out with?  What are they doing?  Occasionally they can be wise.  But they can just as easily be stupid.

Chart your own course.