No one really knows why, or will admit, why panics happen. The most general statement seems to be this: something scares a group of people, and they engage in talismanic behavior against it, which catches on in the general atmosphere of fear.
Panics can take many forms (we might view them as “inverse trends,” or people conforming to herd activity out of fear instead of desire). Some are religious panics, others purely moral panics, and some simply spasms of terror at the unknown.
Perhaps the most famous example, the Dancing Plague of 1518, rivals the cargo cults and witch trials for talismanic potency. A talisman is used to ward off evil; sometimes, the talisman is a response to an impossibly stressful, insurmountable threat:
Possible reason? Stress-induced psychosis. Having suffered severely from famine, and in many cases wiped out and reduced to begging, the region was in an ongoing crisis. Many had died of starvation. The area was riddled with diseases, including smallpox and syphilis. Waller believes the stress was intolerable, and hence a mass psychological illness resulted.
What does this tell us? That humans are not much different from the possum: when faced with a futile choice, we either play dead or actually die from shock. Being human, we pick a neurotic way to do it so that our big brains feel engaged in a decision that exists at the point of heat death, where all choices have the same outcome and thus, analysis breaks down into paralysis early on.
Another great panic occurred in the 1980s with the Virginia McMartin preschool Satanic pedophile panic. Fantastic stories, even worse than PizzaGate, were told and resulted in eighty convictions, but no evidence was ever found, and the panic evaporated much more quickly than it began.
The thing about panics is that they are metaphor. The actual event is hidden; a symbolic event substitutes for it. So in the 1980s, when divorce destroyed the American home and kidnappings and murders of children accelerated in frequency, people needed a symbol. They chose a Satanic conspiracy behind a day-care center to express and disguise their concerns about divorce, sexual liberation, daycare, childhood and other things being shattered at the time.
Just as the dancing plague came about in response to starvation, and manifested in a burning of calories like a homeostatic viking funeral, the fear of the breaking of the family manifested in symbols of sexual evil expressed with a lynch mob mentality. If only the witch could be burned that easily… but true evil always resides in ideas and generally acceptable practices, not symbols.
The talismanic nature of these panics can be seen in the split between symbol and reality. The reality seems too big to fix, and too scary to accept because it will destabilize the idea of life itself. Instead, the group hopes to destroy a scapegoat and then return to life as normal. This pattern appears many times throughout history.
It is the first world equivalent of the cargo cult, in which islanders believed that sacred ceremonies were responsible for the delivery of supplies from American planes. The symbol covered the lack of knowledge and the utterly arbitrary nature of the deliveries, relative to anything the islanders were doing. With a panic, the ceremony is the symbol, and the cargo is a resolution of the seemingly insoluble issue.
During the late 1980s, as the Reagan years ended, a new type of panic emerged: political correctness. This symbolically beat down “racism” and other forms of discrimination, but in actuality referenced an underlying fear of American collapse in the same way the Soviets were clearly falling apart. Diversity was our strength, and politically we had to have it in order to maintain our WWII sense of moral superiority over nationalists, but it was clearly not working, as ongoing ethnic violence and discontent demonstrated.
The solution was not to address the actual problem because that was seen as a futile task. It was clear that diversity was not working, but to acknowledge that fact meant facing the grim reality that diversity would have to be un-done, which would involve boats taking all people who were not of the founding group (WASPs) back to their homelands. That was the only solution, and people could not face it.
One of the most evocative moments in this panic was the crucifixion of Jimmy The Greek. A sports commentator, he opined that selective breeding during slavery made black people natural athletes. His career was destroyed, and the scapegoat and bogeyman was banished, allowing the voting-and-buying sheep to go back to sleep.
Since that time, the problem of ethnic incompatibility has gotten worse, and in response to feeling that they are being dispossessed and bred out of existence, white people — especially WASPs, it seems — have adopted the talisman of being goodwhites and opposing racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, elitism and saneism because each of these things point to the only solutions which will save us as a society, namely undoing crazy egalitarian programs.
We can see the acceleration of this moral panic through the ongoing pro-censorship campaign on the internet which hopes to eliminate dissent against the present order, as a form of symbolic victory for the idea of not changing ourselves at all:
Twitter subsequently suspended the accounts of other prominent figureheads of the “alt-right” fringe movement, an amorphous mix of racism, white nationalism, xenophobia and anti-feminism.
Twitter has been under fire for failing to address hate and abuse on the site since its founding a decade ago. Balancing its reputation as a free speech haven has come into conflict with efforts to protect users.
Other internet companies have taken recent steps to curb abusive behavior and ban users who violate rules against promoting hate.
In fifty years, these words will be as ridiculous to us as the idea of a dancing plague. Their cultlike nature becomes clear from their binary nature: there are accepted ideas, and anything else is bad, and so burning that witch will reassure all of us that the problem no one can do anything about is actually not a problem, so we can set aside our fear of change and keep on living our lives as we have.
That allows us to ignore the problem, and rationalize disadvantages as a moral victory instead of the ongoing defeat that they are. The lÃ¼genpresse is the voice of comforting anaesthesia, guiding us into oblivion by giving us a symbolic means of denying, obscuring and distracting from our actual fears.
It has been said many times that human behavior has not changed since the dawn of history. Panics like political correctness prove this to be true. We have moved from symbolic metaphysical panics to symbolic political panics, and as with the dancing plague and the Virginia McMartin controversy, we are destroying ourselves because our fear of the unknown is greater than our will to succeed.