On hysteria

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: Much public rhetoric in South Africa is defined by hysteria and our response to current affairs, often hysterical in turn. So it is worth paying some attention to the idea. What is the nature of hysteria? Certainly it is extreme in nature but how so? It is perhaps best understood as a kind of drama, with heroes and villains, good and evil. And thus, the last thing hysteria will ever indulge is subtle or ambiguity, doubt or uncertainty.

On hysteria

By: Gareth van Onselen

22 October 2012

Hysteria is the language by which panic expresses itself.

It is absolute and, thus, extreme. It leaves no space for subtlety nor ambiguity. No shades of grey. Just black and white. Right and wrong. Good and bad.

And yet even those words, final as they are, are not enough completely to satisfy hysteria. It must have more. Not good, but absolutely perfect. Not bad, but the devil incarnate. And betwixt and between, it makes use of those qualifiers that elevate the commonplace to the rarified air of the magical: “unbelievable”, “indescribable”, “incomprehensible”.

With that, it sacrifices credibility. For few things defy comprehension; fewer still description.

Importantly, its point of reference is that which is bad. Therefore, that which is good serves only as a counterpoint, against which the dire state of the world can be measured and juxtaposed. Having set the mood, hysteria now needs actors, to blame and exalt. To hysteria, we are all villains. The worst of the lot, “unspeakably” evil. And yet, unsurprisingly, it finds the words. And the natural enemy of the villain, the hero, merely an allusion to the real person. In order that it might match the matchless menace attributed to a villain, a hero must be God-like. And so, through unrealistic expectation good is set up fail. For even the best amongst us are fallible. And weakness is just a further excuse for hysteria to vilify and lament.

Spare some pity for the person nominated as hero by the hysterical rabble, they are on a hiding to nothing. Hysteria’s insatiable appetite means it will waste no time eating its young.

Hysteria is the last resort of the desperate and in its final death throws exaggerated thoughts become irrational action. That is hysteria at its most dangerous. It has come to believe its own expectation.

Many factors fuel and augment hysteria but none is more odious than the suggestion agency, choice and free-will no longer serve any purpose.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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