American Hystericalism (chapter 1)

by Aris Janigian

How we conduct ourselves as Americans, both as individuals and as a society, is based upon an Ideal “type,” and the standard for that Ideal type has shifted in the course of our history. 

During the 18th century, the Ideal American type amalgamated around characteristics of individualism and freedom and self-determination. De Tocqueville described it as a “mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of social creatures,” and two of our most distinguished writers, Thoreau, and Emerson, energetically endorsed this Ideal for all Americans. This Ideal was in concert with the largely agrarian life of early Americans, and later with American expansionism into the Western territories. Still, from very early on the dark side of this Ideal was working on the minds of Americans.  How could social cohesion and social well-being harmonize with the fierce charge of “every man for himself, the devil takes the hindmost.” The role of the state to temper the excesses of this laissez-faire attitude was an ongoing and vociferous matter of debate from the early days of the republic. 

This debate intensified during the Industrial Revolution. The great drift of people away from farms turned the cities where they landed into places not only of opportunity, but of crime, pollution, and Dickensian level poverty. Economic inequality remained an ongoing challenge to the Ideal of American individualism to the end of the century, and by the 1920’s new social systems— socialism, communism and fascism—that promised to radically resolve these intractable problems were on the rise. Herbert Hoover excoriated these movements for eliminating individual liberties in favor of state control, but he also believed that the American Ideal, to be preserved, needed rehabilitation, principally that America should guarantee to each citizen “equality of opportunity.”

In American Individualism, Hoover wrote: “Our individualism is different from all others because it embraces these great Ideals: that while we build our society upon the attainment of the individual, we shall safeguard to every individual an equality of opportunity to take that position in the community to which his intelligence, character, ability, and ambition entitle him: that we keep the solution free from frozen strata of classes; that we shall stimulate effort of each individual to achievement; that through an enlarging sense of responsibility and understanding we shall assist him to this attainment; while he in turn must stand up to the emery wheel of competition.” These traits coalesced into the Ideal of “Rugged Individualism,” coined by Hoover, which would become the dominant American type, the template for assimilation and success for great waves of immigrants during the first two decades of the 20th century.

This Ideal type lasted until the end of the Second World War, when the rapid rise of corporate power and the expansion of suburbia would demand a new type of Ideal citizen, more suitable to its nine-to-five office job needs. This was “The Corporate Citizen;” responsible, bread-winning, church going, right on time, and dedicated to the belief that corporations were wholesome stewards of our national destiny.  Some would argue that the “Entrepreneurial” American Ideal rising out the 1960s and 70’s—cynical of the state, spiritual but not religious, possibly married, city dwelling—followed. But each iteration—a la Elon Musk—always retained something of the original Ideal of self-determination that was thought part of the genetic code of our country, such a powerful defining characteristic, that without it America would cease to be America. 

The evolution of this Ideal and its corollary American assimilation—whether the melting pot or the salad bowl or, even chili bowl or chocolate fondue— deserves far deeper treatment than I can give here. My aim, in any case, is to stress that such Ideals have existed and evolved over the course of our history, and that the emergence of a new American Ideal is on the horizon. Before I turn to what I believe that new Ideal is, I’m obliged to note that for most of our history these Ideals were manifestly not a reality for everyone. Women and Black people especially were either entirely prohibited or limited from even approaching it. In fact, in some respects, individualism was intimately tied to, if not predicated upon, the ownership of private property, which was in turn predicated on the subjugation of Black people as private property. To put it another way, for Southerners especially, only by erasing the self-determination of others could self-determination be achieved. Though Hoover did not make this observation in 1920, he identified other dangers of the Individualist type—selfish and determined to achieve his dream even if it turned the lives of others into a nightmare. Hoover called for a more Christian minded citizen, attentive, compassionate, and charitable to check the dark side of this Ideal. 

The new type that I see emerging today challenges the Ideal of self-determination, to the extent that self-determination is very nearly a menace to society. In fact, this new type throws the whole idea of the “self” into flux, and instead celebrates and concretizes group identity, perhaps paradoxically bedfellowed with a radical communitarian ethic that reaches across national boundaries. This ideal type, which I call Identity Communitarianism, is concerned with the safety and nurturance of the human community above all else. The community’s well-being supersedes individual well-being, and the community expresses its needs through stories and anecdotes (perhaps the only “voice” it has) more than through reason based or dialectical argumentation. It believes in tenderness towards those that the community has traditionally rejected, the marginalized, people traditionally classified as non-white (“people of color”), and even criminals. Most of all Identity Communitarianism does not brook hierarchies; all people should be cared for in the same way and to the same extent possible and all people should play their special but equal role in society. (In an earlier essay I argued that this Ideal [which at the time I called “Social Justice”] closely mirrors the structure of Marxist Ideology, except the terms and actors have changed, and, most importantly, Identity has replaced class.)

