The year of hysteria

lowry_chead3We should be glad that 2015 has passed into memory, because it was a year when we could barely hold it together.

It was a year when we freaked out over symbols and scared ourselves with fake statistics. It was a year when the facts weren’t allowed to get in the way of a good, overwrought slogan. It was a year when we convinced ourselves that Earth was nearly beyond saving. It was a year of the safe space and micro-aggression.

It was, in short, a year of hysteria.

By now, we should be familiar with the workings of hysteria, since — usually whipped up in social media and stoked by an inflamed left — it has become such a familiar feature of our culture and politics.

Hysteria doesn’t know when to stop. After it was collectively decided that the Confederate flag shared responsibility for Dylann Roof’s hellish murders in Charleston, S.C., Confederate symbols were hunted down as if they were armed fugitives from justice. The Memphis City Council even voted to exhume Nathan Bedford Forrest and — for good measure — his wife.

Hysteria doesn’t care about the facts. In an extraordinary feat, Black Lives Matter protestors took something that didn’t happen from a case of justifiable use of police force in Ferguson, Mo., and made it the slogan — “Hands up, don’t shoot” — of a movement alleging systemic police racism. The truth of Ferguson didn’t matter so much as the myth of Ferguson.

Hysteria will believe anything. After the San Bernardino attack, the media hawked the bogus statistic that there had been more than 350 mass shootings in the United States this year, an almost daily occurrence. A more careful measure at Mother Jones tallied four mass shootings in 2015.

Hysteria can be a powerful organizing tool. The entire world got together in Paris to sign on to a climate accord, based on the pretense that without immediate action Earth will be rendered all but uninhabitable by the ravages of climate change.

Hysteria is a weapon. On college campuses, students didn’t just seek safe spaces from speech they deemed uncongenial and decry inadvertent slights known as micro-aggressions, they terrorized anyone not with the program. A university president was fired for looking at protestors the wrong way (University of Missouri), and a prestigious college campus (Yale) was roiled by a dispute over whether allegedly tasteless Halloween costumes could be tolerated. Protestors hunted for university employees they could be offended by enough to get cashiered.

It is always difficult to motivate people around careful reasoning about a problem, or to win a detached argument on the merits. It is much easier to create hate figures to attack, to demand immediate action as a sign of moral purity, and to short-circuit cost-benefit analysis with apocalyptic warnings. With the news cycle faster than ever and social media a constant accelerant, stopping to think, or to gather all the facts, or to consider possible downsides, feels more intolerable than ever.

This is the world we live in. 2015 was a year of hysteria, but why will 2016 be any different? Stock up on smelling salts and fainting couches.

(Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.)
© 2016 by King Features Synd., Inc.