Ladies and Gentlemen Choose Your Hysteria

We live in an age of escalating hysterias. Beside “rape culture” and related feminist hysterias men and women can choose we can choose today from “stranger danger”, the “war on drugs”. the “war on terror”, the “crime and punishment hysteria”  and “helicopter parents” (because there’s a paedophile behind every pole and around every corner).  In the past we could choose “satanic ritual abuse”, “alien abduction” or “multiple personality disorder”. Further back in history we could choose the “the red scare”. “McCarthyism” or back far enough we could choose “witch hunts”. There’s a hysteria for every need and every age.

Where does it come from. It seems to be episodic. Society functions for a while without a major panic but a switch is thrown with the correct alignment of social and cultural factors. Once switched on these hysterias seem to take a collective animal life of their own. My untested hypothesis is that this behaviour touches on the deeply biological in the primeval regions of the brain.

In our brains are repertoires of reactions which are triggered by environmental stimuli and these mostly lay dormant until activated. These are like emergency fire drills which are enacted in the event of a fire. How to react and what to do is automatic. Most of the time the “red hat” hangs on a hook unused. These are adaptations with obvious survival advantages which predates humanity and possibly mammals. As humans separated from the other apes our cerebral cortex exploded in size but it did not replace the older lymbric systems in our brain. In fact the cerebral cortex rationalises our deeper instincts as they manifest in justifications. Racism is simply genetic competition but was once rationalised into race theories with agendas like eugenics as the result. Today these instincts can also be maladaptive in particular situations where our environment differs from the natural environment we evolved in. Reactions such as flight, fight or freeze in response to danger.  The advantages of the first 2 are obvious and analogues in today’s circumstances are easy to  to imagine. The last one is less obvious. Yet in nature this is a common reaction to danger. A deer freezes on the approach of a large cat and becomes less visible to predators who are attuned to movement, especially if camouflage is also part of the prey animal’s defences. An analogue in contemporary life would be ignoring bills which need to be paid as the human animal enacts this repertoire of behaviour from a deep biological past. It is irrational to think that the metaphorical wolf at the door will pass if we just ignore him and freeze.  Some may remain dormant for an entire life but it may be that at least some must be exercised at various times. Some of these repertoires will come to the fore of our consciences.  We know how to be frightened, panicked, joyful, depressed, confidant, vigilant, optimistic or pessimistic and so on.  We know how to feel and react when bullied, humiliated and “put in our place”.

You may wonder what possible evolutionary advantages can there be to being depressed or pessimistic. Back in the cave days of cold winters, little game prey and short days a claustrophobic environment of a cave for most of winter could be depressing. This means we would not be motivated to venture outside or do anything very much  which is  the best response in that environmental context. A reduced food supply and extreme weather are not the ideal circumstances in which to feel highly motivated and energetic. Time instead to tell stories, make music and paint on the cave walls. It is interesting that today creative people like artists and writers are frequently prone to depression. To be optimistic may be fruitful in one environmental context but delusional and dangerous in another context because optimism is really a special sort of delusion. The positive psychology writer Martin Seligman is the normalisation of a potentially dysfunctional delusion and something. It is a Procrustes straitjacket for all people in all circumstances as has been described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. In fact it has been determined that the colour blue of the sky has a special effect on the brain, a claiming cheerful effect and a slight feeling of well being. A blue sky signals it’s time to get active and go outside and do things. Time to make it all happen. We all know this effect. In its exaggerated form in some people it gives rise to “seasonal affective disorder” and is known by the rather apt acronym of SAD. Nature doesn’t care that we feel happy all the time. Only that we reproduce and behave in a way to maximise our chances of reproducing.