Let me say right up front that I believe a profound war is being waged over which Ideal will prevail: the American Individualism Ideal or the Identity Communitarian Ideal. This war is being waged on all fronts, from politics to the economy to education to cultural expression to Covid masking and vaccine mandates, and even to Climate Change. America has rarely been divided as it is at the moment, and it seems beyond doubt that the Individualism Ideal is in decline, and the Communitarian Ideal is in ascendency.  

Much has been written about the demons of the Individualism Ideal, but comparatively little has been thoughtfully written about the demons of Identity Communitarianism. Indeed, those demons are barely now being registered and criticized, and only occasionally by academics for the simple reason they fear being ostracized or even losing their jobs. They fear exposing the dark side because they fear what the dark side can do to them.  The community protects its own at any cost.

Identity Communitarianism is philosophically animated by Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its complementary sister “Theories”— Post-Colonial Theory, Feminist and Gender Studies, Queer Theory, Fat/Disabled Studies—a few that have gone institutionally mainstream. In a previous essay, I put all these theories under the umbrella term “Post-Marxist,” but they have also been termed “Reified Postmodernism” by Pluckrose and Lindsay. Many traditional liberals are reluctant to scrutinize these Theories, CRT especially, which they view in a benign light, for instance, as a platform for revisiting aspects of Black history that have been ignored. Liberals believe that when conservatives criticize CRT they do so in bad faith, a straw man they erect in order to simply rip down, yet another way for Fox News to drum up hate and ratings. Though traditional liberals may be right about Fox News, they are wrong for dismissing CRT so casually. 

CRT is real, and it has a rich history, explicit aims, and precise methods for achieving them. As Delgado and Stefancic accurately observe in their canonical book Critical Race Theory, an Introduction, “although CRT began as a movement in the law, it has rapidly spread beyond that discipline. Today, many in the field of education consider themselves critical race theorists who use CRT’s ideas to understand issues of school discipline and hierarchy, tracking, controversies over curriculum and history, and IQ and achievement testing. Political scientists ponder voting strategies coined by critical race theorists. Ethnic studies courses often include a unit on critical race theory, and American studies departments teach material on critical white studies developed by CRT writers. Unlike some academic disciplines, critical race theory contains an activist dimension. It not only tries to understand our social situation, but to change it; it sets out not only to ascertain how society organizes itself along racial lines and hierarchies, but to transform it for the better.“

Most all Americans would admit that slavery and racism had a profound impact on Blacks, the repercussions of which were felt well into the 20th Century. But most everyone would also agree that America has worked to right its wrongs. To eradicate the scourge of slavery, we fought a civil war, at terrible price in blood and treasure, and have worked assiduously ever since to quash racism in its many ugly guises, from Jim Crow to segregation to red-lining and beyond. Most American, I believe, would say, “We haven’t gotten it perfect, but we’ve come a long way and should embrace it.”

Critical RaceTheorists have a more cynical and static view of America. They believe that American history and identity is founded upon racism, and that our indigenous racism has not abated to any meaningful degree for at least a hundred years. (For some CRT’s racism has not even abated much since the days of slavery.) Brown vs. Board of Eduction, The Civil Rights Act, Johnson’s The Great Society, Affirmative Action, the rise in interracial marriages and the election of a Black president; our embrace of Black culture and Black role models in sports, entertainment, business, and politics—none of this really matters. All these “advances” are nothing more than dissimulations, societal sleights of hand that give White People (mainly liberals and progressives) excuses to wash their hands of the stark and enduring legacy of racism.

CRT admits that racism as most people understand it no longer exists in America. Nothing is outwardly barring black people from achieving their goals; Black people have extensive legal, indeed super-legal remedy (Hate Crime laws) should anyone or any institution infringe on their rights. They admit all of this, and still believe that America remains inalterably racist for a single and quite simple reason: Black people, and POC in general, do not do as well as White people in a whole host of life measures: education, income, home ownership, etc. The gap in achievement between White and POCs ( a highly complicated multi-variate reality) is crudely reduced to a single variable, a single explanation—racism.

