We are struggling with a significant minority of our population suffering from mass psychosis. They are held under the delusion that the #COVID19 pandemic is either not real, not as severe as it is, or that it can be treated and cured with a variety of methods that it simply cannot be. They are similarly deluded that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, that election fraud was rampant, and our elections are unreliable unless the Republican wins. There are many similarities between the hysterics of MAGA Nation and those of the witch hysteria in the Late Middle Ages.
- Religion was an important galvanizing force of those suffering from both hysterias.
- Scapegoating an Other was an important factor in both hysterias.
- Those affected by both hysterias have been living for decades with extreme stress and experiencing continual fear and outrage.
- The world had changed so radically for both groups of hysterics that they had to take radical steps to feel as if their world hadn’t changed.
- Not everyone living in Medieval Europe was equally affected by the hysteria just as the hysterics surrounding the #COVID19 pandemic and the Big Lie have only affected a significant minority of our own population.
By having an appreciation for the circumstances that led to the witch craze or witch hunt, the reasons it swept the population up in mass psychosis, and how it ended, we can gain some insights into the mass psychosis that has gripped our very own MAGA Nation.
Mass psychosis is the product of a population suffering from continuous extreme stress over a long period of time. As described by Silvano Arieti, these steps are necessary:
- THE PHASE OF PANIC. The individual begins to perceive the world is not as they think it should be, so they react with increasing panic because they cannot explain why the world just ain’t working right no more. In the Middle Ages it was the disaster of losing up to 60% of the population to the Black Death and in our time it was explaining how known devils like Bill Clinton and, yea gods, a BLACK MAN, could be elected president. How Black people could have rights EQUAL to those of white people. You know, like that.
- THE PHASE OF PSYCHOTIC INSIGHT. The individual engages in some next level cognitive dissonance to make the world make sense again. Somehow, they have to interpret what they are seeing so that it jibes with what they’re thinking. The alternative is to alter your interpretation, but when you are as certain that you are right as conservative Christians and white supremacists are, you can’t alter your interpretation, so you have to alter the way you perceive reality. It helps alleviate your anxiety, but it really screws up your grip on reality.
- THE PHASE OF MULTIPLYING SYMPTOMS. Since the people now trying to cope with the changes to their world are no longer dealing with reality, the way they’re trying to solve their problems isn’t effective. Problems begin to grow exponentially, which initiates a self-reinforcing feedback loop which causes societal dysfunction to spiral out of control. Essentially, you keep doing more of the same expecting different results, but things just keep getting worse. Kinda like people keep dying of #COVID19 even though you’re doing everything you’re supposed to like believing it is no worse than the flu, a hoax, and taking horse dewormer when you get sick.
She Turned Me Into A Newt!
Other than struggling to recover from the devastating depopulation of the continent, what led to the witch hysteria? In 1486, two German inquisitors wrote a tome, “Malleus Maleficarum” giving instructions to identify, hunt, and interrogate witches. It gained such popularity that for the next hundred years it was as popular as the Bible in terms of book sales and was reprinted thirty times. It was the Facebook of its time.
There is no explaining why these guys hated witches so badly. It wasn’t a popular thing back then. It was kinda like the mainstreaming of the John Birchers and Christian coalition that Reagan ushered in. Perhaps it was the desperation that was ushered in by Nixon’s utter humiliation and Republican shattering defeats after Watergate that convinced them that the only way to win again was to make a deal with the devil.
However, targeting witches came naturally to both the Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church was fighting with the Protestant Reformation over control of Europe, so the idea that if you turned your back on the Church, you were a heretic, you were turning your back on god, became prominent among Catholics. The Protestants lacked the social control of the hierarchical structures, so they relied on fear of the devil to keep their populations behaving. That fear could easily be transferred to the agents of the devil here on earth, witches. Thus, for both sets of believers, it was imperative to seek out the unbelievers. Sound familiar? Who is needing to re-exert control over the country as our demographics shift away from them?
The Malleus Maleficarum caused witchcraft to go from being a harmless useless practice by some to criminal devil worshipping. Because the Malleus Maleficarum defined witchcraft so vaguely, anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Accusations quickly expanded from those practicing witchcraft to those who knew of their practice — Sound familiar? Like a certain state’s anti-abortion law? In essence, they weaponized a community’s fear of the devil, which was real given Medieval culture’s emphasis on defining all of life through religion and doing god’s will.
