As the student demonstrations and marches are becoming more frequent, and as the NUS president and other student union presidents are becoming more confused as to what they do or do not support, combined with some strange slogans plastered on the walls of UCL buildings implying they don’t understand what they are protesting against, I think it is fair to say people are confused! Even the people protesting are confused!
The violence that has occurred and the inability for students to explain it or distance themselves from it are reminiscent of an episode in Xenophon’s work “Anabasis” (Book 5, ch. 7 for those who like that sort of thing). Perhaps colloquially called the stoning of the Cerasuntian elders, Xenophon described his disciplined troops becoming an unruly mob (using the analogy of pack of hunting animals) and throwing stones at village elders and forcing them into the sea where they drowned – and it is categorically stated by Xenophon that it was through no fault of the Cerasuntians. It is an interesting passage to say the least!
What intrigues me, and in turn reminds me of the student protests in many ways, is a fascinating one liner Xenophon makes. He is describing the mob as it chases the elders to the sea, baying for blood and the death of officials;
“Some of them [the Greeks] had no idea what was going on, despite the fact they had stones in their hands” (my emphasis)
Xenophon could not ask them why they were doing it because the majority had been swept up into a frenzy without any real understanding of the cause. I am not saying that the modern protestors do not have cause, even the Greeks had their reasons (some of them had been swindled in the markets) but the question is whether the furore and levels of violence are warranted and whether people really know what they are actually acting against? Or else they have fire extinguished in their hands, aiming at a window . . . and don’t know why – that can’t be good.
It is not unusual, I have no doubt the psychologists have studied this sort of behaviour, but for Xenophon is was an act of barbarism equivalent to animals; not the actions of civilised Greeks. As for the students, the cream of the intellectual crop as it were, to march and protest as is their right is no bad thing and is moving in many ways, but as for the violence of the few? Barbarism is not a modern paradigm, but if it was, how useful a term it would be.