To explain how racism can persist where “racism” does not ostensibly exist they turn to the concept of the Unconscious, which legal scholar Charles R. Lawrence III introduces in his seminal paper The Id, The Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism. Here he argues that conscious personal or societal attitudes towards race are irrelevant. Rather the truth about racism can be found in our personal unconscious and the unconscious of our most powerful systems or structures or institutions: hence, Institutional Racism (IR). Here is the formula in sum: We know Black people suffer racism because of the achievement gap and we know that the only reason there is an achievement gap is because of unconscious racism.

CRT, then, is not merely an exhortation to revisit aspects of history that have elided our cultural consciousness. For many decades scholars have unflinchingly probed our past; indeed, historian Mark Arax and I did just that not too long ago in respect to the painful prejudice Armenians faced in Fresno county during the first half of the 20th Century. Nor is CRT even primarily about revisiting policies, like was recently done in Philadelphia where police are now barred from stopping motorists for minor driving infractions that might inadvertently, yet still inordinately affect Blacks and POC. CRT has a much broader and explicit agenda—though, let’s be clear, there is suspiciously lazy if not obscurantist reporting about it on both sides of the political and news aisle.

While CRT started in legal studies and humanities departments in the 1980’s, within two decades it had classified itself as a robust social science theory with the “unconscious” or what they also call “implicit bias”— for which they even have a test, whose results, as they put it, “may even be contradictory to what one consciously believes”— at  its core. Today, CRT and IR purport to explain a dizzying array of behaviors and attitudes, from the large scale (banking practices) to the microscopic, if not nearly invisible, human mental processes. I think it fair to say that CRT is one of the most comprehensive theories of human behavior and attitudes ever advanced, akin to Marxist Dialectical Materialism (Post-Marxism/CRT is to Identity Communitarianism what Dialectical Materialism is to Communism).

Whenever the “unconscious” is factored into our theoretical modeling we must be cautious. With the unconscious in play, nothing on the surface—nothing of our readily legible reality—really matters, or rather, it matters only insofar as it is a sign, symbol, or artifact of something that is anterior to it, and fundamentally unobservable. To be supported, a scientific theory must be empirically tested using operational definitions and measuring instruments that produce findings that are replicatable in different contexts and different populations. When it’s all said and done, for science, the surface and what is demonstrable is all that matters. Short of this a “scientific” theory has only heuristic, storytelling or political value. Though the “unconscious” is part of our everyday language, for research scientists (as opposed to psychoanalysts) it barely exists—even to explain individual human attitudes or behaviors—because it is unobservable and unmeasurable except by deep inference, a nearly implausible leap of faith, similar to what religion demands. 

With CRT, the unconscious—or, rather unconscious processes—manifest at roughly three scales of human interaction: from the infinitesimally small, what they call micro-aggressions (personal remarks or gestures), to, those mentioned above, implicit bias (personal or group level attitudes or behaviors) and institutional racism (deeply embedded organizational or societal scale laws, mores, regulations, codes). As the reach of these processes extends into the institutional the danger of outsized consequences also scales up. In fact, we risk asserting that all of society is sick without knowing it. We risk setting in motion a kind of perpetual-motion-explanation-machine that chews up every social fact in its path, using reductio ad absurdums for gears. Here is an example of what I mean: “We’re either being racist or we’re being anti-racist,” and “a not racist is a racist in denial,” Ibram Kendi, one of the leading spokespersons for CRT, harrowingly asserted at a 2020 Ted Talk (whose slogan is weirdly “Ideas worth spreading”). This formula grinds debate and dialectic to a halt.

Modern civilization cannot conduct its affairs based upon such chilling circular reasoning. If it does, the outcome is sure to be civil war or societal scale psychosis, and hystericalism as the coveted mode of cultural engagement. Yet, California schools have now mandated the teaching of Ethnic Studies to all students K-12, which includes “conversations about privilege and institutionalized oppression.” In fact, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum workbook starts with the demand that teachers “be aware of how their own implicit bias may impact ethnic studies teaching and learning.” This is CRT to a “T”. The State even provides a footnote should a teacher need teaching about the philosophical basis of what they will be teaching: “Critical race theory (CRT) is a practice of interrogating race and racism in society. It acknowledges that racism is embedded within systems and institutions that replicate racial inequality — codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy.” “Unconscious bias” training for teachers, staff, and hiring personnel is now a regular feature of many school districts across the country, including in In Loudon County, Virginia, a flash-point for the teaching of Critical Race Theory. This is a national priority as well. The Biden administration and the US Department of Education cites Kendi and his book “How to be an Anti-Racist” in its proposed priorities in the teaching of American History and Civics.

