Managing Social Hysteria

WITHOUT BECOMING HYSTERICAL

I have a background in counseling. In fact, it was this background that nudged me into pursuing sociology. Furthermore, this counseling background informs my concept of society and how I approach social phenomena. Readers of this blog may recall that I’ve applied the concept of conflict cycles to understanding the relationship between minority communities and the police. I’ve also written on a phenomenon that I call social schizophrenia, the condition in which the social construct does not match or even contradicts the lived experience.

Well, lately, I’ve been contemplating how another element of my counseling experience may serve as a model for explaining social reality. The connection was made clear to me during conversations about the recent refugee caravan. Once my conservative friends chimed in, it became clear that there was a disconnect between the reality and the perception of the issue. If I were a psychologist, I might be inclined to define such a disconnect in terms of a mental disorder. In this case, I think, the disordered mentality is not a product of chemical balancing acts in the brain, but rather a socially constructed form of hysteria.

I’m certainly not the first to conceptualize mass hysteria, of course. I’m not making a claim on some innovation. In this case, I’m just trying to navigate interactions that, to me, make no sense. Whereas I was once immersed in debates with conservatives about the role of government in people’s lives, the limits, and responsibilities of the state. In other words, responsible arguments. Today I find myself tilting at absurd windmills posing as legitimate debate. In this debate, however, facts are irrelevant. Reason is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish. Claims to basic human dignity and morality are scoffed as naive, liberal drivel. Any argument is perceived as a personal affront. In the end, I gain nothing from such a conversation. The other party has gained nothing in return. A great deal of time and energy is wasted without satisfaction. If I’m tilting at windmills, does this not make me Quixotic?

So I started thinking in terms of mass hysteria or mass panic. Does our particular time in history have a corollary? McCarthyism and the Red Scare come to mind. The Reign of Terror comes to mind. The Salem Witch Trials come to mind.

That’s not good.

But I think it’s apt.

So what do I do about it?

Well, if I’m thinking in terms of hysteria, I have plenty of experience with that. How does one deal with hysteria in an individual? Might this be analogous to dealing with hysteria as a social phenomenon?

There are times when counselors are confronted with a client who is in the grip of what I would call hysteria¹. Hysteria is a response to some kind of perceived threat. This could be a threat to one’s physical well-being, or to one’s social well-being in the form of status and prestige. It may also be a response to a perceived threat to a loved one or a significant other. The hysterical response to this perceived threat manifests in actively expressed and extreme anger, fear or anxiety.

Notice my emphasis on “perception.” It does not matter if the threat is real or not, so long as the subject perceives it so. I’ve seen hardened gang-kids in a panic because they heard a rustling in the bushes in the wilderness at night. It was usually an armadillo, but they perceived it as a panther, or a T-Rex or something profoundly dangerous. Furthermore, in a social context, the threat may be purely symbolic. I’ve seen young men throw punches based on nothing more than the color of someone’s bandana, the color representing a disdained out-group, a rival gang. The very presence of the bandana was profane and a slight that must be addressed through violence. Yes, these are extreme examples, but they are telling. After all, extremes are just variations of the norm.

Threat and uncertainty abound in our society. Furthermore, hysteria serves the interests of at least two powerful institutions. The conservative movement feeds on fear of “those people” and of a rapidly changing future. It whips up existential threats everywhere, from the War on Christmas to an Invasion of Refugees. It then falls in line behind demagogues who promise safety or law and order. Furthering this hysteria, the media in all of its forms benefits as fear-based tags and titles offer lucrative click-bait opportunities within which to sell advertising. So the union between the conservative movement and the evolution of right-wing media was one made in heaven. The media provides the hysteria, the Republican party, now a wholly owned subsidiary of American conservatism, provides the demagogues. A perfect match.

And a perfect storm for keeping those so inclined in a constant state of hysteria.

So here’s the problem. Once a subject is caught up in a hysterical response to some perceived threat, what recourse is there for reasonable intervention?

Here is what my years of counseling experience have taught me. There is none.

That’s right. None.

