Society, Politics & Law

The Cycles of Neurosis

Updated Monday 4th May 2009

Engin Isin asks whether society is encouraged to overreact to certain events.

It often starts with an event or a phenomenon. It could be a mass killing, a spreading flu, increasing migrants, or decreasing credit. Before we understand its causes, its consequences are predicted with ferocious repetition. "We are facing an unprecedented enemy that is well organized". "It could cost billions to contain the pandemic". "Are we prepared to provide services demanded by migrants?" "With the collapsed economy we may be facing a depression not seen since 1929."

A person wearing a pig mask Creative commons image Icon squacco under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Did we overeact to swine flu?

"It seems governments, businesses, nongovernmental and news organisations all have some vested interest in these disproportionate responses."

These predicted consequences become progressively disproportionate to actual consequences. The collective response becomes equally disproportionate. Armies invade countries with dodgy dossiers that look credible to some. Mass mobilisations are enlisted to contain pandemics that are not. Massive investments are made in border control and tracking methods. Trillions and billions are printed and pumped into markets with fancy names such as "quantitative easing".

It seems governments, businesses, nongovernmental and news organisations all have some vested interest in these disproportionate responses. A few academics, journalists, scientists, and activists warn against disproportionate responses and call for better understanding of causes rather than focusing on predictions of consequences. "There is no justification for war." "More people are killed on the road than by terrorist attacks." "Migrants contribute to the economy and we need them." These voices are drowned out, mostly by the argument that, had there not been dramatic responses, situations would have been worse - claims that are impossible to verify. Do you remember The Millennium bug?

"…after every cycle we have gone through, we realise that the responses we were led to believe to have been appropriate proved to be well beyond what was necessary."

What follows is more prophecies, prognostications, predictions, and various scenarios. Having determined the dramatic consequences to follow, explanations that fit those consequences are offered. In other words, in a strange but social twist of logic, consequences are made to explain causes. For lack of a better term, I can’t help but call these cycles of neurosis. In the twentieth century psychoanalysts called the disproportionate response to perceived dangers neurosis - a term that is no longer used in psychology to define any disorder. But it persists outside established science and many sociologists have used the term to define collective phenomena of anxiety, hysteria or unease.

I think it is apt to use the term "neurosis" and to name our response "neurotic" because the cycle that starts with a bang almost always ends with a whimper. It seems that, after every cycle we have gone through, we realise that the responses we were led to believe to have been appropriate proved to be well beyond what was necessary. Is Al Qaeda really the threat that it was presented to be? Are migrants really the threat that they were represented to be? Is there really an economic collapse to the extent that has been suggested? In a short time it has already been demonstrated that the most recent cycle - swine flu - may have been an over-reaction. The headlines already declare that swine flu did not spread as fast as predicted. The BBC News reported tests showing that the swine flu virus in Mexico may be less virulent than first feared, and asked "Did Mexico over-react on swine flu?" It is as though it was only Mexico that over-reacted.

Ten years ago the New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast, introduced "the neuro" as "the first official worldwide currency" in one of her cartoons. It may have been prescient. We really need to understand why it has become so. What are the reasons for the collective neurosis of our times?

Find Out More 

Isin, E.F. (2004) The Neurotic Citizen, Citizenship Studies, 8 (3), 217-235.

Horney, K. (1937) The Neurotic Personality of Our Time, New York, W.W. Norton.

Fromm, E. (1944) Individual and Social Origins of Neurosis, American Sociological Review, 9 (4), 380-384.

Roz Chast, The Back Page, “Introducing the Neuro - The First Official Worldwide Currency,” The New Yorker, April 26, 1999, p. 196.

 

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