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March 21, 2021

Preparing the Ground for Mass Hysteria: What Made Society So Vulnerable to Losing Its Mind During COVID?

Mass hysteria does not arise out of a vacuum. Fear is merely a spark, but whether that spark burns out or turns into a raging wildfire depends entirely on whether the ideas, sentiments, and social conditions of that time provide fuel for the spark to burn.

This virus should merely have been another footnote in history alongside the 1957 Asian Flu, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, or the 2009 Swine Flu, and barely worth a mention compared to vicious pandemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu. Instead, we have uncontrolled hysteria and draconian unscientific public health measures that annihilate the rights and freedoms of individuals on a level not seen since the bubonic plague swept through medieval Europe.

Nor can the current hysteria be fully explained by the schemes of political opportunists, click-hungry medias, UN agendas, and Davos elites. They certainly play a huge role in driving the hysteria. But would-be conspirators and opportunists trying to exploit the crowd are a dime a dozen in any age. There is no point in history when there isn’t someone screaming that "the end is nigh", trying to sell us snake oil, or trying to frighten people into joining them on some ideological Crusade. Whether they gain traction or are left shouting into the wind depends entirely on whether the people themselves either provide fertile soil or barren ground for their bad ideas.

All of which raises the question, what made society so uniquely vulnerable to losing its mind during the current COVID hysteria? 

17th century plague doctor
Over the past few decades there has been a gradual philosophical shift in the Western world, which created fertile ground for the current hysteria to take root. In a nutshell, it is the shift from a value system built around inalienable natural (individual) rights to a value system focused on maximising the “greater good” for the majority, known as utilitarianism.

Logic, reason, evidence, and appeals to human rights are all rooted in the philosophy of inalienable individual rights. Viewed through this lens, everything the COVID hysteria crowd is doing looks like completely irrational and immoral nonsense. Except it’s not. There is a brutal but rational logic to utilitarianism, with horrifying repercussions for the rights and freedoms of individuals.

Here’s what Google has to say about utilitarianism:


Morality based on what’s good for the individual vs what’s good for the herd

To explain the catastrophic consequences of shifting to a value system based on utilitarianism, I'm going to start by returning to a simply moral riddle that I've written about before in an entirely different context called the Trolley Problem (also known as the Bystander at the Switch). In case you’re not familiar with it, very briefly, the riddle goes like this:

There is a runaway train hurtling towards a cluster of five people trapped on the tracks ahead. But you have the option to pull the switch and send the train down another track with only a single person trapped on it. You have the option of saving five lives by sacrificing one. Do you pull the switch?

The Trolley Problem (a.k.a The Bystander At The Switch)

Anyone who believes in inalienable individual rights knows it is wrong to strip anyone of their rights for the benefit of others. You can do everything in your power to try to stop the train or to try to remove those five people trapped on the tracks, but you cannot knowingly sacrifice one person to save another. That would be murder. Just like you do not have the right to kidnap Junior off the street to harvest and transplant his heart, liver, kidney, lungs, and pancreas to save five other sick patients. Society is not allowed to cancel inalienable individual rights in order to achieve positive mathematical outcomes.

This idea of inalienable rights is best summed up by the mantra: “Your rights end where my begin, and vice versa.” This philosophy protects the rights of the minority from being violated for the benefit of the majority. It is the basis of all our constitutional rights and freedoms and the cornerstone of all liberal democracies. It prevents the greater good from being achieved at the expense of the few. 

The great horrors of the 20th century, like Stalin’s Holodomor, the Holocaust, and the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodian genocide, were all rationalized by their perpetrators as necessary to achieve some alleged greater good. When the inalienable individual rights of the minority conflicted with an alleged greater good for the majority, inalienable rights were swept aside. The end justified the means. With examples like these to warn us, society should have developed a strong immunity against abandoning the rights of the individual for the benefits of the herd.

But even as early as when I was sitting on a school bench in the 1980s, something had begun to change. The Trolley Problem was being taught as a moral dilemma, not as a clear lesson about defending universal human rights. You could argue either way without being wrong. Saving five lives by sacrificing one had become justifiable as though it were a mere numbers game. It had become morally acceptable to reduce living breathing humans to a math problem designed to maximize the well-being of the greatest number of people. Although our legal system was still firmly rooted in the idea of inalienable individual rights, the philosophical basis for protecting individuals against the will of the majority was already beginning to erode in the public consciousness.

