Jan 26 (Australia Day) 2006
There were some interesting items in the news recently.
A boatload of asylum seekers from west Papua landed on Cape York in northern Australia. In the same day or two, East Timor released some details of a report on the Indonesian occupation. About one third of the number of the population at the time of the invasion, were killed over the twenty-five years of occupation. Was it in the same news bulletin we heard Australia tried to deport a mentally ill Turkish man by booking 140 seats on a commercial flight to Turkey? In the next forty eight hours we heard the Australian Government had flown the Papuans, not only to the other side of Australia, but then on out into the Indian Ocean, all the way to remote and isolated Christmas Island to "process" them. That should ensure a just, fair and transparent assessment of their situation.
But let's look at hysteria. What is it? Hysteria is often what happens when our view of reality cannot cope with the contrary data presented to it by Reality itself. Hysteria is not the only response to this situation. People may become profoundly depressed, sealing off their emotions, for example. Others may become enraged. But hysteria as I understand it is more dangerous. Rage is obvious. Depression damages the depressed. Hysteria hides itself, and then sets out on a dangerous subversion of healthy community.
The unhidden face of hysteria is well known to us in the stereotype of the person who simply cannot cope with too much information and stress. There can be so much happening during a fire or a flood that we simply cease to function properly. There is an over-load, which may cause us to panic, or freeze, or cry uncontrollably. This popular view of hysteria is too narrow. It is only able to see hysteria as a loss of control, or ability to cope. The hidden and dangerous faces of hysteria refuse to lose control. They will do almost anything to remain in control; that is, to uphold their view of Reality.
Hysteria begins as we start to move from our normal behavioural standards and ideals to more extreme behaviour in order to maintain our interpretation of reality. Hysteria is when our efforts to maintain our view of reality become unreasonable and extreme. Hysteria is often a contradiction of our normal selves.
Let us understand "Reality" with the capital ''R" as What Really Is. "reality" with a small ''r" is what we see and understand about Reality. This small r reality is a construct, an order and approximation which we use to make Reality understandable and amenable. By amenable I mean something we can live with, and something we can tolerate. Something we can make sense off.
Our reality construct is generally invisible to us, and yet totally important; it is what enables our survival in the world. It is the screen on which we view the movie of our life; we watch the movie not seeing the screen itself, yet without the screen there can be no movie So we defend the screen on which, and through which, we view life as though our life depends on it- for it does!
Sometime our reality fails. What Reality is dealing us doesn't fit with how our reality thinks things should be. When things don't ''add up" we may simply ignore them at first. If they are too much to ignore we may make dismissive comments to rid ourselves of the irritation. "He's just a liberal who's got no faith." Then perhaps we shift to ad hoc theories to alleviate our discomfort. A funny example of this can be seen here, where to avoid losing the argument a little boy I knew simply redefined the issue to suit himself. The pressure on the child was sufficient to force an ad hoc adjustment to his reality so he could keep wearing his trousers in the way he wanted. Childish and silly- yes. But we all do this when things don't fit.
Greater stresses bring more extreme responses. I once arrived at an intersection with a car load of kids, tired after a long week, and simply could not work out where I was. I knew I must have been their many times before, but I could not recognise the place. I could not think what to do. I was stuck, because my brain would not function. One of the kids asked why we were not going anywhere, (I didn't know where to go!) and I snapped at them and railed and snarled . I was driven by fear, not knowing what was happening. My response was way outside my normal behaviour, and disgraceful. It was not the way I would normally behave, even if I was under pressure. Note here that the hysteria was not in my suddenly having a major brain fade. The hysteria was the way I responded.
In a similar example, a friend was telling his wife and her friend of his latest Old Testament lecture, where the lecturer had pointed out some literal impossibilities in the text of the Exodus story. As he as telling them of this, they exploded at him, together and without warning, "If you believe that," they said, '' you've lost your faith!" They attacked him for simply recounting what someone had said!
The next day he was clearly shocked as he was telling us of the incident. He had been blasted by the hysterical self defense of a reality construct that was under too much pressure. It was asking too much of them to hear the new story of Exodus. Too much of their reality was put at risk by it. This is hysteria as we often do not recognise it. It is hysteria's hidden face. We call our response "keeping the faith," or righteous indignation, or exposing the false prophets- anything but what it is, naked hysterical fear. So in debates in the church over the inclusion of women or homosexual people, members stand up and say the most horrible things- things with language and emotion they would utterly repudiate in relation to other issues. They advocate actions they would not even consider is other situations; actions which they would normally condemn.
In more extreme responses by christians we have the bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of doctors. Typically, we see support for political strategies which are the antithesis of ''love thy neighbour as thyself." This is hysteria.
In the case of fundamentalist religion, the response to challenges to the reality it has constructed is not necessarily violent. People may withdraw. People may sadly but gently, relegate us as too some kind of invincible ignorance and pray diligently for our salvation. Unfortunately there are plenty of bin Ladens and Pat Robinsons who model violence as a way of defending the challenge Reality is making against fundamentalist reality
It is not the case, however, that hysteria is restricted to fundametalisms, or to religious realities more generally. Look at the Australia Federal Government.
Reserving one hundred and forty seats to take one man back to Turkey!? OK, so you need to send a doctor because he is really too sick to travel, and a couple of guards. But one hundred and forty seats?! This is about hiding the truth from other passengers who might tell. It is an hysterical response by a Government who would normally decry such a waste of money.
Then there are the asylum seekers from West Papua. We all know the barbaric record of the Indonesian government and armed forces. Refugee advocates also know, apparently, who was on the boat. If ever their was a clear case of need, of genuine refugees.... but we flew them to Christmas Island! Putting them out of sight we can indulge in another denial of Reality, as it challenges the government's preferred reality that the Indonesians are a bunch of good guys we can trade with, and ignore our ethical and international obligations.
We also remember the Bakhtiari family. Ali, the father, may have been economical with the truth. But any humanity would have let those kids stay is Australia. Yet within government and the immigration department then was an apparent absolute determination to deport them. Howard's Way had to prevail. (Embarrassingly for Howard, as soon as they got back to Pakistan, the Bakhtiaris went to Afghanistan, the place we said they didn't come from.)
This is, finally. hysteria . It is where the insistence of one's own view being maintained is upheld at the cost of humanity, decency, truth, and compassion.
If I were asked to theorise abort the source of this hysteria, it would not be difficult . It is easy to see a desire in many of our federal members for a return to an earlier (mythical) time of clear values, where the anglos ruled, and the poor and the workers knew their place. However this is really not helpful. It allows is to get side tracked into arguments of interpretation and political bias. What is not at issue, I think, is the extreme behaviour of the government, including the hard-line attitudes of Howard, Ruddock, and Vanstone, who in many ways are quite decent people.
The behaviour is hysterical. It has allowed the flourishing evil culture of the immigration department, the imprisonment Cornelia Rau in barbaric conditions, and the deportation Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Salon. It justifies keeping children in prison.
Even it one were of the same political persuasion as Howard, government by hysteria is something to avoid at all costs. Hysteria has abandoned rationality and considered choice. All that concerns hysteria, in the end, is the maintenance of it s own point of view. And most dangerously, hysteria is a tacit admission that one's point of view is wrong. Hysteria is reality denying Reality.
Posted Jan 26 2006