Institutional Racism is now accepted almost de facto by our current government, most esteemed cultural institutions, universities and their umbrella organizations leading publications,  military, both private and public media organizations, like PBSprofessional sports franchises, blue-ribbon corporations, including one of our favorite ice cream companies.  It’s estimated that companies now spend $8 billion annually in implicit bias and diversity training.

Although the unconscious is fundamentally unobservable, and unconscious bias a hotly contested construct among social scientists, this doesn’t mean that researchers haven’t repeatedly tried their best to craft studies that measure its influence and provide evidence in support of CRT’s claims. I’ve read many of these studies (I am trained as a research psychologist), and a fair number of them eerily echo the Soviet Union at the height of its mania and paranoia, where it spent untold resources and squandered untold lives and minds in its relentless quest to interpret all social phenomena in defense of Dialectical Materialism.

With that said, some research is more rigorous and fair-minded than others, and deserve citation in our cultural conversation. Here is one such CRT study conducted over a period of four years by Harvard scholars who hypothesized that because of unconscious bias/institutional racism Blacks and Latinx face harsher treatment in the Massachusetts’ criminal justice system than do Whites . In respect to the most important results of the study, I will jump right to their own words: “Black and Latinx defendants tend to face more serious initial charges that are more likely to carry a mandatory or statutory minimum sentence. Despite facing more serious initial charges, however, Black and Latinx defendants in Superior Court are convicted of offenses roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts. Black defendants in particular who are sentenced to incarceration in the DOC are convicted of less severe crimes on average than White defendants despite facing more serious initial charges.” This is hardly earthshaking evidence in support of the researcher’s hypothesis. The authors are obliged to conclude: “The data analyzed do not allow us to conclusively isolate the impact of unconscious bias, prejudice, and racism in generating the disparities we document.” 

These results are typical of what you will find in CRT based research studies: modest or mixed (as we find here) support for CRT’s central thesis. The findings patently do not rise to the level of justifying adoption by the most powerful institutions in this country or using them as the basis for societal scale changes. In fact, the precise opposite needs to happen: CRT theory should be the subject of the most serious and robust debate.

Then there are results, never talked about, but not uncommon to find in such studies, that contradict CRT entirely. I think everyone would agree that the charge of 1st degree murder is the most consequential charge in our justice system, and we would be horrified to discover that one race—confounding variables accounted for—suffers that charge more than others. Yet, that is precisely what we find in this study, where White people are about 70% more likely to be convicted than are Black people for first degree murder.  

A common practice among CRT based studies­ is to leave wealth or income out of the modelling so that its influence cannot be measured—left out even when we know that for a multitude of societal outcomes—longevity, health, education, etc.— they are the greatest predictors. In respect to criminal justice, it’s obvious that wealth buys attorney power, and that power influences everything from the initial charge to conviction to sentencing. Sometimes it is difficult to account for wealth or income—the data just isn’t there—but in many CRT studies I’ve read, including the one cited above, the absence of this extraordinarily important variable seems omitted intentionally. I believe if it was factored into this study we’d find that the poorest defendants, regardless of race, would have the poorest outcomes. This would contradict or at least compromise CRT’s race based thesis, and the goals of Identity Communitarianism.  

According to this study “unconscious bias” is not demonstrably at work in the criminal justice system, nor is it crystal clear that White people have significant advantages over Black and Latinos. These tepid results were left unannounced by most corporate media, but where they were announced here is how it went: CNN’s headline for that study: “Harvard Study Finds Institutional Racism  ‘Permeates’ the Massachusetts Justice System.” 

This is par for course for most corporate media’s reporting on these matters, and a good example and good lede into what I call Hystericalism.  Hystericalism as distinguished from hysteria, because I view the former as a regular mode or practice as opposed to a stand-alone psychological phenomenon. Hystericalism is largely manufactured and commodified or “monetized by the most influential institutions of our society: news and social media corporations, politics, and even places of higher learning, as I will demonstrate below presently.