And it’s gotten a lot worse. By now you’ll find many teachers who believe, once again, that there is only one right answer to the Trolley Problem, only this time the answer is that the Bystander At The Switch has the moral duty to intervene and sacrifice one to save five. And that view has steadily bled into our culture, into our government, and increasingly even into our courts. 

During COVID, we're seeing the grim consequences of that value shift. Instead of providing public health recommendations so individuals can protect themselves, as was done in all previous pandemics of the 20th and 21st century, governments chose to impose mandatory public health orders that strip people of their individual autonomy. The public agreed with this course of action. Many even demanded it! And both the police and the courts are looking the other way, or are even actively participating in this illiberal initiative, despite it being a direct violation of the constitutional principles that they are sworn to protect. In the words of one Alberta judge, "I must assume the restrictions protect public health." This step from recommendations to mandatory measures is completely immoral when viewed through the lens of inalienable individual rights, but it's seen as the moral thing to do in a society that has embraced utilitarianism.

Once society allowed the philosophy of utilitarianism to erode the ironclad protection of individual rights and freedoms, it was just a matter of time until some critical emergency would justify sweeping away individual human rights to achieve some alleged greater good. To a spooked crowd, there's nothing more tempting than the idea of being able to control your neighbors as a pathway to safety from an invisible threat. And so, it seems that all the horrors of the 20th century, which should have immunized us against falling prey to this way of thinking, have been in vain. 

Where did this idea of utilitarianism come from?

The short answer is that utilitarianism is the natural human herd instinct reasserting itself. It is not a new way of looking at the world. Quite the contrary, it is as old as human history. At its heart, utilitarianism is just herd thinking - a fancy name for tribalism - the raw logic of mob psychology re-released from the history books by giving it a modern makeover. 

In other words, utilitarianism is no different than the cow psychology that drives a herd of cattle. The logic is simple. Find your herd (and make sure it’s as big and strong as possible to be able to compete for resources against other herds), push yourself to its center, and the probabilities are great that the wolf, the virus, and the shepherd/government will sacrifice those at the margins while improving life for those at its center. As long as you can push yourself to the center of the herd, it is reasonable to assume that you will not be among the steers and stragglers that are sacrificed for the “greater good”. Domestication - turning control over to an all-powerful shepherd, government, or king - in exchange for protection and a predictable food supply is an evolutionary game of probabilities.

The utilitarian approach to the Trolley Problem exposes that raw herd-focused logic. Simple probabilities suggest that we are more likely to be among the five than the one, so our long-term chances of survival are better if we rationalize that the shepherd/government has the moral duty to take an active role and sacrifice the one for the benefit of the five. All you need to do to embrace this seductive logic is to let go of the restraints of inalienable individual rights.

Remember what Google said about utilitarianism, “actions are right if they are for the benefit of a majority.” Utilitarianism is raw law-of-the-jungle ruthlessness rationalized through the language of safetyism, empathy, social justice, and equality. And it’s the very same logic used throughout history to legitimize imperialism, colonization, segregation, religious persecution, eugenics, witch hunts, ethnic cleansing, and Hitler’s blood and soil. 

A culture of restraint

Inalienable individual rights were intentionally created to stand in direct opposition to the raw logic of herd psychology. It takes a strong cultural foundation to suppress the ruthless instincts of an unrestrained herd, which is why individual rights are the exception, not the rule of history.  Lord Sumption has described this cultural foundation as a culture of restraint. It is the philosophical and legal culture that grew out of the Enlightenment Period and is perhaps best embodied by the principles and ideals set out by America’s Founding Fathers in its Constitution and Bill of Rights. 

Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, property rights, freedom of speech, limits on the power of government, universal human rights, viewpoint diversity, evidence, reason, debate, and so on are all principles designed to protect the individual from the herd (and from the heavy hand of the shepherd). This culture of restraint is why America is the #1 preferred destination for immigrants because its Bill of Rights allows people to sleep peacefully in the knowledge that their individual rights and freedoms cannot be extinguished to serve the needs of the herd. 

