Dan Astin-Gregory, “Why Do So Many Still Buy Into The Narrative?” (Dan Astin-Gregory / Pandemic Podcast, 22 September 2021)
Dan Astin-Gregory is an entrepreneur, strategist and thought leader who established the Pandemic Podcast channel to interview various scientific, medical and other professionals on issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic that are not being addressed. In this episode which was streamed live on 22 September 2021, Astin-Gregory interviews Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University, whose observations of people during the COVID-19 pandemic over 18 months have led him to conclude that in all Western societies the majority of people appear to be under some kind of hypnosis which Desmet calls “mass formation”. It appears that the narrative of a virulent coronavirus and the mass lockdowns that have been brought in by Western governments across Europe, North America and the western Pacific region has brought into being a mass hypnotic state characterised by unquestioning mass conformity to restrictions handed down by governments and corporations, and the erasure of all individuality and individual opinion. This state of mass psychosis in turn can lead to extreme scapegoating of outsiders and mass support for even more restrictions of individual freedoms and intrusions into privacy, establishing the context in which totalitarian government can arise and atrocities including genocide can occur.
Desmet identifies four conditions in society for mass formation to take place: lack of societal bonding (alienation, anomie, isolation: very common in Western societies that emphasise individuality and self-reliance at the expense of community values); a feeling of a lack of purpose of meaning experienced by a majority of people in society; widespread free-floating anxiety and stress; high levels of aggression and hostility. All these conditions are likely to be interrelated, all of them reinforcing one another. There may well be other factors in Western society that contribute to mass formation: technologies, structures, institutions, ideologies and attitudes in society that weaken social bonds, transfer individual loyalties from families to government or corporations, encourage atomisation and polarisation, and manipulate and exploit people’s emotions for profit – over time, all have surely paved the way for mass formation based on fear and exploiting intolerance and people’s desire to belong and to have purpose. The COVID-19 pandemic has given people and institutions a new purpose and a feeling of bonding that help to channel their anger and to relieve their fears, and propaganda from governments and corporations through mass media strengthens and directs these new connections – even as other aspects of society and culture collapse or disintegrate.
Having identified the conditions favouring mass formation, Desmet goes on to explain that totalitarian states differ from classical dictatorships in that totalitarian states become more oppressive once they have purged their political opposition whereas classical dictatorships (based around a leader or a clique) tend to relax once their political opposition disappears. In a totalitarian state, a segment of society supports the oppressive measures; another, larger segment submits to the measures without complaint; a third segment opposes the oppression. This leads to the question of why some people are unaffected by mass formation and how those people resist mass formation. Desmet references French philosopher Gustave le Bon (“The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind“) in explaining that those layers of society usually considered the most intelligent or educated tend to be the most conformist and to be most affected by mass formation. Astin-Gregory’s question about whether emotionally sensitive people might be more resistant to mass formation is answered partially in the negative: Desmet mentions he knows of emotionally sensitive people who have fallen heavily for the mass psychosis.
In response to Astin-Gregory’s queries about how to release people from mass hypnosis, Desmet urges those who oppose the mass formation to continually speak out against the relentless propaganda. Propaganda is most effective when it is constantly repeated and supported by many media outlets, and buttressed and reinforced so much that it becomes part of the air one breathes and goes unchallenged; and the voices that oppose the propaganda become few because they are heavily policed and repressed. Logic, research and the use of statistics or argument can be useful but are limited as tools against propaganda that exploit emotion and fear. Creating an alternative narrative may be useful to counter the narrative that sustains the mass psychosis – but Desmet cautions that this solution is not easy, and the alternative narrative may take years to replace the dysfunctional mass psychosis.
There are other topics Astin-Gregory and Desmet discuss but I chose to highlight those I found most significant in this essay. The live conversational interview format does have its limitations: it can be quite unstructured and meandering, and viewers may wish it be limited to a specific Q&A format. There is much Astin-Gregory could have asked Desmet, such as how children and young people living under mass formation conditions might be taught to be more critical of propaganda and to question what they are told.
If there is anything positive to take away from the interview, it is that societies dependent on mass formation and the propaganda that sustains it do not last very long, as they become more and more self-deluded and divorced from reality, and end up destroying themselves. What follows from that though, neither Astin-Gregory nor Desmet can say.
There is much in the interview that can be criticised: in particular Astin-Gregory and Desmet do not cover the role of capitalist ideology in creating dysfunctional societies that prioritise self-interest and a shallow concept of individualism over Enlightenment values about the place of individuals in society and the nature of freedom in society. The role of class, hierarchy and religion in separating individuals and pitting them against one another (so they can be more easily dominated by small political elites) in creating the conditions for mass formation psychosis is ignored. Ultimately what Desmet has identified might actually be a backward explanation of the real problem: that our political elites are using divide-and-rule strategies, such as targeting grassroots organisations, weakening and breaking them up, using other methods and structures (such as behavioural psychology and its tools) to keep individuals atomised without a sense of belonging and purpose, and channelling their frustrations into scapegoating vulnerable minorities, to keep us all in a state in which our fears and emotions can be exploited to control us.