We should be glad that 2015 is passing 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, South Carolina, Confederate symbols were hunted down as if they were armed fugitives from justice. The Memphis City Council voted to exhume Nathan Bedford Forrest and — for good measure — his wife. Warner Brothers halted production of General Lee toy cars — the iconic Confederate flag-emblazoned vehicle from the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” — and the owner of the car from the show, golfer Bubba Watson, announced he would paint over the Confederate flag on the car’s roof.
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, Missouri, 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, into which could be poured great urgency and moral fervor.
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 U.S. this year, which would mean the country is a veritable daily shooting gallery for lunatics and fanatics. Mass shootings are horrific and they understandably dominate the news when they happen, but who could believe this number? 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, or some other vague offense (University of Missouri), and a prestigious college campus (Yale) was roiled by a dispute over whether allegedly tasteless Halloween costumes could be tolerated. Protestors roamed the college landscape, hunting for university employees they could be offended by enough to get cashiered.
We like to pride ourselves on our modern rationality, but folly, superstition and moral panic never go away; they just take different forms. And they are always seductive as political and social tools. 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 can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.