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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 10/29/08

Political Hysteria: Call for Immediate Pre-Election Calming

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Message Diane Perlman


Tension is mounting with negative ads and evidence of voter suppression, machine tampering and other dirty tricks. Hate and fear mongering is reminiscent of the McCarthy era. People are being manipulated by deceptive robocalls, talk shows, ads, posters, and gimmicks. Snide, mean-spirited booing and outrageous comments are allowed, even encouraged at some Republican rallies.

I worry about those being whipped into hysteria. Although politicians using base tactics are losing popularity, they play on fears of people susceptible to emotional exploitation. This may qualify as incitement, defamation, libel, and disinformation, pushing the limits of free speech.

Preventive Intervention

Steps can be taken immediately to prevent likely emotional fallout for the sake of our national mental health and political stability. We cannot wait until after the election. Specific measures include calming, reassurance, correcting falsehoods, demystification (like debriefing from cult brainwashing), and messages of transcendence, cooperation and unity. This is best done by respectable authority figures.

I speak as a registered Independent, post-partisan, concerned American. This is not partisan. Civil Republicans are harmed by the disturbing rhetoric coming from the McCain campaign. The Obama campaign discourages booing and demands more respectful behavior. As a clinical and political psychologist, I worry that social/emotional forces will intensify fear, and confusion that could disrupt a golden opportunity for unity, healing, and restoration of our role in the world.

Split Brain Politics

Unlike countries with multi-party systems, proportional representation, and instant runoff voting, our simplistic, two-party, winner-take-all, precarious election system (with electoral college) encourages black-and-white, us against them thinking. This harms us all and intensifies Republican issues of loss and struggles within the party. The unhealthy dynamic in our country can be transformed.

Political Hysteria

The content of some robocalls, ads, talk shows and rallies provokes irrational fears and "Political Hysteria" - individual hysteria, magnified by group processes, conformity, and social sanctioning of uncivil behavior.

Hysteria is a state of mind characterized by overwhelming fear, excitability and emotional excesses. People may lose their grip on reality, dissociating cognitive functioning from emotion and/or behavior. In "poor reality testing" emotions overwhelm accurate perceptions and assessment of objective reality, resulting in poor judgment, denial of obvious facts and evidence. Reason has no effect. "My mind is made up. Don't confuse me with the facts."

Mass hysteria occurs when excessive emotional excitability is fueled in a social context. "Political hysteria" is when emotional forces serve a political, ideological purpose. A subculture of affected people are filled with unwarranted, primitive fear. They say that if Obama wins they are scared to death, it will be the end of our country, he is an Islamic terrorist, and other bizarre, delusional beleifs.

I feel compassion for these vulnerable people and worry for them and the rest of us. Some unstable types are erupting now. Actions taken immeditately can reduce the social sanctioning and provocation of hysterical behaviors. It is essential to address fears in effective, specific ways that reassure and correct misperceptions. McCain did this when reassuring a woman that Obama was decent and she didn't have to fear his presidency.

One example of political hysteria is the moral panic that gripped Salem from 1691 - 3, leading to trials, torture, imprisonment, and executions. That hysteria ended when the Governor Phips ordered the release of all suspects.

This informs us that hysteria is stopped by a strong, respected authority figure asserting the reality principle, dispelling hysterical fears permeating the community. Likewise the McCarthy period was punctuated when Special Counsel for the Army, Joseph Welch said, "You have done enough. .. Have you left no sense of decency?" We need this kind of leadership now.

Calls for Civility

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Visiting Scholar Institute of Conflict Analysis and Resolution George Mason University

Diane Perlman is a clinical and political psychologist, devoted to applying knowledge from psychology, conflict studies and social sciences to designing strategies and policies to reverse nuclear proliferation, to drastically reduce (more...)

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