But restraint is not a natural human instinct. Nor is it easy. As soon as you erode the cultural underpinnings that teach each generation the history, myths, and principles required to maintain this culture of restraint, the raw herd instinct reasserts itself and steamrolls the rights and freedoms of individuals who stand in the herd’s way.  

Once you remove the notion of the individual as the foundational building block of society, the competition that exists between individuals in a society based on individual rights immediately shifts to a competition between herds, tribes, and subtribes, each competing with one another, each fixated on maximizing the benefit for their preferred in-group. 

And in the blink of an eye the rationalization begins in order to justify the horrific cost imposed on others and to absolve ourselves from the moral dilemmas posed by utilitarian policymaking. It begins with indifference and a lack of empathy, escalates to dehumanization, morphs into persecution, and, if the moral panic is sufficiently extreme, eventually formerly decent citizens are nodding along to two-tiered rights, internment camps, and worse, fully convinced that those in the crosshairs deserve the calamity that’s imposed on them by the dominant herd. Collateral damage? Human rights violations? If only those individuals hadn’t selfishly put their own interests ahead of the herd’s greater good. “We’re all in this together,” so get on board or suffer the consequences. Sound familiar? It's been the rallying cry behind lockdowns and other mandatory public health measures throughout COVID.

When panic strikes, like during COVID, this herd reflex is even stronger than usual. Our culture of restraint was meant to serve as a buffer against that reflex in times of crisis. But this time it hasn’t because our culture has been shifting towards this herd mentality and this philosophy of utilitarianism for decades. 

Tracking the shift over decades

The problems (and solutions) that grip society’s imagination reflect this philosophical shift over time. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech in 1963 (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”) was perhaps the pinnacle of American culture finally holding itself accountable to its own foundational ideals. It was all about elevating the individual as the fundamental building block of society. The individualistic “whatever works for you” attitude of the Gen Xers and the “one against many” theme of Spaghetti Westerns, thrillers, and popular superhero movies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s were a reflection of this culture focused on individual rights and freedoms.

But since then, the focus of our cultural imagination has gradually shifted to collective problems needing collective action that require limiting individual choices. From well-meaning initiatives like mandatory seatbelts and mandatory bicycle helmets to recycling, climate activism, the social justice movement, and redistributionist economic policies, society has transferred its focus away from defending individual rights and freedoms to maximizing the greater good for the herd. And the moral ideal has shifted right along with it. It's now considered the moral ideal to maximize the well being or safety of the many, even if it comes at a high price for the few. 

Pop culture increasingly mirrors and reinforces this shift. Even the current batch of superhero movies reflect this. Most no longer follow the theme of "one against many" but have shifted instead to a team approach to solving problems. The lone warrior has been replaced by the team player. And it is not the individual that requires protection, but rather the entire herd or team because safety lies at the center of the collective, which must pull together for the greater good. We’re all supposed to be in this together, so responsibility to protect the individual has been replaced by responsibility to protect the herd. We’re all shepherds now.  

We’ve created a society where nobody is fully responsible for their own well-being (or even allowed to be fully responsible for their own well being), but everyone is responsible for everyone else's well being. And so, what would have been unimaginable during the 1968 Hong Kong Flu has become the norm during the 2020 COVID pandemic because anything that could, even theoretically, ruffle the feathers of the herd is treated as a threat, with the herd instinctively pulling together to try to stamp out the risk, even at the expense of stripping individual herd members of their rights. You must not go to work so the herd can feel safe. You must not visit your family so the herd can be protected. You must wear a face mask to protect the herd. And the herd must wear a face mask to protect you.

Nor is this herd impulse restricted to COVID. Once morality was re-centered around what's good for the herd, there's a moral duty to suppress facts and evidence that make the herd uncomfortable, speech that offends the sensibilities of the loudest members of the herd must be banned, and even Dr. Seuss books written almost a century ago must be censored lest they do some unspecified harm to some abstract member of the herd. Protect the herd at all costs and the herd will protect you. 

Even censorship, propaganda, and radical social engineering all begin to take on a moral veneer when they are justified as being for the good of the herd. The woke culture wars of today and the lockdown/COVID-Zero crowd have the same philosophical impulses as the ambitious social-engineers of the past, like Robispierre, Marx, Engels, Stalin, Hilter, Mao, and Castro, who also had no qualms about sacrificing truth, liberty, and even lives for the alleged good of the herd. 

