April 9, 2024   6 mins

In the late Eighties and Nineties, the psychiatric profession became infatuated with “recovered memory”, which was conceived in the US but also captivated Europe, including Britain. Practitioners claimed that patients sexually abused as children would naturally repress any recollection of their suffering as too painful, but therapists could employ specialised techniques to retrieve these terrible experiences and so heal the patients’ trauma. As a profusion of books, articles and documentaries cultivated a larger cultural fascination, the recovered memory juggernaut resulted in countless adults “remembering” early childhood abuse, usually by parents. Patients would exhume recollections of having been subject to parental rape or oral sex when they were babies. Accusations followed. Families were torn apart.

In hindsight, it’s now accepted that the therapists were frequently implanting these “memories” in their suggestible patients. Recovered memory was a social mania — a.k.a. a moral panic, social contagion, mass formation psychosis, or mass hysteria. In the throes of the popular delirium, many people found this exercise in psychic archaeology wholly convincing (and no little titillating). For a few years, recovered memories were even accepted as factual testimony in American courts. Only from a distance does the sordid psychological dowsing look barmy.

For me, since roughly 2012, what has therefore been more disturbing than the content of any given hysteria is our continuing susceptibility to collective derangement, which can spread and take hold with alarming rapidity in a digital era. To examine the unnerving phenomenon of the communal fever, often destructive but rarely contested at its height, in my most recent novel Mania I invented my own. Suddenly everyone accepts that all humans are equally intelligent, and “cognitive discrimination” is “the last great civil rights fight”. In other words, there’s no such thing as stupid. Because that assertion is itself stupid, my concocted mania seems apt.

Within the astonishingly short time frame of 10 years, I count four real-life collective crazes: transgenderism, #MeToo, Covid lockdowns (which spawned sub-crazes over masks and vaccines), and Black Lives Matter. I also worry we’re already in the grip of social mania number five.

Take trans. Gender-identity disorder was not that long ago an extraordinarily rare psychiatric diagnosis largely constrained to men. Abruptly circa 2012 — on the heels of such a successful crusade for gay rights and even gay marriage that homosexuality became passĂ© — a profusion of television documentaries hit our screens about little boys who wore dresses and played with dolls. Fast-forward to the present, and the renamed diagnosis has exploded by thousands of percent across the West and now pertains abundantly to girls. Teachers tell toddlers that they have to decide whether they’re a girl or a boy or something in-between. We’re subjecting children to powerful, life-altering experimental drugs and surgically removing healthy breasts and genitals, even at the cost of permanent sexual dysfunction and infertility. “Some people are born in the wrong body” has become a truism, which sounds to me as medically credible as phrenology or bloodletting.

The social mania displays a few consistent characteristics. First and foremost, it never seems like a social mania at the time. In the thick of a widespread preoccupation, its precepts simply seem like the truth. Trans women are women; get over it. Or: masculinity is toxic; virtually all women have been subject to sexual torment and male abuse of power; regarding any accusations they make, no matter how far-fetched or petty, women must be believed. Or: Covid-19 is so lethal, and such a threat to our endurance as a species, that we’ve no choice but to shut down our whole economies and abdicate our every civil liberty to contain the disease. Or: all Western countries are “systemically racist”; all white people are genetically racist; the police are all racist (even if they’re black) and should be defunded or abolished; the only remedy for “structural racism” is anti-meritocratic, over-compensatory racial quotas in hiring and education.

While the seeds of a mania have often been planted earlier, for most ordinary people it comes out of nowhere. Transgenderism rocketed to a cultural fetish over a matter of  months. After one fully fledged creep was exposed as a serial sex abuser, #MeToo spread on Twitter like potato blight. Literally overnight, citizenries in March 2020 took it for granted that their “liberal democracies” could justifiably deny them freedom of movement, assembly, association, press and even speech, while many became eager enforcers of the chaotic, despotic, and sometimes positively silly new regime. It took only a few days for George Floyd’s death to trigger huge protest marches all over the world. This hyperbolic response to a single undeserved killing in a one mid-sized American city was partially fed by the pent-up frustrations of whole populations under house arrest during Covid. But for Koreans to troop down the streets of Seoul chanting, “Black lives matter!” when the country has hardly any black people was insensible. Likewise, Britons chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot!” when their constabulary is unarmed. Moreover, all these recent examples illustrate how moral panics have become more international in scope than ever before.

“While the seeds of a mania have often been planted earlier, for most ordinary people it comes out of nowhere.”

Manias are fuelled by emotion. The cult of trans has capitalised on our yearning to seem enlightened and compassionate.  It has been presented as the logical next step after gay rights, the movement plays on our craving to feel ultra-contemporary. #MeToo both fed off and promulgated resentment, self-pity, and vengeance; in standing up to abuse of power, it tempted some women to abuse their own power to ruin men’s lives. Covid lockdowns stirred primitive terror of death and contagion, until we came to view other people as mere vectors of disease. BLM stimulated the nascent Christian proclivities for guilt, repentance, and penitence even in the secular, while offering black people opportunity to vent frustration, self-righteous fury, and even hatred. All manias thrive on our desire to be included by our own herd and on our anxiety about being exiled — or, if you will, about being UnHerded.

