the woman in the arena

Black Friday gets a lot of flak. Every year the reports of violence flood in; 2008 was a particularly gruesome one, when a crowd of shoppers shattered the glass doors of a Wal-Mart and trampled to death a store employee. This year’s finest was a woman who pepper sprayed other shoppers so she could get the doorbusters herself.

We’re horrified by these stories but the thing is, this behavior’s totally understandable. It’s classic mob mentality. Look at Rome, look at the tradition of the gladiators and the circus! The masses loved the games. Dead ancestors were celebrated by rites called munera (sing. munus). A munus during Domitian‘s reign featured a battle between female gladiators and dwarfs. I see something of a similarity between the fact that the games were a Roman citizen’s right, not a luxury. Wal-Mart, anyone? Kind of plebian.

Bloodlust is just a side of humans. The people in this video are spoiling for a fight. When you have that many people jammed into a space, things happen. Tensions rise. You’re crowded, bumped, jostled, trod, elbowed– Americans have like, the biggest personal bubbles of any country. We keep far back when talking, we don’t get closer than a foot from someone’s face. So it’s not surprising that in a space like this, people would get antsy. And when people get antsy, conditions are better for a fight, for aggressive behavior. Adrenaline! It’s not not a part of the body! You beautiful people who say you don’t understand this– you’re just better trained to control your passions.

Also I think people are confounding the motivation with the behavior: they’re two separate things. The motivation (Nerf guns, $5 Bratz dolls) has little to do with it. What if it were other things? Music, or an expensive spice, or a gorgeous guitar? Or, if your complaint is that people are too materialistic in general, I would say that you’re reacting from the gut to this: Fights over goods produced in China are totally yucky, for three reasons: 1) fighting is uncivilized, 2) desire for material possessions is considered superficial and thus uncivilized and 3) we outsource far too much. Materialism is subjective. I love books and dresses, for example. There’s no way around materialism.

No, it seems clear that this aggression is innate. I doubt that the sales have much to do with it. Black Friday obviously sets the stage for a primal behavior. The scene is too charged not to expect violence or unfortunate, uncivilized behaviors. We react with disgust to the worst of the tales but if you’ve ever been out early on Black Friday, you’ve heard how people rev each other up, the challenges, the way they talk to strangers, the mood. It’s charged; it’s not necessarily black. Don’t forget the power of the surreal, either. Nothing like the surreal to make you act differently, unlike yourself, unlike the norm. Behind the veneer of adrenaline is fatigue, behind the huge box store is the moon and you’re feeling wolfish.

Bloodletting and circuses satisfied the Roman citizens, although eventually in the fifth century when Christianity became the state religion, they were banned. Nobody’s going to bring back the arena– at least, not to the general American public– but this bloodlust on Black Friday is clearly how the masses get the anger out.


What I’m saying is, let’s not pretend there’s only one side to people. We’ve all got a little Black Friday in us.

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