When One’s Bubble Starts Collapsing: The Psychological Unwinding of a Moral Panic

As the evidence mounts that the COVID-19 hysteria was an overreaction, for those who have invested tremendous emotional energy in virtue signaling and scolding others—extreme social distancing measures have become articles of faith in what amounts to a cult of safety—seeing friends change their opinion or challenge the opinions of cult members on the basis of facts and logic is so distressing that a pattern of strategic unfriending unfolds. I’m watching the process in real time. This is what happens when a community of zealots sees members of the congregation leaving the faith or realizes that friends were never fellow travelers. Since articles of faith are the most important things in the world to them, giving them meaning and status in a largely imagined community, those who would dissent from the articles of faith become intolerable in their presence. It’s not enough to unfollow them. Excommunication is the only course of action. From their bubblized worldview, this is banishment. They are powerful in their conviction. Now their room is clean.

It’s fascinating to watch the psychology of the unwinding of a moral panic play out on social media. As the evidence mounts that the COVID-19 hysteria was an overreaction, for those who invested tremendous emotional energy in virtue signaling and scolding others—extreme social distancing measures have become articles of faith in what amounts to a cult of safety and petite snobbery—seeing friends change their opinion or challenge the opinion of cult members on the basis of facts and logic is so distressing that a pattern of strategic unfriending and blocking unfolds.

I’m watching an unwinding unfold in real time. Not just on my Facebook page. It’s happening to my wife, as well. She has a different circle of friends, but the unfrienders and blockers have something in common—they share a faith: passion for the Democratic Party and an affinity for progressive politics.

The reaction is typical of a community of zealots when members of the congregation leave the faith or the realization sets in that friends and colleagues were never fellow travelers. Since the articles of faith are the most important things in the world to the self-righteous, giving them meaning and status in a largely imagined community, those who would dissent from them are intolerable in their presence. 

It’s not enough to merely unfollow. Excommunication is prescribed. From their bubblized worldview, unfriending and blocking amounts to banishing—they are cleansing. Mighty in their convictions, their room is clean. From the point of view of the vanquished, the zealots are fleeing, chanting slogans with their fingers plugging their ears. They’re gone before the fun begins.

You’d think for all their talk of justice, liberation, and popular democracy these progressives would resist extreme measures that hurt ordinary people. How does a cult of safety and petite snobbery come from the professed ideals articulated and values expressed? There are two psychological pulls that make it easy to manipulate progressives into supporting lockdowns.

The first pull stems from emotional need, the need to scold (self-righteousness) and to virtue signal (self-importance). You might recognize these as the characteristics of the authoritarian personality—conformism and narcissism. Despite the appeal to freedom, progressives fear it—they seek to escape from it—because it opens up space for disagreement. And those who disagree with the progressive articles of faith are not merely wrong; they are immoral and dangerous.

The progressive is an identitarian, and the identitarian’s world is built on imaginary structures of intersecting oppressions. The disagreeable don’t merely hold a contrary opinion. They’re up to no good. In their postmodern view of things, power and feelings—not reason, not facts—control discourse. It therefore follows that discourse is a reflection of power and emotion. The only truth is their doctrine; others who do not adhere to it are apostates or heretics. It’s like any fundamentalist religion. The contrary opinion cannot be considered because it is destructive and oppressive.

The virtue signaling piece is straightforward. Like mass marchers wearing knitted pink pussy hats, the quarantiners and their homemade masks (which they either wear around the house or at least while posing for the selfies they hope will be showered with likes) are the easy signs of wokeness. (This is why, by the way, progressives are so enamored by the hijab. The hijab is a blatant sign of belonging to an imagined community of relative truth. So enamored are they by this sign that some Muslims and their allies have set aside a day of ritual sharing where allies can wear hijabs, too. Are they praying that the ritual will be conducted virtually next swing around the sun? If they go full burqa they won’t even have to wear their masks. Are pussy hats haram?)

The second pull involves a human totem: Donald Trump. The president is the folk devil of their myopic moral universe. The ritual loathing of Trump is so pathological that economic collapse and widespread suffering are acceptable if these discredit the president and hurt his chances for reelection. Two Minutes Hate with a snooze alarm.

Progressives know that presidential elections tend to track economic performance. They are convinced that a failed economy will hurt Trump’s chances for re-election. Since the Trump presidency is the single worst thing to ever befall their country (their trauma and wailing prove it), economic collapse is worth it.

In the Dark Ages, the Inquisitors rended the bodies of the possessed. Evil spirits justified the worst things men could do to other men. Given the relative affluence of progressives, they won’t quite suffer in the way the people they claim to speak for will. But it’ll be worth it. It’s for their own good. After all, suffering is a virtue in their faith—especially the suffering of others (it proves they were victims all along).

The emotional satisfaction of having driven the orange demon from his high place will be golden. The culmination of The Resistance™. They will have quite the symbolic achievement to tout in the end. In their world anyway.

So it is that, in the face of mounting evidence showing that society has probably all along been in the thrall of mass hysteria, progressives frantically toil to keep alive the moral panic with denunciations and dank memes, and by raging at the deplorables. But their bubble is collapsing.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I am not talking about all progressives or Democratic Party supporters in this essay. I am talking about a particular expression of progressive Democratic sentiment that marks the personality type of the true believer. They are common enough that something useful may be said about them. I am sure my wife and I are not the only ones who have experienced their tantrums. But it almost must be said that they do the work of a larger political ideology. By unfriending and blocking, and thus limiting criticism for their claims and opinions, their ritual actions polarize and shrink the universe of debate and discussion. For every public outburst of disgust, there are many others who nod their heads in agreement.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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