The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Mass Hysteria

We're living in a chaotic political environment. Otherwise stable individuals are claiming that: (1) the elected president of the United States colluded with the Russians to ensure the defeat of his opponent; (2) that he is also an outright racist and supporter of white supremacist groups; (3) that he is a war monger for taking a tough stand against North Korea—a belligerent adversary; (4) that he is anti-immigrant because he has suggested that our borders be protected and that those who immigrate to the United States from hotbeds of Islamic terror be very carefully vetted before being allowed entry; (5) that he is trying to "kill" millions of Americans by suggesting that failing health care legislation (created by Democrats) requires replacement; (6) that his suggestion that the economic interests of the United States should take priority over the interests of those with whom we trade makes him a xenophobe, and (7) that the 60-plus million people who voted for this president are deplorables of the worst sort.

Scott Adams tries to analyze the cause for all of this:
A mass hysteria happens when the public gets a wrong idea about something that has strong emotional content and it triggers cognitive dissonance that is often supported by confirmation bias. In other words, people spontaneously hallucinate a whole new (and usually crazy-sounding) reality and believe they see plenty of evidence for it. The Salem Witch Trials are the best-known example of mass hysteria. The McMartin Pre-School case and the Tulip Bulb hysteria are others. The dotcom bubble probably qualifies.
More progressive readers of this blog may be 'triggered' by my opening paragraph because they fervently see nothing (and I mean nothing) the least bit concerning about the seven points I raise. These aren't claims, they argue, they're hard, irrefutable truths that anyone with an ounce of decency, common sense, and morality will agree to.

But is it possible that those same progressive readers are suffering from a case of mass hysteria? How would they know? Adams comments:
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.
And therein lies the road to chaos. That's why innocent people were executed by hanging during the Salem Witch trials. That's why everyday people were wrongly accused of the most heinous child abuse during the McMartin episode.

But maybe progressives are right in their claims of racism, war mongering, anti-immigrant bias, Islamophobia, accusations of homicide, and xenophobia. And those who suggest that it is mass hysteria are actually the ones suffering from mass hysteria. How on earth can one tell?

First Scott Adams provides some background:
On November 8th of 2016, half the country 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 were under the impression they were smart people who understood their country, and politics, and how things work in general. When Trump won, they learned they were wrong. They were so very wrong that they reflexively (because this is how all brains work) rewrote the scripts they were seeing in their minds until it all made sense again. The wrong-about-everything crowd decided that the only way their world made sense, with their egos intact, is that either the Russians helped Trump win or there are far more racists in the country than they imagined, and he [Trump] is their king. Those were the seeds of the two mass hysterias we witness today.
He then goes on to suggest the walks-like-a-duck argument. If you compare a past crazy accusation (e.g., the charge that women in Salem were witches) to another crazy accusation (e.g., the evidence free charge that Trump is under the thrall of Vladimir Putin) and you argue that one is indeed crazy but the other is not, you may indeed be a victim of mass hysteria. If something sounds outright crazy (or at the very least highly improbable), but many people are absolutely certain that it's true, there's a problem at hand.

Adams further suggests that if you listen to relatively innocuous comments in a way that allows you to derive the most negative interpretation possible and then given your interpreation, ascribe the most heinous character traits to the person making those comments, you're suffering from confirmation bias at best and more likely mass hysteria. Donald Trump is clumsy with his language and imprecise in his statements. That's a problem. He's even clumsier in his political judgement, and that's also a problem. But when he condemned "all sides" in the Charlottesville riots, he was not proclaiming his allegiance to white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, or any other alt-Right group. He correctly implied that despite the heinous nature of those right-wing groups there were alt-Left groups in Charlottesville (e.g., the so-called antifa) that were also aggressively violent. If millions believe that equates to support for the alt-Right, there may be mass hysteria at work.*

Adams adds still another characteristic that might indicate mass hysteria:
It would be hard to overreact to a Nazi murder, or to racists marching in the streets with torches. That stuff demands a strong reaction. But if a Republican agrees with you that Nazis are the worst, and you threaten to punch that Republican for not agreeing with you exactly the right way, that might be an oversized reaction.
In fact, if every syllable of every statement is parsed for the smallest flaw that could be interpreted in a way that presents the speaker in the worst possible light, and then that flaw is discussed for days and days with emotion rising by the day, there's a clear indication that hysteria, not clear thinking, has come into play.

Sure, Donald Trump has many faults and I suppose it's possible that he is a Russian stooge, a racist, a war monger, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, a murderer (via Obamacare repeal), and a xenophobe all at the same time. It's also possible that the 14 women who were executed in Salem Massachusetts in 1693 were actually witches.

But it's also possible that both instances are examples of mass hysteria. In fact, it's more than possible, it's probable.

*  As an aside, white supremacists who proclaim Nazi allegiance support an historical evil that took the lives of between 40 and 60 million innocent people. Hard-left antifa adherents who proclaim that they are Maoist or Stalinist support a different historical evil that took the lives of at least 20 to 40 million innocents. It would seem reasonable, on the face of it, to condemn both groups, would it not?