Let’s not treat the pandemic like a war

Writers should be conscious of word choice


McKenna Premus/Daily Collegian

By Max Schwartz, Collegian Contributor

“The beast comes at night.”

This was a phrase used to describe the noxious symptoms that accompany the novel coronavirus COVID-19. One might think this was written by a 15-year-old Tumblr user, romanticizing these crazy times so it attracts fantasy readers instead of information seekers. No, this is how Chris Cuomo, host of Cuomo Prime Time and brother of New York Mayor Andrew Cuomo, described his experience with the deadly virus.

Unless you’ve been purposely dodging the news, you know how tough times are becoming in the U.S., but are these tough times grounds for violent depictions of something so devoid of intention? Does handling this virus give President Trump the right to deem himself a “wartime president”? Is every American struggle a fight or a war? While the answer is unclear, one thing we can be sure of is what this language does: it only scares. And unwarranted fear usually doesn’t lead to great things.

Reading and watching the news is healthy in small doses, but let’s not forget that the news doesn’t aim to appease the public. They tell us the worst-case scenario because if we’re told how good we’re doing with social distancing and online learning, then we won’t work towards mitigating the effects of this disease. Americans run on the belief that the worst is now and working for today will create a better tomorrow. But as of now, no one knows the fate of this virus. The media shows Dr. Anthony Fauci stating one thing while Trump preaches another, or states requesting more ventilators as other countries open day schools again.

This ubiquitous feeling of uncertainty is shared by most Americans today, but if we’re not careful, uncertainty can turn to fear, and fear can turn to hysteria. Mass hysteria.

Psychologically speaking, mass hysteria is defined as “the spontaneous outbreak of atypical thoughts, feelings, or actions in a group or social aggregate.” It should be noted the APA Dictionary of Psychology states it’s also known as epidemic hysteria. The term mass hysteria was given a definition as early as the dancing plague of 1518 when hundreds of people took to the streets of Strasbourg to manically dance their fevers away. It’s probably where the term “dance till you’re dead” comes from.

This was far from the last instance of manic behaviors from a large group of people, too. A more modern instance would be the second Red Scare, which intensified in the late 1940s and early 1950s and saw an increase in fear of communism spread throughout the United States. This panic led to television and radio broadcasts exposing ordinary citizens and government officials for being suspected “commies,” even going as far as alienating American civil liberties. In the 1951 Supreme Court case of Dennis v. United States, the 6-to-2 ruling says that “the free-speech rights of accused Communists could be restricted because their actions presented a clear and present danger to the government.” In other words, free speech was restricted by the federal government over fears of a communist coup that could occur from within. Sounds a bit crazy right?

Professor Simon Wessely of King’s College London characterizes the phenomenon of mass hysteria through five principles. The second of these five principles says that it “affects people who would not normally behave in this fashion,” or in other words, most sane American citizens. Average Americans are no exception to the adverse effects of mass hysteria; once your friend begins acting and thinking a certain way, the chances are that you will, too.

Psychologically, mass hysteria is real and can have palpable effects on us, but culturally it poses a much larger threat. Because Americans, especially people under 20, are active media consumers, what’s put on our screens is often consumed regardless of whether it’s reliable or not. Oftentimes it is easy to tell when content is untrustworthy, like those ads at the bottom of a CNN page depicting unheard of fruits that give us eternal youth.

But it is increasingly more common that content branded as real and published by reliable sources conveys a message that is blown out of proportion. Broadcast media begins using words like ‘fight’ and ‘battle’ to describe a virus containment which relies on people staying inside. When this type of media is so widely projected and subsequently consumed, a filter should be placed on the language that pervades CNN and Fox News banners.

Our president should not be saying on live television that we’re going to “crush this virus”. Print media shouldn’t be reinforcing this behavior, like this LA Times article that reads “Fineberg mapped out a strategy that could defeat the novel coronavirus.” Doesn’t this language feel a bit extreme? I understand that labeling this crisis like a battle gives American people a sense of purpose and duty in controlling the disease, but it can have adverse effects as well. Ill-informed Americans that consume headlines inciting violence may treat the coronavirus like something it’s not: a war.

Typically, this type of public reaction and media portrayal wouldn’t be a problem, but Americans are vulnerable right now. People want answers and they will eat up whatever content they’re served, so long as it gives them a bite of reassurance or a sip of clarity.

Fear leads to moral panic and moral panic leads to mass hysteria; we’re on the brink of a crisis, but we can stop it. We writers at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian try to provide an honest narrative for the times we live in. As media consumers, however, I know that we can take a step back to understand this time we’re living in and work through it honestly it rather than fear it.

Max Schwartz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]