I’m aware that hysteria is a term that is no longer used much to define mental illness, as it’s thought denigrating to women; the word, after all, derives from the Greek hystera, uterus, which the Greeks imagined was out of control, wandering, the cause of females’ excessive and heightened emotional perturbations, especially those attended by illness. Even so, it is well documented that both individual and mass hysteria is chiefly a female phenomenonAccording to Robert Bartholomew who researched mass hysteria extensively, “Most, and often all of those affected are females. In fact, of the 2,000+ cases in my files that date back to 1566, this pattern holds true over 99 percent of the time.” Females are also twice as likely to develop mood disorders, account for almost all eating disorders and acts of self-harm.  (In the second part of this series, I will return to the female dimension of this pathology, and argue that it’s being used as a socially sanctioned tool of vengeance and control over masculinity and sexual expression.)

Psychoanalysis began with the study of a hysteric, “Anna,” Freud’s first and most important patient.  She was a supremely intelligent girl, age 17, who had developed a cluster of behaviors which physicians found inexplicable. Freud who loved challenging patients, especially those whom nobody else could cure, analyzed her for years, refining his concepts around her pathology so much so that she was described as “the germ-cell of the whole of psychoanalysis.” With that said, it is an illness that is highly elastic in presentation and around which speculation in fields as diverse as medicine and literature has evolved over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries.  In recent decades, for instance, literary critics and feminist scholars interpret hysteria as a rational and even inevitable reaction to “patriarchal oppression.” I’d like to reintroduce it here considering what I believe is a new societal phenomenon that has serious implications for the future of our democracy and our cultural commerce.  

We can put together a good picture of hysteria from studies, anecdotes and narratives both distant and contemporary: they are best characterized by emotional excessiveness, suggestibility, oral aggression, and exhibitionism. At the same time, they are puritanical and binary in their thinking.  Often hysterics have suffered an actual injury or have identified so closely with someone who has, that the injury amounts to their own, so they often have an uncanny capacity for “tuning” into others, exhibiting deep feelings of empathy.

Hysterics are often intelligent (as was Anna O), educated, even overly-educated and they use their life-force and learning to tirelessly weave actors, objects, events, symbols and signs, intimations, anecdotes, innuendos into a world view that betrays commonsense and yet is not entirely dismissible. Their thresholds for injury are so low that almost any act can cross it, and they abjure the usual cost-benefit analysis of their spectacular response to a problem.

I think Jung was right that each person is animated by both male/female principles, one in the dominant position and one in the subordinate. Humans simmer with feelings utterly unexplainable to themselves and hysteria lies within every person waiting to boil over, and for many of us it occasionally does. Civilization, I believe, in agreement with Freud, attempts to shape these feelings into a form that can be controlled and best utilized for the growth or at least survival of that civilization, and when civilizations decline hystericalism in the populace escalates, and upon collapse escalates precipitously.

Authoritarians like Hitler and Mussolini used hystericalism at just the right moment as a tool to drive their extreme policies and views. “Fantasizing hysterical romanticism, with a brutal core of will,” is how Hitler’s contemporary Professor Karl von Muller characterized the Fuhrer’s speeches, laden with statistics and “learning” in economics, sociology, and anthropology. They were received with “feverish applause,” “steadily mounting joy,” and even an undertone of sexual ecstasy: “as a speaker he [Hitler] fascinated them [women],” his friend Alfred Rosenberg observed. “Time and again, women would produce the first bravos…that would break the ice.” Not primarily hatred, nor vengeance explained the ecstatic and seductive power of Hitler’s often hours long orations. But rather “the essence of his speeches was empathy,” according to Historian Charles Flood; “for his audience his speeches were an electric hour in which he and they shared the hardships and humiliations.” (Flood. Hitler: The Fate of Power. pg. 350) 

In contrast to psychotics, who create a reality that has little to no corollary to the real world, hysterics are usually triggered by something in the environment, some actual and persistent threat, so that telling them they are “imaging things” will get you nowhere. The infamous Salem Witch Trials were sparked by a group of hysterical young girls’ inflammatory claims, which the ultra-Puritan Cotton Mather used as pretext to hang the accused. But there, as elsewhere, mass hysteria answered a  source of dissonance and perceived injustice in the community. Jim Jones—a master of hystericalism—railed endlessly against American society for being bigoted, unjust, materialistic, belligerent, and militaristic, views that were shared by many Americans. His logical, if extreme answer was to lead nearly 1000 followers (half of whom were Black women) to Guyana to set up a Socialist Utopia before, of course, they terminated the project and themselves via mass suicide. This dogged kernel of truth in hysterics’ perceptions is what makes them more credible and far more dangerous than psychotics who weave reality out of thin air. 

