‘Social manias die quietly’

Lionel Shriver on why elites are rarely held accountable for their most damaging mistakes.


Topics Identity Politics

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Social manias now arrive as regularly as the seasons. In just the past few years, elites have succumbed to hysteria over everything from Covid-19 to climate change, from so-called systemic racism to the non-existent ‘trans genocide’. In each case, laws have been altered, liberties have been abolished and society has been upended, seemingly in the name of combatting a near-apocalyptic social ill. Lionel Shriver’s new novel, Mania, imagines a world where the next great social contagion is the ‘Mental Parity Movement’, which insists that everyone is equally intelligent. Those who cling to the ‘old, bigoted way of thinking’ about meritocracy soon find that their livelihoods, their relationships and their safety are under threat. Her satire brilliantly captures just how absurd these manias look from the outside. So why do so many people get caught up in them in the first place?

Shriver returned for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show to discuss our age of collective madness. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full thing here.

Brendan O’Neill: How do manias die? Are they confronted or do they just fizzle out?

Lionel Shriver: My sense is they die very quietly, slowly and tacitly. That is, they die when people stop talking about them. They do not die because people in power reverse their positions in public. Regardless of what the particular mania was, you’ll never hear any apologies or recognition from the people who went nuts. They’ll never disavow their past beliefs or actions.

Very few will ever be held to account, either. The people who brought in lockdowns are never going to pay a price. Those who do acknowledge their fault, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, will only do so in a tiny, quiet way. But you’ll never see a CDC official admit the same things in a public, televised interview. The authorities will never recognise that they were caught up in hysteria and that they were wrong.

What’s so weird about a mania is that, when it unofficially subsides, the people who went along with it simply want to change the subject. All they want to do is move on. We saw this recently when we went immediately from Covid-19 to Black Lives Matter and then to climate change. Now that’s all the elites want to talk about.

O’Neill: How can people still stand up for reason in an age of mania?

Shriver: There are little watershed moments. With the trans issue, we’re in one of those moments right now thanks to the Cass Review. Dr Hilary Cass led an investigation into how NHS England was running its youth gender clinics and produced some truly shocking results. Already this has had a huge effect on what newspapers feel free to publish. Dissenting views are getting a hearing in a way that wouldn’t have been possible even a few months ago.

Someone in power finally acted like a grown-up and pointed out that none of this ‘gender-affirming care’ is based on evidence. Manias like this are at their root irrational and not based on evidence. Instead, they are based on passion. These kinds of views are attractive because they are new and seemingly explain everything. That is why they always die eventually, when the irrationality reveals itself. There’s a hollowness or an inconsistency in this way of thinking that means it just doesn’t work in the long term.

The recovered-memory movement is a good example of this. In the 1980s and 1990s, the therapeutic community in the US pioneered a technique that supposedly allowed adults to dredge up repressed memories of child abuse, sometimes even from when they were babies.

Thousands of people were convinced by therapists that they had been abused, usually by their parents. Some claimed to remember abuse from when they were as young as three months old – before babies are even capable of forming memories. This mania destroyed families and communities. But for the ‘victim’, it explained everything that had ever gone wrong with their lives. This was a good example of how simple explanations make these movements tick.

Like most of the other hysterias, this one died in a quiet way. Studies emerged showing that these poor, suggestible patients had memories of abuse basically implanted in them by their therapists. No apologies were made and there was no effort to ensure that this sort of therapy never happened again. Little by little, people simply moved on to the next mania.

O’Neill: Why is there an unwillingness to reckon with how mad our societies have become in the past few years?

Shriver: Well, manias are by definition society-wide. There are just so many people involved in them. How would you go about holding everyone complicit in lockdowns to account, for instance? The entirety of the British political establishment, and much of the American establishment, were clearly responsible. But most regular people also went along with the rules and restrictions, too. It would simply be too high a price for everyone to recognise that they went nuts. That would create a lot of mistrust and discomfort.

All of us like to imagine that we are independent thinkers. It is very important to me that I believe this about myself. But I’m also a human being. I certainly have my blind spots. At some point, I’m also likely to get wrapped up in something that is, in retrospect, a bit nuts.

We often take our own versions of reality for granted. It never occurs to us, most of the time, to question those assumptions. So the whole phenomenon of social manias is upsetting to our understanding of ourselves. We all want to believe that we are wise people who always look at the evidence. We want to believe that we’re always non-conformists and that we are never influenced by other people. But to a large degree, that is simply not the case. And it’s probably not the case with me, either.

Lionel Shriver was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: Mark Kohn.

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Topics Identity Politics


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