When Mass Hysteria Attacks
A number of people have asked me to weigh in on the KosherSwitch controversy. I'm not going to, for a number of reasons. One is that it seems to me that right now there is a situation of mass hysteria.
Mass hysteria is a fascinating phenomenon, which is much more powerful than most people realize. It can create real physical symptoms. One extraordinary case was the 1983 West Bank fainting epidemic. Nearly a thousand Palestinian schoolgirls and IDF female soldiers were hospitalized for fainting and nausea believed to have been brought on by poisoning. But it was ultimately determined to have been psychosomatic. The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962 likewise affected around a thousand people, causing not only uncontrollable laughter but also respiratory problems, attacks of crying, and rashes.
Mass hysteria can also lead otherwise reasonable people to believe or state extraordinary things. An amazing story is with the 1954 Seattle windshield pitting epidemic. Many thousands of people reported seeing pits and bubbles suddenly appear in their car windshields. It was attributed to everything from cosmic rays to gremlins. Then all of a sudden, the entire thing ended, and it was realized that people had simply become hyper-sensitive to the pitting that affects all cars. Much more serious was the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic which swept the world during the 1980s. It was widely believed that there were vast numbers of people involved in this and that a conspiracy had infiltrated the highest levels of society. Eventually it was determined that there was never any satanic ritual abuse and that the whole matter had been a product of mass hysteria. As far as I can ascertain (which isn't very far), it appears that a similar phenomenon occurred in Nachlaot a few years ago, where a small number of cases of pedophilia were exaggerated to a conspiracy theory involving a massive ring of missionary-led pedophiles and a police cover-up.
My personal fascination with mass hysteria relates to how it occurred with the notorious banning of my books ten years ago. It's not only my personal role that leads me to recall that period as being one of obsession and hysteria - one blog had a headline stating "All Slifkin, All The Time!" It was disturbing to watch otherwise reasonable people fall over themselves in their rush to avoid getting into trouble. One website which had published perfectly innocent essays of mine about drawing inspiration from nature rushed to announce to their subscribers that all the essays had been removed. (They later regretted this and apologized to me privately, though not publicly.) A rabbinic mentor of mine who was so convinced in the truth of evolution that he had actually helped convince me to accept it suddenly urged me to be "mevatel my daas" and follow Rav Shlomo Miller no matter what he says. And people who had no connection to the topic were yelling their condemnations of the rationalist approach and their fealty to the charedi Gedolim. People were terrified of being "tainted."
Aside from all this being very upsetting, I just couldn't figure out what was going on. Then someone drew parallels to the witch-hunts of Salem and the commie-hunts of McCarthyism (see the essay Slifkin, Salem and the Senator), and I started to learn about mass hysteria. It shed much light on events.
I think that the same might be happening now with the KosherSwitch. There are breathless magazine headlines and claims that the creator is chayyav misah! In such an atmosphere it is impossible to conduct a sober analysis or be able to trust anyone's pronouncements. Maybe in a year, when things have calmed down, it will be possible to address the issue.