I want to talk
about a thing that many readers may find uncomfortable. It’s a thing we don’t
spend a lot of time considering, simply because it is in our human nature to think
that we are already correct about things we believe; so then why would
we consider anything else? ---- but we should.
history is full of examples of mass frenzies, panics, manias, deliriums, madness,
hysterias. In fact, they’ve happened fairly regularly and often, they continue
to do so, and probably always will. They may be grand, widespread, society-wide
or they may involve only a small group of people immersed in their own little
‘cult’ of a particular way of looking at reality or life.
The bizarre thing
about mass hysteria is that the people immersed in one don’t seem to recognize
or realize when they are, while often the people who are not
experiencing the mass hysteria begin to notice that these others around them
are acting unreasonably, illogically, and seem to be in some sort of strange ‘bubble’.
I hope to teach you
how to notice and identify this peculiarity.
A mass hysteria
happens when people get the wrong idea about something. It usually presents
itself with strong emotional content and it triggers cognitive dissonance that
is often supported by confirmation bias. In other words, people spontaneously
hallucinate a unique, creative reality (that is commonly a bit crazy-sounding
to someone on the outside) and really believe they see plenty of evidence for
The Salem witch trials
of the years 1692-3 are a well known example of a mass hysteria. The early 17th
century Tulip Bulb mania in Europe is another (if you’re not familiar with it, look it
up. It’s crazy). The relatively recent year-2000 tech-industry Dot.Com bubble probably
qualifies as another. (I actually have friends who fell for that one and lost a
lot of money inspite of the questions asked of them about their
beliefs and actions at the time). There were minor hysterias that come to mind like the
Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls in the 1990s. Or the great social push for empathy for
starving masses in Ethiopia in the mid 1980s that brought out mass movements of
musicians, actors, politicians, festival events, speeches, and social warriors all
geared towards ‘saving’ people, raising money and supposedly sending it to these
poor, miserable people of Africa. Surprise, surprise, in the end it all didn’t
amount to much of anything at all in real help and instead tended to spotlight
the people in the forefront of the ‘movement’ and made them worldwide celebrities
with all that that brought to them and made a lot of unseen, unknown, nefarious
people in the background, rich. Skinny women with their skinny babies still ended
up starving on the savanna while masses of western people went home with full
bellies and minds satisfied from their outpouring of empathy. Presently, we
might soon learn that the Russian Collusion story that left-leaning media and
political parties pushed so vindictively in the USA this past year (2017), that
a large portion of that country’s populace lapped up, is just mass hysteria in
hindsight. The curious lack of solid evidence for Russian collusion is a red
flag to me. But we’ll see how that one shakes out later on.
These are all mass
hysteria bubbles. People inside of them are unable to see anything objectively
because they have lazy, undeveloped minds that tend to default to the indolent,
easy stance that anything that makes them feel justified or ‘right’ is fine and good if it
agrees with what they have come to believe. On the other hand, their sensibilities are
offended quickly and an internal ‘alarm’ is set off by anything that doesn’t agree with
This offense is now
popularly known as ‘triggering’. Anything that alarms or offends someone who
holds certain set beliefs now essentially ‘triggers’ them. "They’re ‘triggered’", we say.
They experience psychological trauma and emotional stress that apparently can only be
resolved with therapy or safe, warm, intense feasting on pizza and
beer with fellow triggerbuddies with mutual admiration for each other.
This triggering alone is now considered a warranted
stance against perceived injustice in our present progressive culture. Be
clear, it isn’t evidence or the validity of an argument that is the strong stance
anymore, it is the ‘feelings’ that the offended person has and the strength of
their claim that they are alarmed, either positively or negatively as the case
may be. Triggering now forms the base of the argument and the affirmation of
their point of view whether the stance is valid or not. This is becoming the
primary viewpoint of many people in the new social fabric that is evolving in
our ‘western’ culture.
If this doesn’t
seem crazy (and a bit scary) to you, you might be in a bubble or at least need
to revisit whatever it is that you use as a basis for recognizing truth.
A most visible,
popular mass hysteria of the moment (2017) involves the idea that the United
States people intentionally elected a racist President, old D.Trump. If that
statement just triggered you, it might mean you are in the mass hysteria
bubble. The cool part is that you can’t fact-check my claim that you are
hallucinating if you are actually hallucinating. Confirmation
bias prohibits that. If you’re in the mass hysteria, recognizing you have all
the symptoms of hysteria won’t help you be aware you are in it. That’s not how
hallucinations work. Instead, your hallucination will automatically rewrite
itself to expel any new data that conflicts with its illusions. Again…
If you are not
experiencing mass hysteria, you might be totally confused by the actions of the
people who are. They appear to be irrational, but in ways that are
sometimes hard to define. You can’t tell if they are stupid, unscrupulous,
ignorant, mentally ill, emotionally unstable or what. It just looks crazy to
reason you can’t easily identify ‘what-the-hell is going on’ is that powerful
mass hysteria is in play all around you. If you stop and notice, it will feel
like you’re bobbing in a vast sea of crazy beliefs that everyone bobbing around
you seems to agree with -- except you!
