Panic and Paranoia Deaden Humanity and Sabotage Its Future

In the summer of 1969, I was seven years old and watching Apollo 11 blastoff into space. This event put in me going forward an outlook of optimism about human possibility. I did not know that all around me 100,000 people (out of 200 million people or .05% of the population) had died from influenza strain H3N2 during the 1968-1969 flu season. The death toll likely would have been much higher but for the herd immunity acquired a decade earlier when the same strain swept the world—with a much greater proportional death toll (116,000 out of 175 million people or .066% of the population). All I knew is that we were going to put men on the moon.

Had physicians, pundits, and politicians framed H3N2 like they are framing COVID-19, which may in the end produce a proportionally comparable death toll (currently 140,000 out of 330 million or .042% of the population), albeit with a much lower lethality potential for children and adults under 50 years of age, my outlook going forward would have very likely been very different. It almost certainly would have been worse had I been younger while experiencing this trauma. Unable to have much of an abstract grasp of the risk, I would no doubt have been terrified. Like many children, the terror would manifest in ways that may not be immediately apparent to those around me. But I would nonetheless be a different person inside than I otherwise would or should have been.

Most of the brain development in our species occurs after birth, during the first five years of life. It is during this time that our nervous system potential is activated and elaborated. Depending on how the child experiences the world, this system can develop along normal and healthy or abnormal and pathological trajectories. We will discover in time—many parents already see it in their children—that the societal reaction to this virus has traumatized a generation of children and young adults. Trauma and crisis change the organism. In this case, it will be for the worst.

I confess, there is a selfishness expressed in the world today that angers me. Adam Curtis puts it well when he describes this as the result of a “century of the self.” Part of this is due to the sociopathy mass consumer culture has produced, a dehumanizing social logic engineered by corporate power for the sake of profit. But it is also the result of those whose nervous systems developed in the grip of trauma. When I see people hellbent on deepening trauma by doubling down on hysteria, I do understand and sympathize at a certain level. I see the fear of the wounded and frightened animal in their eyes, peering over the mask. They want to keep the pandemic panic going because they are scared. Characteristic of moral panics, it’s the paranoids and phobics, acting in often unconscious ways to generalize their specific traumas to the rest of the population, who become the most aggressive advocates for hysteria. They soothe themselves with the fear of others. It makes them feel not quite so alone. Their empathy deadened, they think of their own emotional and psychological needs first, and that manifests in shaming, scolding, and, if possible, coercing others into their regime of pathological anxiety and fear. The stress response becomes a political and moral cause that sweeps everybody into their pathology. This explains the remarkable degree of intolerance for the choices others make in their lives.

Salem witch hysteria—the classic case of moral panic

As a consequence of all this, a great many of our children will grow up to see other people and social situations as disease vectors, especially those who do not give into the fear that the victims of panic have become convinced is warranted. Moral panics—witch hunts, red scares, pandemics—breed suspicion of others. Mass hysteria trains people to perceive invisible enemies in need of identifying and stigmatizing for the purposes of making uncertainty manageable. It is a world of pariahs and scapegoats. Those who do not fear the invisible enemy in the way they are expected to—in the way they should—are not merely wrong but evil and dangerous. These are signs that trauma victims are imposing their victimization on others.

Many of our children will carry the anxiety and fear that others have put in them into their interactions with others. They will project their victimization in this same way. They will spread a different kind of virus, a virus of fear and loathing. Pathological fear and loathing, i.e. phobias, generates avoidance behavior. Pathological fear causes people to avoid the wellspring of common humanity—the intimate social relations that forge the well-developed and potentially self-actualized personalities that keep alive the desire for the free and open society that sustains these necessary positive interactions.

We have entered a period of rapidly-successive mass hysterias (this in itself indicating a deep disturbance in the moral order). We are experiencing a vicious downward spiral into mass pathology. In this context, all of the core values of our civilization—free speech, autonomy, privacy, personal sovereignty—are threatened. Indeed, we see a new culture emerging bearing all the signs of an authoritarian order. And that is something to panic about.

We are, like all mammals, evolved beings. Natural history has made us specially social; engaged and non-stressed interaction with other persons roots deeply in our nervous system. As Gabor Mate tells us, children require attentive and emotionally-available caregivers. Co-presence is insufficient to properly activate our nervous systems. We cannot accomplish thought screens. Children require intimate and physical interaction to develop out more fully their brains and their minds and their emotions. The unfolding of the human personality is dialectical; we come with wetware, but it requires activation and stimulation and programming (socialization). Humans require sufficient dopamine production for proper levels of motivation. Humans require oxytocin for love and solidarity. Humans require serotonin for happiness and wellbeing. And all the rest of it. It is engaged and non-stressed social interaction in childhood that builds the normal and healthy adult. Children can feel the stress their parents bring to their interactions. If parents behave as if a terrible monster waits around the corner—even more frighteningly, as if other human beings carry this terrible monster within them—the children will internalize this stress and it will damage them.

I realize that this virus is not harmless. I have said this in many essays. But the fact that we do not respond this way to the annual flu, which kills tens of thousands every year in the United States alone, tells us that the response this virus is irrational. I have written about why the response is different this time than at other times, so I won’t repeat those points here. But the rational way to have responded to the appearance of the virus would have been to focus on the vulnerable populations the authorities ignored. More than half of all those who died perished in our long-term care facilities. Only around five percent of the population live in those facilities. Making sure the vulnerable were protected, while the healthy went on with their lives, would have been the rational approach. We could shift to this approach immediately. If cooler heads prevailed. Alas, I fear they won’t.

By conditioning people to perceive disease and death in human relations and intimate interaction, the societal response to this virus is deadening people. Stress produces cortisol, a hormone that affects every system in the body. If the production of this hormone is constant, it compromises every system in the body, producing a damaged person. Like a wolf or a bear in a cage. It’s not the virus that is doing this to us. It’s the societal reaction to the virus that is doing this to us. In light of the actual risks from this disease, objectively, there is no justification for the intensity and duration of the stress response. It is tragic that only some people can see that this is the wrong thing to do in the throes of a pandemic. Maybe one day most people will see it. They usually do. But by then it will be too late. In many ways it’s already is too late. All we can do now is try to mitigate the harm the fearful and the selfish and irrational fear have inflicted upon our nation.

For all those who will take umbrage at what I have written here, know that I have been watching the way you treat other people. Your mocking and hatefulness, your belittling of others with whom you disagree, are signs of the very pathology I am writing about. The offense you take, the anger you feel, are personal reflections on the condition that you have imposed on the rest of us. The reflex of projecting your lack of empathy on others exposed you a long time ago. I owe you no apology. Quite the other way around. Start treating people as the human beings they are.

Update (July 20, 2020): I listen to a wonderful discussion on the mask hysteria in Great Britain on Friday’s Spiked podcast. I finished listening just as I was learning that the mayor of my city announced a city-wide mask mandate.

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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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