The phenomenon of mass hysteria


It’s been 11 years since the terrible atrocity carried out on the 11th of September 2001. For some, even the mere mention of the numbers nine and eleven in the same sentence spark a powerful emotional response.

But without undermining the gravity and great sadness of what happened, if we personally did not loose anyone to the attacks, why do we hold this date in such reverence? The 14th of August is not held in the same esteem. Do you even know what happened then? … Hiroshima, 1945… I have no doubt that many know that it was in 1945 but I suspect few would know the exact date. To the point, we do not know the Hiroshima atrocity carried out by America as 8-14 even though far more civilians perished.

In fact 9-11 has begun to be treated with a sort of hysterical irreverence. Many a time I have heard, “Where were you on September 11th?”… Well, what has that got to do with anything!? It has become a “mass hysteria” not unlike that elicited from the media when Diana, Princess of Wales died. There was even a song that became cliché after only a week of being aired on the television. All the crying, sobbing, blubbering, and carrying on, was it genuine? No doubt Diana did many good things for child victims of land mines and many others benefited from her kindness, but how many people wept profusely and publicly in the street when Mother Theresa passed away a week later. Reflect on the fickle nature of humanity…

The Two Minutes Silence held at 11 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of each year prompts everyone in the UK to stand still and ‘reflect’. Reflect on what may I ask (again not in any way underestimating the importance of such a remembrance.) It is a very important thing to remember, but do we know why? One lady was so upset that a young boy continued to ride his skateboard, that she actually broke the silence herself in order to strongly reprimand the boy. “How dare you disrespect what they did for us in the War. People died for your freedom,” she said. The Silence is a subtle form of mass-hysteria (or more accurately mass-emotion) because it is merely a ceremony that seems to have completely lost its meaning for all but a small amount of senior citizens and a scatter of appreciative others. For most people it is just a meaningless ritual that must be carried out every year because it is expected of them. In some ways it reminds me of the Orwellian Two-Minutes-Hate (perhaps more accurately the “Two-Minutes-Love)…

If you have read the book ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell, you will no doubt be familiar with the notion of mass hysteria. Under the oppressive regime of The Ingsoc Party, Britain (or Airstrip One as it is referred to in the book) is caught up in a hysterical whirlwind of hate for the enemy and love for it’s political leader Big Brother (the origin of the now clichéd term). Every day, the citizens of Oceania are brought together to carry out the aforementioned Two Minute Hate. This consists of shouting abuse at one of the enemies of the government. Here is a short excerpt from the book:

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The [Two Minutes] Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. The little sandy-haired woman gave a squeak of mingled fear and disgust. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago, nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death, and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared. The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even—so it was occasionally rumoured—in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.

Winston’s diaphragm was constricted. He could never see the face of Goldstein without a painful mixture of emotions. 

[…Goldstein] was abusing Big Brother, he was denouncing the dictatorship of the Party, he was demanding the immediate conclusion of peace with Eurasia, he was advocating freedom of speech, freedom of the Press, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, he was crying hysterically that the revolution had been betrayed—and all this in rapid polysyllabic speech which was a sort of parody of the habitual style of the orators of the Party.

While our society has not reached such a blatant level of hysteria, we are constantly bombarded by images and phrases deliberately designed to induce mass hysteria. We follow the crowd, we do things because they are expected of us without appreciating their true meaning. We are heavily influenced by the media. Take this small example:

“Allied troops liberated Iraq and sustained collateral damage through use of highly advanced targeting systems.”

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence you might say. But try translating it into “English”; try to understand what really happened.

“American war troops invaded Iraq and killed innocent men, women and children in a brutal bombing campaign.”

The sad thing is that neither Winston the protagonist of 1984, nor the people actually knew why they hated Goldstein so much and what he had done that was so wrong. In fact if you read the last paragraph again, he was advocating what we would think are extremely desirable things; peace, freedom of speech, of thought, of assembly, and of the Press. The people didn’t even stop to think about the real meaning behind his words, they merely did what they were told.

Mass hysteria can affect us all, especially in these days of ubiquitous mass-media. Songs by artists whom most people would dismiss as talentless, are now reaching the top ten, simply because of a media onslaught on our senses. There is no accounting for taste, but a lot of the popular songs we listen to sound very similar to other songs which the same people will dismiss as rubbish. Young people are especially susceptible to following the crowd like sheep, but it is a phenomenon that we experience even among the more mature. We hear the song and we are not able to say whether we like it or not until a commentator with an ulterior motive tells us how good it is. We have lost our own sense of judgement.

I invite all who read this to reflect on the power of mass hysteria in your own life…

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