Why Marcellus’ comment in Hamlet (Act I, Scene IV) is pertinent today
There’s an interesting fact about the human brain: we have an unusually large frontal cortex. This enlarged part of our brain is what we use when we attempt, albeit usually somewhat clumsily, to reason. Unfortunately for our modern-day world, when we’re in a state of fearfulness, our frontal cortex largely shuts down in order that our fight-or-flight response can predominate. After all, for most of our evolutionary history it would have been highly disadvantageous for us to have stood around pondering the meaning of the leopard that was about to eat us.
What this means is that when we’re induced into a state of fear, we mostly stop being able to reason. This makes us very easy to manipulate.
Those with a knowledge of history will recall how many times Europe experienced pogroms against the Jews; each event was the result of inculcating unreasoning fear in the general population. Jews performed blood rituals using gentile virgins; Jews were plotting to undermine society; Jews were an infection that threatened racial purity, and so on. Ultimately the Nazi Party was able to use such fears in order to promote its “final solution.”
Fears were likewise stoked to ensure that old women were burned as witches and heretics were tortured. Trump used fear to garner votes from those who are repeatedly told that “white Christian culture” is under threat, that immigrants are out to replace them, and so forth. Brexit succeeded on the back of fears about immigration. And today the global panic over COVID-19 is likewise based on fear-mongering by the mass media, which relies on sensation to sustain ad revenues.
But fear is an extremely poor basis upon which to base behavior in our complex modern world.
Furthermore, in addition to the economic and social costs delivered by our current hysteria and our desperate over-reactions, we’re undermining the very basis of our societies.
When we’re gripped by fear we want quick and easy solutions. This is natural; for 95% of our evolutionary history, when we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, this was a very adaptive reaction. Do what the leader tells us, and whip everyone else in the group into line. A fragmented response could be fatal.
But today, this hardwired instinct means that we actively decry those attempting to moderate our panic by means of appeals to reality. Who among the ordinary decent Europeans of the mid-fourteenth century would have stood up to defend their Jewish neighbors when the Jews were being blamed for the Black Death? Had anyone tried, they’d have been torn apart by the mob.
What Trump supporter would stand up in her church and try to explain that Fox News lies about hordes of “illegal” immigrants (actually refugees) are a grotesque distortion and that the USA shouldn’t be afraid of those fleeing the horrors of rape and murder? She’d be ostracized, or worse.
Our ape-brains are hardwired to react to anecdote; we have very little capacity to use data in order to assess relative risk. That’s why the story of a single person being struck by an autonomous vehicle is so much more compelling than the fact that on the very same day, as happens every single day of every single year, around one hundred people in the USA were struck and killed by human drivers. Our brains can’t distinguish between hype and relative risk so we’re suckers for sensationalism, and the best sensationalism of all comes from real or imaginary threats to life.
When the great mass of people are gripped by panic, reason has no purchase and it can be very dangerous for those attempting to persuade the mob that their fears are grossly exaggerated. Mob mentality has no room for nuance or facts. Mob mentality demands absolute subjection to whatever “remedy” is proposed by authority figures.
And that’s the problem we face today. In a world of always-on sensationalism, we’re in a near-continuous state of anxiety. It doesn’t take much to tip us over the edge into panic. And when we panic, the very last thing we’re prepared to do is listen to facts and reason. Instead, we’ll attack those who are foolish enough to try to reduce our fear.
That’s why I’m so concerned about the current COVID-19 scare. The data tells us that it’s not the end-of-the-world threat that media sensationalism causes us believe, yet practically no one cares about the data. Everyone is afraid, and so our reasoning ability goes out the window.
Aside from the fact that it’s profoundly unhealthy for us to live in this way, there’s an even darker consequence.
Imagine that there is someone who would like to attain absolute power. This person has already learned the lesson of Brexit and Trump: stoke fear, tell lies, and a large enough percentage of the population will vote for you because they’re so easily manipulated. Now this person is learning the lesson of C-19: keep repeating a simple message of fear and nearly everyone will succumb to panic, nearly everyone will clamor for quick-fix solutions regardless of the cost. And nearly everyone will shout down and attack anyone foolish enough to stand up and say, “Hey, it’s actually not as bad as you think it is, and here’s data to prove it.”
It’s not difficult to see where this mentality ultimately leads us. Even the most well-meaning among us will be part of the problem. Even the most well-meaning among us will rush down the road toward extreme solutions because we’ll be told “this is the only way to contain the existential threat that now faces us!”
Perhaps it’s time to start investing in construction companies.
Because unless we learn important lessons very quickly indeed, and engineer ways to minimize rather than maximize mass hysteria, our future will be filled with concentration camps and walls.