Tuesday, May 5, 2009


I don't understand the impulse toward hysteria. There's also nothing much to like about the phenomenon. Starting with the word itself, which derives from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus, "hysteria" was originally defined as a neurotic condition peculiar to women. With those misogynistic roots, one would think the term had nowhere to go but up.

But no. Instead, hysteria became a social phenomenon, nowhere more evident than in this recent ridiculous mania over swine flu. As I understand it, statistically speaking your chances of contracting and dying from swine flu are significantly less than your chances of choking to death on a ballpoint pen (which 100 people do every year). They are a tiny fraction of your chances of dying in a car accident (43,000 annually) or from assorted gun violence (17,000). "Normal" flu kills around 36,000 people every year. And these numbers are just for the U.S. The swine flu hysteria is even sillier when considered in terms of global numbers.

So what prompted it? Why were/are people with about as much risk of contracting swine flu as someone living alone on a mountaintop all hysterical at the thought of going to school or getting on a plane or eating in a Mexican restaurant? Why were/are they flocking to already overcrowded ERs because they imagine their tummies hurt?

I've wondered about this personalization of peril before. I was doing some work for a company in Los Angeles right after 9/11. For a couple weeks after those horrific events, a few of the people in the LA office - none of whom had been personally affected by the attacks - were "too traumatized to come to work." Was this their way of empathizing? Of honoring the dead? Or was it an exploitation, however unconscious, of someone else's loss? I hate to think it was anything other than empathy - how dishonorable to attempt to make events like those of 9/11 about oneself!

Why join in the hysteria over something that, if you weren't hysterical, you would plainly see poses no imminent threat to you? Does feeling in peril make people feel important? Or maybe it's the opposite; maybe it makes people feel like they belong, like they're part of the community.

If so, too bad the hysterical community in question is such a silly, self-centered and wasteful one. If we could inject all the energy behind the swine flu hysteria into a community bent on improving healthcare for the poor - or, for that matter eradicating gun violence or fatal car accidents - we'd actually accomplish something important and lasting. Not to mention communal.


Lea said...

Debra, great post. I've also been over here shaking my head over the unfounded hysteria, and just tuning it out. Bleah. I had no idea of the word's roots... now THAT'S something to ponder and seethe over! :)

Annie said...

your 9/11 paragraph is interesting. i tend to feel the same way about moments of silence (albeit with a few notable exceptions, 9/11 included). it feels disingenuous and almost intrusive to "honor" the tragedy of someone i didn't know existed beforehand. see http://goodnightnoises.blogspot.com/2007/09/911.html if you're interested.

Debra Snider said...

Thank you, Lea - it is disheartening, isn't it, when even etymologies serve to degrade women?

Annie, the post you linked to is beautiful. I agree re: the random moments of silence, and I appreciate the nuance you added to the way even the non-personally affected reacted to the 9/11 events.

kimberly salem said...

Tell me about it. I had to cancel my vacation to Mexico because of this nonsense... our office handed out "Pandemic Plan" booklets and mandated that no one could come into the office for at least 5 days after traveling to Mexico.

I think a lot of people are bored with their everyday lives and need something to worry about!

Raul Ramos y Sanchez said...

A well thought out and well-written perspective, Debra. I think we cannot understate the role of the news media in fomenting fear. Even an ordinary summer thunderstorm becomes a "weather emergency" by local TV stations eager to terrorize viewers into tuning in. Quite simply, fear sells.

Debra Snider said...

Interesting point re: boredom, Kim. The impact of the hysteria is the same, but the motivation is slightly less sick & self-absorbed, I guess, if the hysteria is driven more by boredom than by egotism. Still, though...
Also, how ridiculous and wrong that you had to cancel your Mexican vacation!

Raul, I agree that the media's role in fomenting hysteria can't be understated, and the rash, baseless "news" coverage of this so-called epidemic has certainly contributed to the frenzy. But what puzzles me is *why* fear sells. It's the impulse toward fear and hysteria I find bewildering. Individuals IMO have the responsibility to seek facts and make informed rational decisions about how to respond & behave, as opposed to jumping hysterically on media-fueled bandwagons. I doubt many would disagree with me on this in theory, but even so, in our culture the impulse toward hysteria often seems to prove irresistible as a matter of fact.