So long as a person is caught in the throes of hysteria, there is no reasonable way to intervene. You have to wait them out. You role while the hysterics continue is to first, keep the hysterical individual from hurting themselves and others. Secondly, try to distract the hysterical individual from that which is causing the hysteria. Thirdly, control the environment around the hysterical person so as to minimize any more hysteria causing stimulus. When confronting a hysterical individual, these steps are difficult, but with some training, they are doable. The worst case scenario is that the hysterical individual in question has to be physically restrained until their hysterics have run its course. Hysteria itself does not have a long lifespan. It takes a great deal of energy to maintain, so in most cases, the hysteria can be resolved in a few minutes and you, the counselor, can engage in reasonable discourse once it’s over. But not before.

Okay. That’s the deal with a hysterical individual. How does one deal with a social movement predicated on hysteria and served a constant, self-reinforcing stimulus of fear-infused information? Well, that’s a bit more tricky.

First, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, stop playing into the hysteria. When your right-wing cousin shares a hateful meme, you don’t have to respond in anger. You are not going to convince him. You are not going to convince anyone who might read the meme and agree with it. Your best option, if you feel that you simply must respond on the principle that it’s one’s moral responsibility to respond to hate and ignorance, your best bet is to just post a link that offers a well supported, well-reasoned alternative. That way, anyone who may be unconvinced one way or the other can get the counter-argument. If you engage in argument, you are only going to be frustrated.

It helps to think of your right-wing cousin in terms of hysteria. In which case, he’s more to be pitied than censured. He’s responding out of fear. You may try to let him know that there’s really nothing to be afraid of, but he won’t listen so long as he’s caught in the throes of hysteria.

Secondly, contain the damage. Spend your time talking to people who are willing to listen. It’s especially important to do so with people who are not inclined to agree with you but are not hysterical. Such people exist. They are often among the younger set, but sometimes you will find that older folks with more experience under their belts are also open to discussion. This is especially true of those who are not caught up in the ideological bubbles inflated by internet culture.

I remember talking to one older woman, a widow who was living quite well from the investment in the capital she and her husband made during their youth. She was a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist. She asked me how someone as intelligent as I could fall for socialist nonsense. I offered my standard answer. I’m not a socialist for the same reason I’m not a capitalist. I don’t want those decisions to be made for me. I want to look at the evidence and make up my own mind. If you have a capitalist solution that will work and will not do so at the expense of someone else, then let’s have it. I’m all for it. If there’s a socialist solution that does the same, let’s do it. She rubbed her chin and admitted, “that sounds pretty sensible.” Of course, it was sensible. Framing my position in these terms appealed to her pragmatic, dare I say Protestant, ethic. She may have favored the capitalist arguments, but I was no longer the scary Marxist and we had quite the fruitful conversation.

Unfortunately, this was the last such conversation I’ve had with anyone to the right of center. But I had it, and I can have it again. There are times when I start such a conversation and things go well until the hysteria starts to creep in. Then I bail. Once upon a time, I would try to get the conversation back on track, but no longer. I just don’t have the energy to spend on the fruitless.

Finally, don’t turn your back on the hysterical. Try to direct their attention to the stuff that they do not fear–stuff that does not encourage hysteria. Maybe some non-political topics so they can see that you are not a cardboard cutout Marxist, that your kids play volleyball, and you are proud of your stamp collection–whatever. Politics is important, but it’s not everything.

From there, you can strike up conversations on stuff that you agree with. For instance, both leftists and the American right profess skepticism about government power. We just direct that skepticism differently. Find those areas of overlap that you can develop. Just recently I responded favorably to one of my right-wing friends’ posts on the absurdity of the police stopping people from feeding the hungry because they did not have the appropriate permits or whatever. Wait, my right-wing friend is interested in feeding the homeless. Yes, he is. He just doesn’t want the government to do it with his tax money. I think he’s wrong about this, but he’s not an inhuman monster.

And this knowledge, this interaction, leads to the most important rule of dealing with the hysterical.

Do not become hysterical.

Hysteria is premised in fear and ignorance. The appropriate response is empathy and reason. Being reactionary only makes the situation worse.

I have to remember this when it comes to my country gassing children, or neglecting them to the point of death, or tearing them from their families. These are the tragedies that are perpetuated by the fearful. Anger and retaliatory reactionism serve only two ends: it reinforces the hysteria on the part of the hysterical as he feels under attack, and it increases the likelihood of getting yourself caught in the throes of hysteria. Neither of which helps those children.

