Democracy and the herd | Sunday Observer

Democracy and the herd

7 August, 2022

When mass hysteria happens commentators say democracy is at work. Sometimes even the best of us are fooled and take mass hysteria to be democracy, and that is no good way to size things up.

Mass hysteria is when the herd-instinct takes over and there is a myth created that people want a certain outcome. Sometimes it may be even true that the majority of the people want a certain outcome.

The Covid shut-downs in this country particularly in 2021 were more of a case of mass hysteria than of democratic expression at work. According to an Oxford university survey, Sri Lanka had the most stringent shutdowns in the entire world. What do we have to show for it? Maybe some success containing Covid, but more importantly, an economy that imploded making us the top news story for economic meltdown anywhere in the world.

The meltdown may have more to do with domestic economic mismanagement or the Covid related global slump, but the shutdowns were a large part of it as well. So why is mass hysteria mistaken to be democracy? The ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the people wanted the country shut down or words to that effect. There were other politicians crowing that they were the folk that got the country shut down when there were forces that were not willing to do it.

Just imagine that? Politicians, saying out loud that they just messed things up badly? The irrational shutdowns were a disaster and sowed the seeds for the economic calamity that was to follow in 2022. The Treasury officials —Atygalla foremost among them — have already confessed to the fact that all the projections went haywire due to the Covid-lockdowns of 2021, which he says were ‘unexpected.’


These closures were a result of buckling under the pressure of mass hysteria, and they were certainly not a case of being attuned to the voice of the people. In short there is a vast difference between democracy and mass hysteria and there are untold problems in governance that are caused all over the world because policymakers cannot tell the difference.

To look for examples abroad would be edifying, but Brexit may be one of them. It is true that there may have been problems with the UK ‘being run in Brussels’ but there was a lot to be gained for UK by being part of the European Union. But Brexit, earlier often acknowledged to be mass hysteria, soon became a democratic rallying cry.

Brexit though technically the voice of the people was a product of mass venting and mass irrationality in the main, and that referendum perhaps should have never been held. True that technically if the people of the UK decided that they needed Brexit, and voted for it at a plebiscite, it is a democratic outcome. But the plebiscite and the verdict of the people so-called was a result of mass hysteria for the most part because there were so many rumblings about Brussels running the country and about immigration and all that type of things that was irrational to begin with.

It is a well known fact that David Cameron, the then Prime Minister called for the referendum because he was sure that the Brexit proposition would lose. But he was wrong as the news industry had built up a story that was now larger than the sum of its parts. This is not democracy because if you whip the people up into a frenzy so much could be achieved that’s less than rational.

It’s not democracy by any means. Its news and commentary lathering people up into a frenzy and the quicker the distinction made between the outcomes of such hysteria and democracy as we know it, the better.

This column is for the most part written because the damage done by the Covid closures of 2021 needs to be written about. That nod to mass hysteria was very damaging, but also the genesis of all that collective venting needs to be looked into.


Whether it’s Brexit or anything else, mass hysteria today is whipped up by petty demagogues that spill venom taking up news space in social media, ostensibly peddling news. But most of this ‘news’ comes in the form of commentary, and the lines between news and opinion have blurred so much that they are not recognizable any more. When this happens there is so much more room for various rants to be peddled in the guise of giving voice to the ‘people.’

There was mass hysteria when certain communities in this country were targeted once upon a time, and it is salutary that these various disparate groups have now come together in the face of the economic meltdown. At least there was something good that came out of it.

If the level of mass hysteria that’s given an airing in the media was good for the people there should have been so many good outcomes but what do we have but global economic calamities and recession scares, and inflation and the like. Nothing good has come out of the regular venting that takes place in all types of media spaces and its all the more reason there is a proper delineation between ‘democracy’ and what passes off as the people’s voice.

If the people really want to let their voices be heard these days they have to take drastic measures because the media be it social media or conventional media is not doing it for them. Certain lobbyists have in fact hijacked the so called ‘people’s voice’ in some democracies that it has become easy for politicians to pretend that democracy is demagoguery.

Anti-immigration sentiment for instance is sweeping the West, but it’s not rational at all because these countries would come to a halt if the immigrants stopped working. It is understandable that no country wants its borders swamped, but these issues often have various ramifications. There should be a global push for more equitable distribution of wealth and the north-south divide for instance should be far less glaring if there is to be any realistic hope that there would be less migrants trying to swamp the borders of certain nations that are economically better off than the rest.


But there are very few rational voices discussing these issues, because mass hysteria hogs the public discourse in place of rational debate and dialogue that should be the hallmark of any proper public discussion in a civilized state.

The conventional media so-called is not any more reliable than social media so called, and in fact there is sometimes not much difference, because it is the conventional media that for instance began the trend of passing off opinion as news.

There is nothing wrong with opinion per se, but when the news by itself has no value and all of it has to pass off as opinion to be believed or to have any traction, there is something that’s wrong with the way the ‘people’s voice’ gets an airing.

Of course there are genuine people’s protests and such, and these movements are different to the voice of the demagogues. When people speak out of a sense of desperation it’s always easy to know because they are not racist or xenophobic when they do so.

Genuine economic desperation is one thing but trying to get a march over the others in the job hunt for instance by raising the immigration bogey is something else altogether. That is the voice of mass hysteria in the west for instance, and it’s not very good to have this collective ranting heard over the genuine voice of the people.

It’s happening everywhere be it in the West or closer home in Asia and it is time that people learned to recognise bilge for what it is, and not lump it together with the truth.