Cultural Hysteria

hysteriaJust last week, Professor Dirk Moses from University of Sydney wrote an article for the ABC’s religion page, “Western Civilization and Conservative Hysteria”. Unfortunately the good professor succumbed to the very hysteria he abjured by drawing a preposterous, insulting and, to be frank, profoundly stupid link between the ideology of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik and The Australian’s Greg Sheridan and Chris Kenny for their advocacy on behalf of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization, recently rejected by the Australian National University. Professor Moses is editor of the Journal of Genocide (since 2011) and, according to his bio, has written extensively about that subject, memory and global history. One might have thought such an esteemed academic, even allowing that he labours at a university whose slogan is “Unlearn!”, might employ a little caution when accusing others of hysteria. After the resulting outcry and ABC’s post-publication redactions, he might be more careful next time. One lives in hope. 

All that aside, Professor Moses’ intemperate outburst does draw attention to the increase in the hysterical nature of our discussions about culture. Why is it that we have lost the ability to detect and properly use the word “hysteria” to describe individual and cultural reactions which are, for the want of a better word, frankly hysterical? There are some obvious reasons for this; but, without the right word, you can’t name the phenomenon. And there is a price to be paid for failing to detect it and for taking actions in public life based on its derivatives: the theatrical and the absurd.

The first objection is the sexist derivation of the word. Its Greek roots (Hysterika) reference the wandering uterus as a cause for women’s unfathomable ailments. That all ailments were unfathomable at that time is beside the point. However, as a curious aside (and medical types will know this), even to this day the internal peregrinations of the lining of that same uterus (the endometrium) are sometimes mistakenly diagnosed as the cause of undifferentiated pelvic and abdominal pain. This is the ubiquitous diagnosis of ‘endometriosis’.  Is there some irony in the phenomenology of the somatization of sexual abuse being misdiagnosed as endometriosis — literally the wanderings of the lining of the womb?

Hysteria is also unfairly used to caricature femininity, to mock protest or expressions of dissent by women. Many will recall the “I’m an anarcho-syndicalist/libertarian communist. Do you need me to explain the difference to you?” commentator Van Badham’s hysterical reaction to be called hysterical by conservative commentator Steve Price on Q&A, arguably the most hysterical show on television.

The use of the démodé terminology of psychosomatics to pathologise dissident politics is a particular concern. For psychiatry has such an ugly history of using pseudoscience for political suppression it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest it has been almost ‘genocidally’ complicit in some of the worst excesses of the twentieth century. So we must proceed with caution.

In respectable medical circles ‘hysteria’ is now hardly ever used, having lost a large part of its nosological remit to the term ‘conversion disorder’, which loosely means psychological stress manifest as physical symptoms. Hysterical blindness, for instance, describes people who cannot see, despite there being no discernible pathology of the visual system. Hysterical paraplegia is being unable to walk when there is nothing wrong with the spinal cord and legs.

In personality psychology, ‘hysterical personality’ found its reification as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (the DSM, currently in its fifth iteration), as Histrionic Personality Disorder. This category encompasses a grab-bag of symptoms and descriptors: shallow, rapidly shifting exaggerated emotions, chaotic inappropriate attempts at intimacy, self dramatization and attention-seeking, a provocative demeanor and so forth. In the extreme (as a diagnosable ‘disorder’, although as a singular diagnosis it would be very rare), these people can be very difficult to get on with and quite destructive. It goes without saying, that it has been quite properly criticised for its sexist bias.

Mass hysteria, a concept closer to our colloquial understanding of the word, is a contagious variant of the medical model, where the symptoms are mimicked and transmitted, one person to another, again in the absence of a satisfactory physical explanation. Here are some well-known examples:

•          In 1983, over 900 people were hospitalised in the West Bank fainting epidemic. Israelis and Palestinians accused each other of poison gas attacks. It is subsequently believed that the whole thing was psychosomatic.

•          In May 2001 the monkey-man of Delhi, a strange furry simian creature with a metal helmet and glowing red eyes terrorised the population of the Indian capital. People presented to hospitals with scratches and two people died leaping from buildings to escape the non-existent but nonetheless terrifying fiend.

•          Even earlier, the Dancing Plague of 1518 in Strasbourg, caused people to start spontaneously dancing under the spell of a mysterious contagion. Up to 400 people were allegedly caught up in the dance, some of them dancing for days and dying from exhaustion.

•          The infamous 1692 Salem Witch Trials started with young girls convulsing and generally behaving oddly, children barking like dogs and cantering around on ‘aerial steeds’, shrieking with a terrible pain as if they were pierced by needles. For the false explanation — the crime of witchcraft — twenty people, mostly women, were murdered.

•          Closer to our time, in 2015, forty school students fainted at a Remembrance Day service in London, some receiving concussions and other soft tissue injuries.  No cause was found. Mass fainting epidemics are common.

•          More subtle but at least as damaging, the repetitive-strain-injury (RSI) epidemic of the 1980s saw perfectly reasonable people become crippled with pain that prevented them holding knives and forks, requiring them to wear supportive braces to work — if they could go to work at all, that is — and all from spending too much time at their keyboards.

