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How to spot the next mania Each new panic follows the same playbook


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Unheard

Lionel Shriver
April 8, 2024

In the late Eighties and Nineties, the psychiatric profession became infatuated with “recovered memory”, which was conceived in the US but also captivated Europe, including Britain. Practitioners claimed that patients sexually abused as children would naturally repress any recollection of their suffering as too painful, but therapists could employ specialised techniques to retrieve these terrible experiences and so heal the patients’ trauma. As a profusion of books, articles and documentaries cultivated a larger cultural fascination, the recovered memory juggernaut resulted in countless adults “remembering” early childhood abuse, usually by parents. Patients would exhume recollections of having been subject to parental rape or oral sex when they were babies. Accusations followed. Families were torn apart.

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Within the astonishingly short time frame of 10 years, I count four real-life collective crazes: transgenderism, #MeToo, Covid lockdowns (which spawned sub-crazes over masks and vaccines), and Black Lives Matter. I also worry we’re already in the grip of social mania number five.

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The social mania displays a few consistent characteristics. First and foremost, it never seems like a social mania at the time. In the thick of a widespread preoccupation, its precepts simply seem like the truth. Trans women are women; get over it. Or: masculinity is toxic; virtually all women have been subject to sexual torment and male abuse of power; regarding any accusations they make, no matter how far-fetched or petty, women must be believed. Or: Covid-19 is so lethal, and such a threat to our endurance as a species, that we’ve no choice but to shut down our whole economies and abdicate our every civil liberty to contain the disease. Or: all Western countries are “systemically racist”; all white people are genetically racist; the police are all racist (even if they’re black) and should be defunded or abolished; the only remedy for “structural racism” is anti-meritocratic, over-compensatory racial quotas in hiring and education.

While the seeds of a mania have often been planted earlier, for most ordinary people it comes out of nowhere. Transgenderism rocketed to a cultural fetish over a matter of  months. After one fully fledged creep was exposed as a serial sex abuser, #MeToo spread on Twitter like potato blight. Literally overnight, citizenries in March 2020 took it for granted that their “liberal democracies” could justifiably deny them freedom of movement, assembly, association, press and even speech, while many became eager enforcers of the chaotic, despotic, and sometimes positively silly new regime. It took only a few days for George Floyd’s death to trigger huge protest marches all over the world. This hyperbolic response to a single undeserved killing in a one mid-sized American city was partially fed by the pent-up frustrations of whole populations under house arrest during Covid. But for Koreans to troop down the streets of Seoul chanting, “Black lives matter!” when the country has hardly any black people was insensible. Likewise, Britons chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” when their constabulary is unarmed. Moreover, all these recent examples illustrate how moral panics have become more international in scope than ever before.

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Once manias die down, most people pretend they never believed these things to begin with. Having contracted Covid five or six times post-vaccination, multiply boosted mRNA fanatics aren’t prone to advertise their vicious denunciation of the unvaccinated only two or three years ago — any more than recovered memory patients are inclined to advertise that they destroyed their relationship with their parents over an erroneous psychiatric fad. We like to think that we’re “modern” (and what peoples in the present have ever fancied themselves otherwise?) and that we base our beliefs on fact. But we’re just as prey to mass delusions as we ever were.

Accordingly, how’s this for mania number five. It isn’t a mania; it’s just the truth: *check*. It’s suddenly all anyone in the media seems to talk about, and they use all the same language: *check*. It’s powered by emotion: *check*. It brooks no dissent, refuses to acknowledge there’s even a debate to be had, and doghouses all sceptics as evil “deniers” who will bring about the end of world: *check*. It’s malign, getting increasingly extreme, and is driven by the very best of intentions: *Check, check, check*. I’m not about to get into the argument here, but the escalating hysteria over climate change — or the climate “emergency”, climate “crisis”, or climate “collapse” — displays all the markers, does it not?

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Top Comment


J Bryant
12 hours ago

Great essay. My only minor disagreement is that climate hysteria is one of the original manias of the modern age, not the most recent, and seems to be outlasting the author’s other examples.
I view these manias as a form of cultural neurosis that occurs in affluent, though economically stagnant, societies where people lack fundamental beliefs that animate their lives (as religions used to), and there are no new frontiers to conquer (sorry, the internet doesn’t count). There is no useful outlet for people’s natural energy and inherent tendency to compete, so we create monsters to slay.

 

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