Again, hystericalism starts at the fringes and becomes more acceptable to the ordinary citizen when an intractable and unexplainable social problem or enemy swallows up their vision, sometimes suddenly or sometimes growing over time. Hysterics always have the answer and the answer is always and only theirs. Clearly, America is susceptible to episodic hystericalism, McCarthyism being the best political example, but hardly the only. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” George H. W. Bush decreed shortly after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, exemplifying the hallmark of hystericalism—a violent intolerance for dialectic or debate.

American society cannot survive with frenzied irrationality at the helm of its decision making for long, and for the most part, hystericalism was sent into retreat after its political function had been served. Our system is grounded in debate and compromise. Change happens through reform rather than revolution by design.  Even so, when the country occasionally convulses into  hystericalism, our system’s three estates of objectivity and impartiality — journalism, academia, and the judiciary—have traditionally served as checks, built in restraints, but I would hardly be the first person to observe and have deep concerns that these checks are weakening. As but a simple example we can look at the hystericalized definitional thresholds adopted by these three estates for terms like “Survivor,” “Trauma,” “Racist,” “Sexual Assault,” “Hate Crime,” among a multitude of others. These terms were once reserved for those who overcame extremely arduous circumstances, great natural or human-made disasters; they were once reserved to brand perpetrators of highly destructive attitudes and behaviors, and to denote the terrible pain they inflicted. They stood in condemnation of the crime and focused our shared mourning, almost a first step towards victims’ healing and reparation. Today, it’s not uncommon to find these terms used for people whose feelings were hurt.  

Allow me to illustrate all of this with an iconic encounter between students and a professor at Yale University, in late-2015, just when Donald Trump was (the oblivious, ego-bloated, mocking and sexually predacious father figure—but more on the Prince of Darkness later) ramping up his hysteria-making candidacy. It is between a group of Yale students and Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist, physician, and professor of social and natural science at Yale, from which he also graduated in 1984. He, along with his wife, Erika Christakis, a lecturer at Yale, were so-called “masters”—kind of super-high level Residential Advisors—of Silliman, a residential college at Yale. Much has been written about the encounter, either defending Christakis or defending the students, and Mr. Christakis has spoken extensively about it himself.  So, I will simply summarize the context for the altercation before attempting to show that nearly every facet of it reflects the quintessence of hystericalism and essential components of Identity Communitarianism. To study it is to study what our future under this new regime holds for all of us.

The altercation was “triggered” by an e-mail Ms. Christakis sent to the Silliman College community challenging Yale administrators who had taken the liberty to dictate the politically correct terms for costume wearing on Halloween. Ms. Christakis, a child development specialist, begins her letter to the Sillimanders by reminding them of her bonafides: “as you know I teach a class on The Concept of the Problem Child.”  She intelligently questions the wisdom of the administrators’ advice (“Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society,”), and its very need (“Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to exercise self-censure?”). She even  questions the presumption that dressing up as “Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans” will create debilitating harm to anyone. (“Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it.”) The administration’s letter is a perfect example of the Communitarian Ideal, and Ms. Christakis’ retort is a perfect example of the “Individualism Ideal” however amended over time. Reading the two side by side, I think, is revelatory. 

So is this video, where Mr. Christakis finds himself surrounded by perhaps 50 students (none of whom, it seems, are there to defend him); only a handful are men, a few of the women are white, and the balance women of color.  Mr. Christakis, at first, appears confident in his role as Master, educator, and scholar—that “a teaching moment” it at hand. He is, after all, part of a great dialectical and humanistic tradition; Yale’s stone architecture, its vast libraries, its centuries-old history, all are evidence of its commitment to rationality, faith in open debate, the right to a point of view, the right to freely express that point of view, whether in the classroom or on the grounds of the campus.  

Mr. Christakis (who will ultimately resign from his position as Master; his wife will leave Yale altogether), is about to confront a new order, a new dispensation: Identity Communitarianism. This dispensation is neither liberal, nor conservative, nor even traditional left, as class is not really factored into their societal reckoning. What it stands for is illuminated by what it rejects: “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment Rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law,” Delgado and Stefancic explain.  

This likely also explains the opening scene in the video, where, within seconds, Mr. Christakis’ right to a point of view is challenged by a student who calls him offensive and racist. “Why can’t you say sorry,” the same student asks, more a demand than a question, to which Mr. Christakis reflexively replies, “I am sorry.” Laughter and jeers from the hive ensue; the student who asked the question smiles derisively and turns to her cellphone; the way adolescents retire an issue when they get bored. 