Witch hunts occurred in two waves: late 15th to early 16th century coinciding with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum and in the 17th century.
The number of witch trials and executions varied widely across Europe and can be attributed to the beliefs and legal systems of those regions. For example, in Italy, Spain, and France very few trials were held because the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions simply didn’t believe that witchcraft could be proven — it didn’t necessarily stop them from torturing confessions from heretics before they executed them, though. In England, the jury system prevented prosecutions from coming before the courts — again, it didn’t mean that people weren’t executed extrajudicially. In the ecclesiastically dominated regions of Southern Germany and the Alps, i.e. Switzerland, as well as Scotland, things were different. Real panics and hysterias swept through those areas and many were put on trial, tortured for confessions, and executed by hanging or burning. All in all, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 people were executed for witchcraft, 85% of them women.
The end of the witch hysteria was gradual and slow. The end came essentially because the times had changed. The politics, social morays, philosophies, and institutions had all changed, but it took three hundred years. Slowly, political authority, government, reasserted control over most areas of Europe. Social morays changed, too. As the Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas began to develop, people became more tolerant of the marginalized and poor women who made up most of the victims of the witch hunts. A more stable and prosperous society was better able to support and tolerate those who were less like the norm. As the ideas that would become the Enlightenment continued to develop, such as rational secularism, the intelligentsia turned against witch hunts and spoke out against them. Also, the doctors who were employed to examine the accused for the “mark of the devil,” the scars, boils, and moles that were thought to signify contact with the devil, they realized that people of good moral character also had them. The practice could not stand up to scrutiny. As all of these changes occurred, the laws began to reflect them. Witchcraft was no longer illegal.
Parallels to Our Own Times
When we think about how similar our time is to that of the Late Middle Ages, we can see so many parallels:
- The lawlessness and lack of authority that was the result of the decimation of the population due to the Black Death , the Great Famine, and many wars is paralleled in MAGA Nation’s waning confidence in our governmental institutions and government authority.
- The rapid decline in population also helped pave the way for the Protestant Reformation — god didn’t answer the prayers of the suffering, the Church couldn’t manage the plague — which loosened the grip of the Church over the populace, but the Protestants didn’t fill the vacuum adequately. The once highly structured social hierarchy of the Middle Ages was no longer as strictly structured. The assumptions about the role of god in the lives of people were no longer borne out in direct experience. With the advent of #COVID19 and extreme weather, some of us lost confidence in science to protect us from the worst of nature’s ravages. Despite the warnings of scientists over the decades, now that these things are here, many people are upset that they didn’t stop it from happening, especially as these confusions and doubts were exploited by fear mongering Republican politicians and conservative media.
- The stress of living through the chaos of the deaths of 30 – 60% of the population and repeated wars left much of the population confused, angry, and uncertain. They looked for a way to restore some sense of control over their lives, and it became the scapegoating and persecution of “witches,” marginalized poor women who just didn’t fit in. Conservatives have been living in a sour stew of grievance, fear, and anger over the declining white population and the growing communities of color. The election of a Black man as president was more than many of these closeted white supremacists could take. They needed some way to return the old order to their world. Defying the government and targeting people who are vaccinated and masking, PoC, immigrants, and liberals, i.e. owning the libs, has become their way of restoring their perception of order.
Many people have said that as the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers get sick and watch relatives and loved ones die, they’ll change their minds. Don’t be so confident. One of the big lessons from the witch hunts is that people were burning women they loved. The number of women who were murdered during the height of the witch hysteria in certain areas — Switzerland — could mean that nearly every woman in the area was accused. If burning your mother as a witch didn’t break the fevered grip of mass psychosis on a person, how could you imagine that watching the West burn, the South hammered by hurricanes, the Midwest and Northeast drowned in floods, the loss of our democracy, or the deaths of a million or more Americans will break the mass psychosis of MAGA Nation?
It seems that we have a lot more crazy to go through before the changes that are needed to rein in this reign of willful stupidity will come to an end. It may be that we have to live through the natural atrophying of their number through premature #COVID19 deaths and shifting demographics to temper their delusion. The problem is that they will continue to vote and the GQP has engineered election laws that will allow them to win with 40% of the vote.
To defeat the mass psychosis of MAGA Nation, we have to have everyone turn out and vote Democratic. We’ll see if the what is left of the sane portion of the country and contain the hysteria that has gripped MAGA Nation.
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Categories: Social Psychology