Let’s put the hysterics behind us. Support each other and organize. Put the stories out there for all to see. Put the information out there for all who are so inclined to analyze. Hysteria, be it McCarthyism or Trumpism, is a temporary setback to the march of democratic progress. Getting caught up in it only puts that progress off longer.


  1. Perhaps the psychologists have a different, even better term.

5 thoughts on “Managing Social Hysteria

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  1. This is a really useful post. As a sociologist, you’ve heard of the term “moral panic”- it’s my understanding that these were short-lived periods in which the mass media got worked up about delinquents or hippies or punks. In the UK, we now seem to have a permanent panic with a news cycle that changes what we panic about, but the idea is that we are kept in a perpetual state of hysteria. Somebody from Scandinavia suggested that the West is simply over-stimulated. I wondered if you shared my view that it might be possible to talk people out of their hysteria. If somebody is reminded that they were being told to condemn charities a year ago, immigrants at the moment, experts two years ago, and left-leaning politicians all the time then they may realise that the system is simply controlling them to its own advantage? Or do you think that the appropriate attitude was that of Antonio Gramsci:

    “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

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    1. If the use of “hysteria” to model this particular phenomenon is apt, then no, you cannot talk someone out of hysteria. The hysteria must run its course. The best you can do is distract the individual from that which is fueling the hysteria, causing it to burn out quicker. That’s where the “hysteria model” becomes inadequate. How does one direct the attention of an entire subgroup of a population? That’s the trick. And the science seems to be telling us that we must do so in a way that is not perceived as threatening, as that will cause a retrenchment into the hysteria. That’s quite the problem because this hysteria didn’t just happen. It was cultivated by power groups. Any attempt to allay the hysteria will be interpreted, quite rightly, by such groups as a threat. I think your Scandinavian friend has a point. He/she should develop that idea further. What is the cause of this over-stimulation? How do we reduce the stimulation in our lives? But the underlying problem, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that we are over-stimulated, is a sense of threat. And that is what has been cultivated. As for Gramsci, I never advocate for pessimism. Optimism of the will is good. The intellect should be skeptical, but not pessimistic. The intellect should also be subject to skepticism, which is another way to interpret the line that is consistent with Gramsci.

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  2. It had not occurred to me to apply a concept from individual psychology to larger groups. I have to say, that offers a different perspective. I think the ‘wait it out’ and ‘don’t get hysterical’ cautions are particularly useful to remember.

    As the same time, I hesitate to fully embrace monadic models. I would say that’s because I’m a prisoner (as we all are) of my upbringing, but I think you can’t ever lose site of the bigger system. I kind of read Durkheim that way, and in psychology, R.D. Laing said you can’t treat a schizophrenic without treating the family system in which the schizophrenic lives.

    Paul Collier, in ‘The Future of Capitalism’ offers a model that’s worth taking a look at. While it’s one of those economic models that appears too simplistic it stands up to some scrutiny. It also offers the benefit of sharing some of the blame for how we got here not just in the US but across the OECD world.

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    1. All models come with their shortcomings. It’s smart to be skeptical. Understanding society is noisy. The model is used to filter out some of the noise to make it easier to understand. But the noise is part of the structural system. Often, what you gain in clarity you sacrifice in depth, but you can’t forget the depth. I don’t believe the idea of social hysteria is a new idea, though I may be innovating use of the term. You see similar descriptions in analyses of the Red Scare and such. Though I did just Google the phrase and it looks like I’m using the term differently. Google brings up mass hysteria, which I think is a somewhat different thing, more clinical. Of course, using the word “hysteria” also carries some sexist constructs which are not at all my intent. I should probably Google the phrases I use before I write. The bottom line is that, in the historical cases that I use as a comparative, the hysteria didn’t just happen. It was constructed intentionally by groups as a mechanism for empowerment. I think that deserves to be more fully explored.

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      1. Yes, I recognized the structural functionalist underpinnings of what you said. But elites—and I intentionally use the word broadly—have not helped matters much. So I’d prefer a model hat includes them.

        I’m not a fan of explanations that reduce to manipulation (I stipulate I am the one reducing here). I suppose that’s because, professionally, I’ve been running experiments in manipulation for over thirty years. And what I’ve seen is, absent factors already in place, creating any kind of alternative narrative and getting people to act on it is effective mostly at the margins.

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