If you see the
signs after I point them out, you’re probably not in the hysteria
bubble. If you read this and do NOT see them then it may very well mean you are
indeed trapped inside the hysteria bubble. So, hold the rudder firm for a wee
bit and read my descriptions. See if you check off the boxes or not....
So here are some
signs to consider:
the trigger event for cognitive dissonance
dissonance is a mental conflict resulting from incompatible cognitions.
(Cognition: the process of believing and knowing something, in the widest
sense). So cognitive dissonance occurs when you suddenly come up against a
thing or fact but it is in conflict with what you already believe about that
particular thing. Now you either have to renovate your belief in light of new
information (this happens rarely) or you have to come up with some kind of
explanation as to why your belief still holds true for you, inspite of it
being in conflict with real evidence.
For example: On
November 8th, 2016, half the USA learned that everything they
believed to be both true and obvious turned out to be wrong. The people who
thought Trump had no chance of winning and that Hillary Clinton would sweep
into power, were under the impression they were smart people who understood
their country, politics, media reporting, and grasped clearly how things
really work in general. When Trump won, they learned they were wrong. The
hysteria that ensued was startling to witness. They were so very wrong in
predicting and assuming things that they reflexively (because this is how
brains work) rewrote the scripts they were seeing in their minds until it all
made sense to them again. This wrong-about-everything-crowd decided that the
only way their world now made sense, and the only way to keep their egos (and
reputations in some instances) intact, was that either Russians had helped
Trump win (that one is still being pushed almost a year later with no
compelling evidence) or there are far more ‘racists’ in the country than they
imagined, and he is their king. It just esculated from that day on and those
were the seeds of the two mass hysterias we witness in that country today,
almost 10 months later. And a lot of it has spilled over into Canada by now
on the other hand, experienced no trigger event for cognitive dissonance the
day he won. Their worldview was instead confirmed by the observed events and
everything agreed with what they already believed about their country and
their view of politics and the social condition. They saw things in recent
years as veering more and more towards an austere, global socialist economy and
a more homogenous global culture that requires the giving up of many long held nationalistic traditions and ways. This concerned a lot of them. Trump appeared to be a lone wolf
standing up for their country, its security, their livelihoods, and
their way of life when other candidates seemed to embrace the more 'business-as-usual' global approach. So that’s basically all they voted for, pure and simple; a last gasp of trying to keep or restore what once felt like a strong, nationalistic country. He spoke to their fears.
the ridiculousness of it
One indication of
a good mass hysteria is that it sounds bonkers to anyone who is not
neighbor telling you he thinks the other neighbor is a witch. Or imagine
someone saying the local daycare provider is a satanic temple in disguise. Or
imagine someone telling you alien beings snatched them up last night and put
a microchip inside their head. Sounds like crazy stuff, right?
Compare that to
the idea that an American president is infact a Russian puppet. Or that the
country stupidly elected a racist who believes the KKK and Nazis are fine
people. Or Hillary Clinton didn’t win primarily because the system is
covertly misogynistic. Crazy stuff too.
If you think
some of those examples don’t sound crazy – regardless of the reality of
the situation – you are probably inside the mass hysteria bubble.
the confirmation bias
If you are inside
the mass hysteria bubble, you probably interpreted Trump’s initial statement
on the Charlottesville incident – which may have been politically imperfect – as proof-positive he is a damned racist!
But if you are outside
the mass hysteria bubble you might be in less of a hurry to, and would have
noticed that Trump never did campaign to be a moral leader for the country.
He even presented himself – in his own words – as ‘no angel’ but with a set of
other skills he bragged about and offered to use in the public’s interest. He
purported to be big on law-and-order and equal justice under the law. But he
never offered moral leadership. Voters elected him with that knowledge.
I tend to agree.
Morality is such a problematic, subjective thing. It’s culturally biased,
often selectively inclusive, very speciesist, and even quite temporal, so it is certainly a
unreliable, unstable platform to build a governance on. I don’t want the leader of
my country offering me moral platitudes or advice for my life. I can figure those out
for myself. I would rather he/she govern objectively and secularly and simply follow
the rules of Parliament or Congress that bind him/her to the will of the
Yet, when the horror
of the Charlottesville incident shocked their country, the US citizens
instinctively looked to their president for moral leadership or a least a
communiqué to that effect. (USA has a strong religious past and still has those tendencies). Trump
instead provided a generic law-and-order statement, quite neutral sounding. Pandemonium ensued, of course.
Days later, due to leftist media pressure and an outpouring of feigned public outrage by social media,
Trump came forward again and this time condemned specific groups, actions, and disavowed the racists. But you could clearly see
that he was uncomfortable being a moral lighthouse. Even Trump, with his seemingly limited depth of thought, must have found it odd to have to point out the obvious; that society finds racism abhorrent and white supremacy unacceptable. Did he really need to say this? Haven't we moved beyond this quite some decades ago? Who won't let it die? Race isn't really a 'thing' anyway, when it comes right down to it.
already believed Trump was a racist, his perceived weak statement about Charlottesville
seemed like a confirmation to them. But if you noticed, in his speech he
offered only equal treatment under the law and that’s all you heard. As far
as morality, that’s for you to decide on your own, as it should be.