•          Unknown numbers of children are home-schooled on bizarre restrictive diets because they are allergic to unspecified antigens in normal food, water and even the air we breathe. Their symptoms may be provoked by something as subtle as bad behaviour three days after eating pizza, or after walking through the paint and solvents’ aisle in Bunnings.

Obviously, any action taken on the basis of the false connections between feelings, symptoms and causation in situations like these: class-action suits for achy forearms, burning women at the stake, banning ungainly dancing, killing red-eyed mechanical monkeys or wearing gas masks in Bunnings would be unwise.

But what about the softer (and not so soft) variants of these things in modern public life. Is there a legitimate use for the word to describe not just psychological but psychosocial reactions that are so out of all proportion to the problem, or defy reality to such a degree, that the reaction cannot be causally understood in reference to the particular problem. Postmodern sludge has made this task difficult, but we can still make out enough blue sky to say something sensible.

The postmodern rejoinder to accusations of an hysterical overreaction reaction is usually of the  if-only-you’d-walked-a-mile-in-his/her-shoes ilk. That is, if you truly understood the particular psychosocial context of the reaction you would not be so quick to judge. It also implies that he or she is a real person and that they have shoes, neither of which can be taken for granted.

Imagine this: a man starts crying in a kind of childish rage upon overhearing someone else being called a coward. You rush to comfort him, dry his tears, all the while slightly puzzled at what appears to be his excessive sensitivity. But what if we learn, between sobs, that he is the unacknowledged (and highly improbable) bastard son of Noël Coward and that the psychic causality is that hearing someone else being called a coward reminds him that he is not one, which is the true source of his pain. His problem lies in the intersectionality of queer theory, homophones and proper nouns — not identification with the spectacularly un-brave. Mr Coward Jr from the wrong side of the blanket is not over-reacting, he is simply being hysterical.

Another example: your 19-year-old son, let’s call him Matthew, decides to travel overseas and picket the Mediterranean summer sailing regattas in support of his campaign for gender quotas in competitive sailing, despite never having been in a boat or knowing anyone who has. Doubtless a worthy cause, so does it matter who prosecutes it, even if his motivation is very unusual? As a parent it would be ridiculous not to question his motives and sanity. “You’re being hysterical, Matthew”, would be a reasonable response. Even so, Matthew is entitled to his cause. It might be better to buy his plane ticket to St Tropez and hope he meets some actual sailing girls, rather than see him spend all his time in his room, playing computer games, smoking dope and writing his blog. Matthew only becomes a nuisance, for competitive mariners at least, when he wants the entry rules changed because the absence of quotas causes him personal psychological agony.

Yes, the above examples are unlikely. But who would have predicted the boys and girls (unhelpfully called ‘garbage babies’ by some in the conservative commentariat) cuddling together on the lawns of their university, having a ‘cry-in’ after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Surely they are welcome to a hug and to weep, and as long as they keep the noise down and practise good hygiene with their tears and snot, we should let them be. But this is hysteria by any other name. It is also exhibitionism. The two are very closely allied.

These are privileged college kids, having barely faced a practical, let alone an existential problem (a word that should never be used by the under-30s), and most of them don’t know anything about domestic, let alone global, politics. There may well be people who had cause to weep at Trump’s election victory — Hillary Clinton for one — but not these kids. A step up in the cost and consequences of hysterical behaviour, are the ‘no-platforming’ kids: those who shout “safety” over and again at the front of lecture halls, drown-out invited speakers, anonymously threaten violence and cause speaking-events to be cancelled and trigger fire alarms resulting in venues being evacuated. Or worse, chase and injure invited guests and other students. Or, like the Berkeley nutters, go on a vandalism spree.

Having never actually been unsafe, or had any credible contact with people who have genuinely been unsafe, or met with people who have suffered psychological distress, they chant their slogans with the passion of survivors of the pogroms. This is hysterical nonsense. I spend my professional life with emotionally damaged people and I have never met anyone injured by hate-speakers.  The causes of distress for real people are, I’m afraid, much more prosaic.

In other words, these people demonstrate or assert symptoms, often as proxies for imaginary others, to the extent that they sob uncontrollably or chant slogans they cannot explain, engage in civil and criminal disobedience or even assault people they have never met, and they do this on the basis of ideas they can barely express and an empathic urgency they do not, because they cannot, legitimately possess. Surely this is cultural hysteria. Is it really that far removed from the Monkey Man of Delhi?

Like true hysteria, there is a cause for their distress, but it is not what they imagine. The no-platformers and the so-called anti-hate-speech activists have not seen, let alone are they possessed, of the ability to distinguish structural/societal/culturally mediated injury from the more prosaic but just as invisible real causes of brokenness and profound psychological dysfunction. Micro-agressions, insults and unconscious bias, the things they read about on the Internet and are taught about in college, do not cause the dysfunction of their fevered dreams.