Sleeping under the watchful eye of a strong and caring shepherd

Once a society philosophically embraces the herd as society’s foundational building block, the logical next step is to empower a strong shepherd - a referee, a benevolent hand, a big brother - to watch over the herd. The herd deludes itself into thinking that it will sleep more peacefully under the watchful eye of a caring shepherd. Welcome to the Age of Big Meddlesome Government.

For those empowered to play this role of shepherd, it’s exhilarating to hold the reins of power and visualize themselves on a mission to save the world, just like the team heroes in our favorite superhero movies. What a meaningful life. A gang of new-age Crusaders chosen to fight for the survival of humanity and the betterment of society. 

And for those well-positioned to catch the shepherd’s eye and win his favor or sympathy, the opportunities are nearly endless. Corruption follows the shepherd as closely as his own shadow.

Once society turned its back on the culture of restraint and embraced herd-centric thinking, its leaders (and the opportunistic parasites who have their ear) can justify nearly anything under the guise of a greater good. The herd will shake off the logical inconsistencies and turn a blind eye to the consequences imposed on the few for the alleged benefit of the many. It’s an incredibly seductive way to look at the world because it offers the promise of safety, financial security, and an easier path through life (and especially through crisis). All you must do is protect the herd as you push yourself to its center and the herd will break down the obstacles in your path as you get swept along by its tide... at least until the day you find yourself no longer at the center of the herd.

As for the horrors imposed on the losers, if they’re complaining they must be selfishly putting their own needs ahead of the collective best interests of the herd. They're actions may even be the reason why this COVID nightmare goes on without end or why society's vision of utopia cannot be reached. Align with the herd and obey the shepherd, the thinking goes, and you will be protected by the herd's warm embrace. If you’re out of step, it’s because you don’t care, because you’re stupid, obstinate, disobedient, stubborn, blind, or just downright evil. And so, just like on so many previous occasions, we are once again on a path to dehumanizing a minority to suit the appetites of the majority and to find a scapegoat for the majority to blame.

People forget that the shepherd is a predator and that the herd will ruthlessly trample you in its efforts to avoid becoming his prey.

Cattle stampedes and bedtime stories.

COVID was merely the spark, but the guard rails protecting us from this kind of hysteria have been falling by the wayside for decades. Against this growing acceptance of utilitarianism - unrestrained cow psychology - along came a virus to strike fear into the heart of the emotional herd and unleash a stampede to safety. If you’ve ever spent time around a herd of cattle, you’ll know that the excuse for a stampede is ever present, ready to be provoked by the drop of a hat. The architects of this crisis barely need to wave in the direction of the virus to keep the herd in perpetual panic.

Stampede, by Tom Lea. Mural in the post office in Odessa, Texas.

We succumbed to COVID hysteria in 2020 because we had already lost the culture of restraint that used to prevent us from acting like a bunch of brainless bovines willing to trample their own offspring to reach safety. Under the former value system of individual rights, government was prevented from taking unilateral herd-centric action, so even if there was an initial spark of panic, everyone's safety depended on informing themselves. This forces panic to quickly give way to a relentless search for data and a demand for debate. But under the current value system of utilitarianism, safety lies with the herd and herd-centric action, so there's no counter-balancing force to rein in panic through evidence and debate. Just stick with the herd. Don't get left behind lest you get exposed to the virus snapping at the stampede's heels.

Once the stampede started, we split into two tribes, one committed to the previous value system rooted in facts, evidence, and individual rights, the other surrendering itself to its instincts, consumed by unrestrained fear, and willing to climb over bodies if that's what their leaders say will guide the herd to safety. For now at least, the bovines and their herd-centric value system are in control. 