Because a proper mania brooks no dissent. In its grip, everyone believes the same thing, says the same thing, and even uses the same language. A quasi-religious fervour makes anyone outside the bubble of shared obsession seem heretical, dangerous, insane or outright evil. Opponents of lockdowns were granny killers; the unvaccinated were pariahs who shouldn’t be allowed to fly, eat out or obtain healthcare, while some argued “anti-vaxxers” should be imprisoned or put to death. Their rhetoric and affect often violent, transactivists tar critics as murderers; not long ago, writing a single discouraging word about the mutilation of children would end your career. (Self-protectively, I kept my own journalistic mouth shut for a good four years; most journalists are still prudently bumping along on the trans bandwagon.) Women who expressed reservations about the indiscriminate sweep of #MeToo were traitors to their sex. In 2020, even tweeting “All lives matter” got you sacked.

Manias are prone to grow increasingly extreme, accumulating evermore casualties before collapsing from their contradictions. Stalin’s show trials, Cambodia’s killing fields, Mao’s cultural revolution, obviously Nazism; the eugenics movement in the West (which we like to forget), the rage for lobotomies, and the paranoia about Satanism in day-care centres and the contagion of multiple personality disorder of the Nineties — all these misguided infatuations got worse before they imploded.

Hula hoops were harmless, but most manias are malign. The trans movement has warped primary school education, demented our culture with confusion over biological reality, condemned thousands of children to painful surgery and pharmaceutical side-effects, encroached on women’s privacy, and corrupted female sports. #MeToo contaminated relations between the sexes with such mistrust that it may have alone lowered the Western birth rate, while destroying the careers of countless men whose sins were at most venial. Covid lockdowns ravaged our economies, fuelled inflation, and exploded sovereign debt, while damaging the prospects of a generation of school children. BLM has exacerbated racial animosity, demonised meritocracy, and fostered a wasteful, parasitical managerial class of DEI enforcers whom it will be laborious to get shed of.

Yet both the priests and disciples of moral panics are driven by good intentions. They genuinely believe they are doing God’s work. Aggressively virtuous, “wokeness” is one big bundle of mania.

Some hysterias die an easier death than others. Although the fragile, whiny accuser of a US Supreme Court nominee was once heralded as awesomely “courageous”, Christine Blasey Ford’s recent memoir has drawn weary disdain. Ergo, #MeToo is over. Nevertheless, a social frenzy seldom subsides because its agitators announce they were addled, just as the masses of ordinary people caught up in the derangement seldom acknowledge having been led astray. Everyone simply moves on, only to become consumed by something else.

There’s rarely an identifiable point at which a mania is debunked (barring a world war or counterrevolution). Few will recant, much less apologise to the victims of their excesses. A funny amnesia sets in, as forgetfulness is more palatable than shame; the Chinese have simply erased the cultural revolution from their history books. Occasionally, when folks outside the dogmatic bubble prosecute, the cheerleaders of utter tosh are called to account. We did have Nuremburg, and the belated Pol Pot trials in Cambodia. By contrast, the UK’s farcical Covid inquiry is conducted by the same establishment it’s investigating. The subsequent report may criticise single politicians for not having locked down sooner, but it can’t conclude that the lockdowns were a cataclysmic mistake, lest practically everyone at the top be implicated.

Once manias die down, most people pretend they never believed these things to begin with. Having contracted Covid five or six times post-vaccination, multiply boosted mRNA fanatics aren’t prone to advertise their vicious denunciation of the unvaccinated only two or three years ago — any more than recovered memory patients are inclined to advertise that they destroyed their relationship with their parents over an erroneous psychiatric fad. We like to think that we’re “modern” (and what peoples in the present have ever fancied themselves otherwise?) and that we base our beliefs on fact. But we’re just as prey to mass delusions as we ever were.

Accordingly, how’s this for mania number five. It isn’t a mania; it’s just the truth: check. It’s suddenly all anyone in the media seems to talk about, and they use all the same language: check. It’s powered by emotion: check. It brooks no dissent, refuses to acknowledge there’s even a debate to be had, and doghouses all sceptics as evil “deniers” who will bring about the end of world: check. It’s malign, getting increasingly extreme, and is driven by the very best of intentions: check, check, check. I’m not about to get into the argument here, but the escalating hysteria over climate change — or the climate “emergency”, climate “crisis”, or climate “collapse” — displays all the markers, does it not?

Lionel Shriver is an author, journalist and columnist for The Spectator. Her new book, Mania, is published by the Borough Press.