The tricky part
here is that any interpretation of what happened could be confirmation
bias for almost any point-of-view. But ask yourself which one of these versions sounds less crazy:
A sitting US president, who is a fairly slick and proficient branding and
marketing dude, thought it would be a good idea to go easy on activist Nazis
as a way to conserve his popularity and not antagonize any portion of his
support base or even general Americans who are all quite aware of the 'freedom of speech' ammendment as a right for everyone and anyone, however distasteful they may be. And this, especially after we noticed in the media how Antifa (the
other extreme group and the 'good guys' at that time) were acting out so violently and riotously as well. Meanwhile most of the reporting on the whole event was so emotionally biased, one way or the other depending on the leanings of who was reporting, that hard
facts were hard to clearly come by in any event. Whether this initial stance by him was a good or bad idea
is a whole other question but it also doesn’t mean that he agrees with a group
he may be perceived to be going 'easy' on. Afterall, politics makes for strange and uncomfortable bedfellows especially when you have to honor the rights of everyone who is a citizen.
The country elected a racist leader who was winking to the KKK and
White Supremacists and was saying that they have a free pass to start a race
A truly mentally unstable racist clown with con-man skills (mostly
lying and bullying skills) eviscerated the entire Republican primary field
and won the presidency. He keeps doing crazy, impulsive, seemingly racist
stuff. But for some reason, the economy is going well, jobs numbers are
looking good, North Korea blinked (so far), ISIS is on the ropes in the
middle east, he continues to push a strong national agenda saying he only wants what is
advantageous for his country and its citizens, and the Supreme Court got at
least one qualified judge so far. These things are real, inspite of despicable
him being directly in charge… that’s a pretty lucky outcome for someone with evil intentions.
The guy who didn’t offer to be your moral leader consequently and
predictably didn’t offer any moral leadership at a crucial time, only a
sentiment of law and order applied equally. His critics and knockers cleverly
and predictably framed it as being soft on Nazis with leanings towards white supremacy.
Some of these
narratives are less crazy-sounding than the others. That doesn’t mean the
less-crazy one has to be true but remember that normal stuff happens far more
often than crazy stuff -- Occam's Razor. Critics with a certain confirmation bias will always
tend to frame normal stuff in a crazy way whenever they get a chance. Their
cognitive dissonance demands it. Their vision of Truth is that it is putty to be molded into the shape they desire instead of Truth being a marble statue that stands unchanged by whim.
the oversized reaction
It would be hard
to overreact to a Nazi murder, or to racists marching in the
streets with torches. That stuff demands and merits a strong reaction. But if
a right-winger agrees with you that Nazis are the worst, yet you threaten to
punch that right-winger for not agreeing with you in exactly the right way,
that might be an oversized reaction. We don’t all display or harbour our
distaste for something in exactly the same way. Doesn’t mean one is superior
or inferior to the other or a hyper, frenzied reaction totally negates a reaction (and the person attached to it) that
is more subdued or thoughtful.
Some people may disapprove of something but not as strongly as you disapprove of it. It may not consume their every waking thought and action on up to an active militant level as it may with you but that's o.k. They don't merit your oversized reaction towards them just because you perceive them as less enthusiastic. Each to his own.
Try convincing with solid evidence and reason. Intimidation and volume only pisses people off. If you can't come up with strong evidence and reason, you might be inside a mass hysteria bubble.
the insult without supporting argument
When people have
actual reasons for disagreeing with you, they offer those reasons without
hesitation. As I've experienced, strangers visiting websites and on social media platforms will cheerfully check your
facts, your logic, and your assumptions. But when you start seeing basic ad
hominem attacks that offer no arguments, reasons or evidence at all, that
might be a sign that these people are in the mass hysteria bubble. They don’t
understand what is wrong with your point of view except that it sounds more
sensible than their own or worse yet, simply doesn’t agree with their’s so
they become vitriolic.
The mass hysteria
signals I described here are not settled science. This is only my take on it based on personal observation and thinking about it. I present this lens on the
situation to draw attention to the hysteria I see around me. If you are
outside a mass hysteria bubble, you might see what I am doing in this blog as
a public service. If you are inside the bubble, I look like a
Nazi-Trump collaborator probably.
How do I look to
Let me say,
little for Trump either way. I’m Canadian and he’s USAs president, not mine. My concerns are more focused on the weird ‘Justin T. Bubble’ we've been feeding up here in the Great White North for the past few years. But that’s a whole other post for another time, not even to mention the Feminist bubbles, the LGBTQ bubbles, the Climate
Change bubbles… yeeeesh... at least humans don't surprise me with much anymore.
The dilemma that Sam Harris once expressed applies, "If someone doesn't value true evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove that they should value it? If someone doesn't value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?" And so the problem continues and grows.