Closer to home, young people who have grown up in modern Australia have had, for the most part, very little if any experience of discrimination of the real sort at the hands of their supposed tormentors (who just happen to look a lot like their parents). What of some of our indigenous activists: too young, too white, too well educated; never without food and friends and with all of their material and healthcare needs met in abundance. No credible or substantial indigenous genetic history, no indigenous language, no culture other than a cringing repetition of the word. Yet how they howl, and scream and wail. For the destruction of the Australian nation, no less. Change the date! Invasion Day!

How is it possible at 24, to have had such an unexceptional life, an unexceptional heritage; bar, in the saddest cases, the most ordinarily awful failures of parenting, and to have become so specifically enraged. The only possible explanation for this specificity, this pin-point diagnosis of hurt, is the transmission of cultural hysteria in the form of horror stories, some likely to be true, of the dispossession and murder of ancient, genetically distanced ancestors. Those they so ostentatiously mourn were as culturally alien from their modern selves as is possible to be. Representation (by proxy) of one dead idea against another idea of the living dead is a fertile ground for the foment of hysterical thinking.

The worst brokenness and sense of “un-safety” that afflicts students and hipster inner-city suburbanites — a category which encompasses academics, journalists and the entire voting base of The Greens — has nothing to do with the broad brush ‘isms’ beloved of the university left. The appalling poverty, addiction and violence of some notable indigenous communities, for instance, however they started, are now well and truly maintained by the broken brains of broken parents. The traumatised brain is the cause of the epidemic of degradation and failure. Not bias, nor bigotry but the inability of the unparented or traumatised human to hold him or herself together long enough and often enough to avoid abject individual disintegration.

Keeping kids in unsatisfactory family situations with disintegrated adults, and doing so on the basis of hysterical rants about “country” and “culture”, is a perfect example of a non-solution stemming from the failure to call out cultural hysteria. People lucky enough to have been loved, nurtured and spared the trauma of extreme family violence and sexual abuse cannot begin to understand why many of those who have not been so fortunate can’t make it through the day without a drink, or a fight, or with no concern about where the kids are at midnight. They are unlikely to read to their children stories or supervise homework.

Who amongst us doesn’t know something of how hard it is to get a job, to turn up every day, on time, not just for weeks or months, but for years; long enough to pay a mortgage, to hold it together just enough of the time to stay in a relationship, to not lose your temper too often through the stress of a thousand decisions and uncertainty, the drudgery of monogamy and the endless tedium of child raising. A thousand decisions, judgements, prioritising food, sleep, managing to keep a lid on your addictions, so that your appetite for sex, booze, cigarettes, your aggression, jealousy and despair, doesn’t end up — like the cocaine addicted rats who will press the delivery mechanism over and over again until they die of fatigue or starvation — in pressing the self-destruct button in midlife, deserting partners, kids, community. There are no ‘isms’ here friends.

Cultural hysteria is a curiosity only up until individuals or groups of people want to take action based on their beliefs. An aggrieved Bill or Beryl marching to ‘change the date’ because of her cultural ‘hurt’ each and every Australia Day since she turned 47 and realised her culture had been invaded by Captain Cook and the latter day Bundy Rum Corps is mostly harmless. However, give her a ministry and the portfolio of Indigenous Affairs and she will be a positive menace. Their son shouting himelf hoarse to silence Milo Yiannopoulos is cute in a one-day-he’ll-grow-up sort of way. But blackmailing-by-lawyer a couple of white kids who walk into an apartheid computer lab is way beyond his pale.

We must call out hysteria whenever we see it. Because, if we’re not careful, we’ll see a day when highly educated magazine editors cross out anglicised versions of Aboriginal words, hitherto unknown by the majority of the readership until googled by an indignant few, and become arch offenders in the eyes of legions summoned by the invitation and opportunity to be noticed, to howl, and to nurtutre the precious grievances that are the catalysts for the release and abandon of glorious, unrestrained hysteria.

Where will we be then, I wonder? Probably not too far from where we are already.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane psychiatrist

2 thoughts on “Cultural Hysteria

  • johanna says:

    Great article.

    As Dr Walters points out, what is so infuriating is to see the sons and daughters of privilege acting out like toddlers over nothing. Nothing bad has happened to them personally; they have not been deprived of anything; they haven’t got a clue what real trouble even looks like, let alone feels like.

    No doubt Dr Walters has had plenty of patients who have real, not imaginary, troubles, so I can see where he is coming from as a practitioner.

    In the political context, the unwillingness of our invertebrate politicians to call this nonsense out is one of the reasons why politicians are so distrusted by the community. There is a vast, untapped bedrock of common sense out there which they choose to ignore in favour of the whingers and the perpetually outraged and dissatisfied minority.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Since you bring up the Salem Witch Trials, need to point out the existence of ‘witch cakes’ – a primitive but nonetheless effective way of determining if the subject was suffering from ergot poisoning (ie LSD). Before modern food storage techniques, this was an ongoing and serious problem – and yes, the local herbalists could poison someone if they so chose.

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