Cultural commentary

A recent op-ed column in the NYT from David Brooks, who fancies himself a critic of the sociocultural scene, on hysterical responses to Ebola: “The Quality of Fear: What the Ebola Crisis Reveals About Culture” on October 21st, beginning:

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.

The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.

Here we get the trope of Decline — things are getting worse, as hysteria and paranoia spread — combined with the claim of Recency — the decline has been steep recently — all of this, according to Brooks, explained by a social change: the fragmentation of American society as social, cultural, and political groups isolate themselves from one another.

Now, Decline and Recency are, in principle, testable matters. And since Brooks presents himself as a fan of work in social science (he occasionally publishes summaries of social-science research he finds significant, or at least thought-provoking), you’d expect him to provide evidence for Decline and Recency in social hysteria, but no: like so many cultural commenters he merely retails his subjective impressions as truths, and then conjures up an explanation for them.

(Decline and Recency have long traditions in commentary on linguistic matters from non-linguists: English is in decline — the language is threatened — and many offending usages are perceived to be recent inventions, regardless of the truth. More generally, many cultural commenters retail their subjective impressions about language use with no evidence whatever; see, for example, Mark Liberman’s Language Log postings taking down claims about the egocentricity of Barack Obama’s language.)

There’s no question that hysteria and paranoia about Ebola are abroad in the land, and it makes sense for a cultural commenter to deplore these and to urge against them. But has hysteria in general been increasing, and if so, is the increase especially marked recently? These are dubious ideas indeed.

Hysterias have a long history, some of it detailed in various editions of Mackay on the madness of crowds, From Wikipedia:

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is a history of popular folly by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, first published in 1841. The book chronicles its subjects in three parts: “National Delusions”, “Peculiar Follies”, and “Philosophical Delusions”. Despite its journalistic and rather sensational style, the book has gathered a body of academic support as a work of considerable importance in the history of social psychology and psychopathology.
The subjects of Mackay’s debunking include economic bubbles, alchemy, crusades, witch-hunts, prophecies, fortune-telling, magnetisers (influence of imagination in curing disease), shape of hair and beard (influence of politics and religion on), murder through poisoning, haunted houses, popular follies of great cities, popular admiration of great thieves, duels, and relics.

Well before Ebola hysteria, there was massive, frightening AIDS hysteria in the 1980s. Remember Ryan White, expelled from middle school because of his HIV infection, acquired through blood transfusion? And there were many nastier events. Then there was the day-care child-abuse hysteria surrounding the McMartin Preschool case, also in the 1980s. And numerous other “moral panics” over the years. I don’t know how you could quantify these phenomena, but I see no reason to think that they’ve been increasing, much less sharply increasing recently. David Brooks just wanted a hook to hang a complaint about social isolation these days on. Shame on him.

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