Mass disinformation neurosis

If you’ve been listening to the Mad Christian lately, you might have heard the term “mass formation psychosis” mentioned more than once. Folks who promulgate the theory suggest that pandemic restrictions have created perfect conditions for people to fall under the spell of mass formation.

The theory requires that a few things be present before mass formation can occur. When there is fear in the air, people willl put aside their rationality and do as they are told. Add social isolation to the mix, as well as a steady stream of confusing information and the will to go against the flow erodes away.

While the term “mass formation psychosis” has been doing the rounds in conservative corners of the internet, Google and its media allies tried to scupper the theory’s credibility. Even conservative commentators took umbrage at the idea, arguing that the culpability of bad actors is diminished if their behavior is a result of losing their minds. Surely, they say, there are more plausible explanations?

A recent read through E M Forster’s “The Machine Stops” from 1909 reminded us that nothing is new under the sun. Forster’s sci-fi novella is one of those which could have been written today. In a dystopian future, humanity is living beneath the ground, having ravaged the planet (to make pulp for newspapers). They are distracted by novelty, trusting The Machine to cater to their every whim. The Machine hums in the background of their lives and mediates their existence through tubes and wires.

Physical contact is shunned, as is the terror of “direct experience.” Images are preferred over the real thing and “first hand ideas” are considered dangerous. All is safe, predictable and comfortable, with people spending their days collecting ideas and communicating through glowing discs. It doesn’t cross their minds to go outdoors, nor spend time with others in-person. But when trouble comes, they are unprepared.

While this is not a mirror image of our times, the vision of humanity joined together only through technology is striking. How did they become so isolated and dependent on a machine? One character realizes there are benefits to meeting together, as he begins to question his existence. The joy he experiences as he leaves his small room and uses his hands to dig his way to the surface is a metaphor Mad Christians will understand intuitively.

Whether or not you feel that mass formation explains our moment, the things we re-discovered in these long months are treasures found in the darkness. The value of fresh air, of human touch, of quiet and unhurried times, to think and discern – these will always be circuit-breakers when madness is raging. Time spent praying the Psalms and being in church is an antidote to the white noise. But not everyone is awake. Some won’t want to hear that they can face the future without fear, but we should tell them anyway. Throw a wrench in the machine.

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