They were right that Mr. Christakis didn’t really buy into the apology because he will presently revisit what exactly the students are asking him to do. Do they want him “to apologize for hurting their feelings?” The answer is emphatically “no.” They refuse to accept any apology short of one that will incriminate him as a racist. One of the students explains it to him this way: If you are playing soccer, and the ball you kick hits someone in the head, you apologize.  Christakis is an old fashioned liberal, still faithful to American Individualism, where context and intent factor into the admission of one’s guilt. Yes, of course he’s willing to apologize for an accident—but for assault and battery? Perhaps, too, Mr. Christakis senses that these people are in a world of hurt if they don’t leave behind their world of hurt. That they have something to learn from their Master appears alien and hostile to the hive. A student breaks down crying at his refusal to submit to the charge of racism. When Mr. Christakis draws close in sympathy, another student steps between them, providing the victim a shield from his menacing presence. 

That Mr. Christakis might hold fast to the belief that apologizing for an error that isn’t in fact an error might hold consequences for something like Truth is hurtful to these students. According to CRT, Christakis is still steeped in the empathic fallacy: “the belief that one can change a narrative by merely offering another, better one” (Delgado and Stefancic). You don’t advance learning by challenging a point of view; you advance it by entering your interlocuters minds and immersing yourself in their feelings, holding the community tight all the while. The Truth is their collective truth. He has violated their “home,” their “safe place,” the greatest truth of all. 

“I have a vision of ourselves that unites our common humanity,” Mr. Christakis tells them. “Though I am not like you, I can sit down and talk to you and understand your predicament. If you deny that, what is the reason you ask to be heard?”  This is too abstract, too privileged, too hitched to The (White) Enlightenment, an affront that prompts a male student to step up and stop mere inches away from Mr. Christakis’ face: “Look at me,” he instructs Mr. Christakis, and repeats it, “Look at me.” Hardly a Master, Mr. Christakis has been demoted to the rank of child or 15th century serf. “Do you understand we’re not the same. Your experience will never connect to mine.” The hive clicks its fingers in applause, (actual applause may trigger anxiety). So vastly different are their experiences that no human bridge is possible. Per Identity Communitarianism, they must form a community but with the enduring understanding that they live in isolated worlds, some closer to the center of power, some more removed. Mr. Christakis attempts his best to construct a bridge anyhow, finally getting the student to meet him somewhere in the middle. They shake hands, but when Mr. Christakis smiles the student admonishes him: “The situation here does not require you to smile.” 

This adolescent imperiousness— “Look me in the face,” or “Do you understand?,” or “Do not interrupt me,” or “You’ve had your turn”— pervade the exchanges. Equally imperious is the hive’s instant scrutinizing of Christakis’ smallest gesture, which must meet their strictest rules, any deviation from which betrays his intent to injure. If Mr. Christakis smiles, he is being dismissive, if he bends down to better hear (he is very tall) he is being rude; if he doesn’t smile, he is smirking, arrogant, even “disgusting.” He raises his voice at one point so those behind him can better hear and is chided for “yelling.” “I’m doing my best everyone,” he says. 

Mr. Christakis is confronted by one after another female student who begin the exchange with the strange question “First, what’s my name?” He can’t recall their names and asks for their indulgence: he explains that name remembering is not his strong suit (comparable to not having the facility to play a musical instrument, he analogizes), that he has 500 names to remember (the size of the Silliman community) and has only been on the job for two months. This innocent explanation, which he offers more than once, elicits accusation of “gaslighting,” and it correctly dawns on him that the students are putting him to a test again; his inability to remember their names also marks him as a racist; one student goes so far as to characterizes it as “stripping” them of their humanity. When he mistakes one student’s name, she screams and cries, “You never tried to know what I am. You have never invited me anywhere. You should know all of our fucking names.” A name protects you from anonymization, dehumanization. Names, whether used in reference to a person, pronouns, or race is the foundation of Identity Communitarianism. During the 2020 riots a common refrain among the BLM protesters was “Say Her Name,” or “Say His Name” in respect to any Black person killed by police. So, here, remembering names takes on existential import. “You have created space for violence,” a student tells him. The students click their fingers enthusiastically.