And as long as this utilitarian herd mentality persists, even after the virus fades, society will likely continue to lurch from one hysteria to another until we root out this toxic idea of taking unilateral action for "the greater good” and re-embrace the individual and individual rights as the fundamental building blocks of society. So tonight, as you put your children to bed, I hope you will tell them a bedtime story about the Founding Fathers and the dumb things cows do when they stampede. 

~~~

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COPYRIGHT 2021 JULIUS RUECHEL

14 comments:

  1. Fantastic article, as usual. I think I'd also add that, en masse, the boomers brought up an entire generation of young people, who are now adults, to see safety as a virtue. It's why an entire generation of kids weren't allowed to walk to school or play outside, calling it "unsafe" when that was not really statistically true. Safety is the end game. It's not that far a leap to go from seeing safety as a virtue for you to applying it as a virtue for everyone. Previous generations valued adventure, risk taking, and courage. I don't want to live a safe life, I want to live a messy, adventurous, painful, full, real life.

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    1. Thanks Jer, glad you enjoyed it! And I agree with you - I think that has played a HUGE role. They are so afraid of risk that they're destroying everything that makes life worth living, and, as you say, forcing their choices on everyone else. Tyranny cloaked as caring.

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  2. Another great article Julius! I have heard people say that when they get vaccinated and start to live normally again, they will avoid/shun people who didn't take the pandemic seriously enough. How crazy is that? How will one determine who was part of the herd and a true believer? Sadly, some have stopped talking to me altogether for referencing actual data and having a different opinion.
    I also agree with Jer's comments and your response!

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    1. Much appreciated! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

      Like you, I'm horrified by how society seems willing to use vaccination as an excuse to re-embrace a new version of segregation, in the name of "safety". And that fear and emotion now appears to overrule evidence and even is making people unwilling to even look at data.

      The moment we allowed politicians to elevate "safety" ahead of individual rights and freedoms, we opened a Pandora's Box of nightmares. I'm horrified at where this is leading.

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  3. I left Russia 12 years ago for this very reason. Little did I know that Canada would be moving same direction soon. I don't think I have much hope for the country

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    1. It is horrifying how quickly our country has unravelled. I hope the experience of the past 15 months forces our society to recognize the dark world it is slipping into and motivates it to start remembering the philosophical roots upon which our society was built. At this point I think the "awakening" will be in one direction only as people get sick of the madness and oppression.

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    2. My friend left Russia a bit before, not because Russia was bad, but because when they opened the doors to the western banks, the situation got dire.
      It's not the governments that are evil, but the ones who control the economy. They can bring countries to their knees with sanctions, calling it for safety against "evil socialism". The irony is that China barely locked down and has a low vaccination rate still... You would think a "dictatorship" would force all to get vaxxed...

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    3. I left Ukraine that was part of Soviet Union for the same reason. I have no regrets. My children became educated and prosperous in Canada . They would be just house wives in Ukraine. But I watch with sadness how Canada is turning into socialistic country with unprecedented speed. Political correctness also bothers me. How is that different from censorship in Soviet Union?

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    4. Russia is bad and Russian government is evil! Russians are imperialist! Invaded Ukraine , Georgia , killed millions of innocent !

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  4. WOW! I am so looking forward to your presentation on VCC this Thursday - your article explains sooooo much as to why so many have been duped! Thank You
    Anne

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    1. Thanks Anne! I'm really looking forward to it!

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  5. Thank you for this situation review. It relates to my thesis that the" beginning of the end" was the loss of what we used to call certainty. Physicists introduced the word relativity which no one understood but combined with the idea of the "death of God" leading to materialism and dumbed down educatiion and we have a population that doubts itself totally.
    What is now known as woke culture (post modernism) is a way for lost souls to find an identity that is in opposition to certainty and the past. They are now your herd and have given up on the self completely.

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  6. What a brilliant essay. I only noticed your articles today, through the lockdownsceptics link to your odds calculation piece. I am a huge, long time fan of Lebon (the book was initially recommended to me by (one of the few) very good fund managers as being his favorite book about financial markets (with the remark that financial markets or players aren't even mentioned once in it) and therefore understood early on what was going on or was lurking. The Xhosa cult story and The 4th Turning made things even clearer to me. And this piece, which as another commentator here already stated, rhymes with what The 4th Turning observed and presciently forecasted, makes things even clearer and even more obvious.
    Many thanks, best of luck and hopefully a few niches of freedom for us!

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  7. The most concise and insightful summary of our cultural dilemma that I have read or heard. When reading the opening, I asked myself what would I do if confronted with the "trolley choice", and my mental response was that I wouldn't interfere. I guess that you could ask the teacher "what if the five people were Nazis?"

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