Contagion: mass hysteria & misinformation

I was pondering writing about mass hysteria, before the great toilet paper panic hoarding movement of 2020. It’s an interesting phenomenon, across history and today, and the reason I think it’s so interesting, is the way that many individual minds can seemingly join as one.

A crowd sharing one mind and one movement and one goal, can quickly slip into a situation where, actually, nobody is in control. I always wonder about this idea of ‘shared movement’ when people are trampled or crushed in a crowd. See, one person couldn’t trample somebody else, but when all of a sudden hundreds of people step together and push forward, their strength can’t be matched. When any number of the people in the crowd push back, they can’t seem to overcome the strength of the rest, and I always wonder: who is still pushing forward?

One intriguing and troubling case of it, was the Salem witch trials. The shared public fear of witches led people to prosecute their neighbours and friends, and to some even believing they themselves were guilty. When I think it over, I sometimes catch myself wondering what number were truly guilty, before I realise: literally none were guilty (unless you believe in witches, but that’s your business). The power of the hive mind and of fear, transcends any logic.

It’s interesting to consider how a sense of fear can direct our thoughts and actions – how quickly we turn against each other – how quickly we condemn those around us, to save ourselves.

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, is a really wonderful play about the witch trials and mass hysteria. Not only is it an interesting dip into the lives and choices of the young women of Salem, it’s also a powerful allegory for the dangers of McCarthyism in the 1940s and ’50s in the US. As fear and tensions built, dangerous and (often) baseless accusations were being made, the accused were assumed guilty, and the trials held expectations to confess. Miller’s portrayal of the witch trials held a mirror to his own society, to mass hysteria, to the dangers of turning on each other in fear. It’s also a reminder that history repeats itself.

Today, a lot of people are becoming fearful because of COVID-19, or Coronavirus. I’m not a scientist or a doctor, and I’m not here to tell you if it is or isn’t a big deal. All I can say on the matter, is that fear won’t keep us safe. Laying blame and looking upon our community members with fear or resentment, will not help. Assuming that some people are safe or not safe, or innocent or guilty, will not help.

There are lessons to be taken from what we’re experiencing currently. My great take away, is the overwhelming power of the media. I already had a good idea of it, to be fair, following the reporting of the Australian bushfires and the drought (among many other events and issues). Still, it is incredible how an un-researched segment on the news can send a nation into a spiral, and how harmful rhetoric in the media is soaked up into the way people treat each other at the shop, or at work, or in class. If the media chose to care about the climate crisis, the whole world would have shared in a panic, and then found a solution. Hundreds, to thousands, to millions of people turned on Meghan Markle when the media told them to, and turned on the Greens party because they were easy to blame, and bought sixteen years worth of 2 ply TP and couldn’t share it with a neighbour, because they think they’ve earned their supply.

It’s to be expected that there is a mass influence from the mass media. It’s not inherently terrible, but it requires us to place a lot of trust in the media, and I don’t think most media is reliable enough to have our trust. It follows, then, that I don’t think that individuals are necessarily to blame for believing untrue information, when it seems to come from somewhere reputable, such as the evening news. We’re all potentially victims of misinformation, but we can fight back by engaging with media actively. Engage with sources with integrity, with journalists who research and report on truth, with experts rather than over-opinionated under-studied media personalities.

While I find that misinformation can catch the best of us, know that if you are using the current global events as a justification for racism, you are wrong, and you own your own actions. If it’s a justification for extreme and unusual consumer behaviour, like hoarding toilet paper, know that your actions leave others without. Know that if you can buy 18 months worth now, you do so with the privilege not afforded to people with a lower income, or a bigger family, or ill health, or limited mobility. Buying a bit extra is completely understandable and reasonable. Buying 742 rolls for a family of four, isn’t.

One of the scariest things about COVID-19, is the way the community has split and divided. It’s the way that lots of people have become unkind and selfish. With pressure and fear, people are not revealing their resilience, but their prejudice and their singular goal of self preservation.

The word ‘contagious’ used to refer to morals and ideas. A contagious idea was corrupting and moved quickly, and changed the way masses of people communicated and acted. Today, ‘contagious’ refers to disease and illness, but so far, 2020 has proven that nothing has changed. There is a deadly disease that has spread further and faster than COVID-19, and will linger for much longer, and it’s called fear, prejudice, misinformation. Talk is a contagion, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to isolate the immoral and unkind ideas, and move forward with solutions.

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