Twenty minutes in, the situation goes from touchy to incendiary. A student accuses Mr. Christakis of abominable social crimes, calls him “disgusting” repeatedly.  More, she dictates all the terms of their three minute “exchange,” elucidating in real time the new rules going forward. When he tries to introject, “don’t do it, this is not the day; you will not play this game with me,” she yells, the game apparently old-fashioned discussion. Another student, off to the side, folds her hands over her face as though suffering almost unbearable horror that she needs to hide from. 

But that was just dress rehearsal for what follows, an encounter so heated and indefensible that it was left out of the video I’ve hyperlinked above. Triggered by Mr. Christakis’ contention that “other people have rights too,” a student, Jerelyn Luther, screams, “Be quiet!”  

You see, “rights are alienating,” write Delgado and Stefancic, “they separate people from each other,” rather than “encouraging them to form close, respectful communities.” It is likely that this new rule is what lay behind Ms. Luther’s eruption, which, in any case, suffices to shut Mr. Christakis up. 

Ms. Luther: “Your job [per the new rules] is to create comfort and home for students who live at Silliman. You have not done that. Sending out that email was against your position as master, do you understand that?” 

Mr. Christakis: “I don’t agree with that.”

Ms. Luther: “Then why the fuck did you accept the position? Who the fuck hired you?”

Mr. Christakis: “I had a different vision.” 

Ms. Luther: “If that is what you think of being a master you should step down. It is not about creating an intellectual space; it is not, do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that. You are disgusting.”

There is a blood curdling, primitive, and absolutist ruthlessness to this new movement. Those who make “trouble” for the community commit the ultimate heresy and sin; or, in the words of one student “create the space for violence.” If we take these Sillimanders seriously, next thing we know they’ll be cancelling Halloween and witch costumes altogether because it will hurt the feelings of the half a dozen or so Wiccans on campus. No culture that has such a low threshold for injury can possibly survive. No culture with an immune system so shot to pieces can sustain a true viral load. For decades, psychologists have demonstrated that parental overprotection of children, and even young adults, leads to anxiety, dependency, and social maladjustment. In essence, hystericalism makes a culture sick where sickness hardly exists. We should pause for a moment and ask a question so obvious it boggles the mind that it isn’t asked with fear and trembling for our society night and day: how would these young adults with their absurdly low thresholds for pain withstand an assault in orders of magnitude greater than what they and their millions of ilk are hourly complaining about?  Their world is irreconcilable with most of the actual world. Remember too, the Christakis’ only asked to let the students decide and arbitrate these matters, hash it out as an exercise in self-governance. Why are they so opposed to this?  What are these Identity Communitarians so afraid of?  I don’t think I am the only one that senses it is the messy racket of democracy itself. 

To my reckoning, all of this smacks of emotional-political theater. Indeed, for decades, Feminist Scholars, including Elizabeth Bronfen in The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents, have viewed hysteria as a kind of thespianism, a predictable form of expression for women given the psychic trauma induced by The Patriarchy. Some scholars see Anna, the first hysteric, let’s say, as just such a psycho-dramatist who—using language, but also props and scenic arrangements reproducing pivotal events in her life—spent her sessions with Freud projecting her internal tragedy onto a kind of stage of her own making.  Freud was an unwitting actor, or perhaps assistant director, in her exhausting and impenetrable productions intended to convey the deepest meaning of her suffering. In evidence of this, Freud was summarily dismissed once Anna had wearied of him, and was left to confect his own psychodrama from the questions she left unanswered—the advent of psychoanalysis. 

Michael Micale, who has written extensively about the history of hysteria, concludes that the illness is much more than an illness, a manifestation of everything from “divine poetic inspiration” to “satanic possession,” and that it adapts its symptoms to the “prevailing ideas and mores in a given historical, social and cultural context.” The episode at Yale was an exemplary contemporary production, conveying the trauma of racism, the terms for addressing it, the ways it can and cannot be spoken about, what principles it inaugurates, which principles it makes obsolete and supersedes. Running to the defense of this Hystericalism, Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator, wanted us to understand that “Videos show that students of color confronted Nicholas Christakis (and by extension, his wife) for seeking to protect the feelings of some students (white students) over the feelings of other students (students of color) and not creating an equally ‘safe space’ for all.”  

“Feeling” is a kind of irreducible and immediately palpable essence from which everything else is just its vapor. Later I will discuss how social media and the marketplace feed from and feed these “feelings,” making Hystericalism not just possible but necessary for their growth and hegemony over our lives. 

The other side of “all the adults have left the room,” is that “all the adults have turned into children.” 

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