We all know how to feel as victims. This is in direct contradiction of the consensus narrative of victimhood by feminists and other theorists. That is one can not identify with the suffering of another in a less privileged circumstances or or a particular class of people. That without direct experience of racism or sexism no one can identify with the experience. I propose instead that the feelings stemming from these deprecating and humiliating experiences are not made by experiences but are already present and waiting to be activated as already pre-existing realities in the primal areas of our brains. This is not created simply because of the existence of power relationships but is a repertoire which is realised when activated. We can learn a second language, an occupational skill or a musical instrument but we do not learn how to feel bullied or feel discriminated against. For this reason victim cards are counterfeit licences to exclude other opinions.

An extreme behaviour triggered the environment is post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).  MRI scans show that people with PTSD have signatures of physical changes in the brain in common. PTSD is an extreme expression of a repertoire which is in effect etched into the brain a bit like an image burned on to a screen which has bot been refreshed. Nature doesn’t care for our personal comfort, only that we reproduce. The resulting dysfunctionality manifesting in society is useful for surviving for example an attack by a woolly rhino or a battle ground where a bullet may end your life any minute. The continuation of fear, the suspicion, the paranoia, heightened vigilance and the acting out aggressively in non threatening circumstances is maladaptive, automatic and difficult or impossible to turn off post the event.  A miserable survivor can still reproduce and that for evolution is the point.

Add to this the needs of humans and the exploded cerebral cortex. I believe humans have a biological need to solve problems, another repertoire which is often activated. The advantages are obvious as witnessed by improvements in our lives but just as all other repertoires can cause problems so this important repertoire can become a compulsive dysfunctional habit with societal consequences in macro. Once we start hunting for solutions we also go hunting for problems for those solutions. To a hammer everything looks like a nail. Thus in medicine we improved general health not only because we need to solve many health problems and because we have learned and applied much knowledge to that end but because we actually biologically need to solve problems as a species. The repertoire once activated wants to continue activating. Thus as we make our lives better we also simultaneously retire a problem to gnaw at, frustrating our will to solve problems and our hunger for drama. Think of a rodent who needs to gnaw with his teeth or else the teeth will become too long to function. Medical malpractice indemnity excesses and helicopter parents do not come down so much to opportunistic lawyers or government regulation gone overboard although there is a lot of that, but rather because our need for drama attaches itself to whatever can fill the vacuum. No longer afflicted with childhood diseases and childhood deaths this is a repertoire hammer in need of a nail. The result can be a society which feels quiet stifling, claustrophobic  and oppressive. We feel like animals in a zoo and in truth this is what humans have become. We can not ever leave the zoo of our own making because the habitat outside of it is no longer there.  We do not become happier in the absence of problems; we only become emptier. This human zoo is the stage on which our mind repertoires are played out and played out quiet inappropriately. This creates all sorts of anxieties on to which many panics can latch on to and which advertisers are well placed to exploit. Our present era is one of great improvements although it is possible this will not last. In summary humans were designed to build utopia but they were not designed to live there. The tragic ape indeed. A comedy of creation.

In the episodic waxing and waning of hysterias something similar happens. The age of witch hunts was not an age free from desperate problems although as always some few were very comfortable. It did still see cycles of manias in communities as if something very dark was periodically activated. We see this with religious fundamentalism, Marxism, Nazism and feminism with their potential for panic to escalate to include an ever widening circle of threats. Once the initial “enemies” being the convenient problem needing resolution have been exiled, imprisoned or killed ideologies need to invent an even more vaguely defined group of “enemies”.  During the witch trials of 17th century in Germany Frederick von Spee observed that those who called most loudly for the trials were eventually entangled themselves because they did not realise that their turn would come. See my blog  post on this very courageous 17th Jesuit priest.

What does this have to do with the subject of my blog. Perhaps an understanding of the irrationality of feminism and why it looks like religious fundamentalism. It looks like fundamentalism because that is what it is. If you have not yet had the accusing finger of feminism pointed at you yet, don’t worry your turn will come.

The process of idealogical escalation of paranoia is described by Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) as per the Wiki entry at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_….

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

It is for this reason I am glad I would not be going to heaven if it existed. Just like earthly utopias it would be a disaster.