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CALEB ANDERSON: Mass psychosis - surely not - never!

Over recent years a bemused and incredulous public has had to endure an endless stream of lunatic ideas from the left. Many of these ideas have rapidly developed a life of their own, and there has been no shortage of people to champion them. Why do irrational ideas find such fertile ground, what is the game plan, and where could this take us?

Recently I had the privilege of listening to a woman who had escaped with her family from North Korea to the West. One comment stood out. They were taught, among other things, that the great leader did not use the bathroom, a hint of his divinity. This woman was too frightened not to believe this, everyone just went along with it.

That a man can be a woman, and a woman a man, madness even five years ago, is orthodoxy to some today. Do the proponents of this idea actually believe this?

The assertions by indigenous activists that all was pretty rosy before colonisation, that colonisation brought nothing of value, and that ancient ways of knowing are equal, or better, than anything produced by the enlightenment, or modern empirical science. Do they simply not know their history or their science?

“Marxism is the solution to the problems of the West” was a comment I heard not so long ago from a young university student. Despite the fact that Marxism (in its various iterations) has murdered more than one hundred million of its own people, and impoverished the rest. Has he just not read history?

A spokesperson for a social service agency recently commented on television that gangs in New Zealand do not need harsher penalties, what they need is more love. Does she actually believe that it is as simple as that?

Does the Green Party really believe that imposing more regulations on landlords will improve the lot of renters, in spite of clear evidence that interference in already overregulated markets makes things worse? Why are they not joining the dots?

These are diverse examples of the same phenomenon. In each case, people unyieldingly held (or hold) ideas that are untethered from reason and evidence. They champion these ideas with religious zeal in spite of the fact that are self-evidently, to any reasonably informed and reflective person, untenable.

There are a number of reasons people doggedly believe certain things, even when they are not consistent with evidence or reason.

Some people hold to spurious and easily falsifiable beliefs because it can be too risky to do otherwise. Or, perhaps, adherence facilitates entry to, or progression within, a coveted group, wins kudos with an influential person, satisfies an urge to be original, opens a career path, assuages guilt, feeds a predisposition to manipulate for personal (or group) gain, or just settles their mind on something too controversial or vexed to nut out. Whatever the case, many people can come to truly believe what they might once have considered to be errant nonsense.

Psychology suggests that people can be susceptible to believing unbelievable things (i.e. things not in accordance with conventional wisdom) for four primary reasons ...

1. To garner, and maintain, membership of a social group

2. In order to make sense of things that are difficult to understand

3. Through anxiety

4. Through fear

History suggests that this is not a new phenomenon, and that bad ideas can quickly take root and produce bad outcomes. Might these reasons help explain why one of the most advanced and highly educated nations in the world, the home of Hegel, Kant, Luther, Goethe, Beethoven, and Nietzsche, engaged in the systematic extermination of six million Jews? Incredibly, enough people seemed to have believed in the cause, more than has ever been admitted.

Or, at the other end of the spectrum, might this explain why a contemporary Prime Minister is frozen with abject fear when asked to describe the difference between a man and a woman, when the answer is self-evident to most people.

When people come to genuinely believe, or assert, an idea that is contrary to evidence, conventional wisdom, and common sense, and consistently manifest hostility to critiquing this idea, this is called a psychosis. When enough people come to believe in this idea, this is called mass psychosis. When a mass psychosis gains a critical mass it can be extremely dangerous.

I have lost count of the number of people who have commented that New Zealand (and perhaps the wider West) seems to be stuck in a period of utter madness, where untruths are promoted by our government, media, activists, academics, and celebrities, as being true, where it is dangerous to question, and where eloquent and convincing arguments, from eminently qualified experts, are cast to the wind.

Some experts in the field of mass psychosis believe that when it reaches a critical mass exceeding twenty percent of a population it is in a position to be very dangerous.

So what are the antidotes to mass psychosis and the anxiety, fear, and group think, that feeds it?

I would suggest citizenship over tribalism, democracy over any alternative, the free sharing of ideas over censorship, a media willing to cover both sides of issues, an education system that is robust and apolitical ... and a population that insists on being heard, and that is willing to say “thus far and no further”.

When the veneer is stripped away, people are pretty constant over time and space. There is nothing inherent in any group that makes it immune from the errors and excesses of any other group, or from the terrible mistakes of the past. This is worth thinking about.

Ideas are powerful but not all ideas are equal. Socrates is famous for saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps we might say the same about ideas. Perhaps the unexamined idea is an idea not worth having.

How appropriate would a tentative diagnosis of mass psychosis be for New Zealand ... or for specific sub-groups of our population? Perhaps? Not yet? Your call. If not appropriate now, at what point might it become appropriate? Your call again.

Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal

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