Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Rhinoceritis

Irrational Behaviour

In this article, George Jochnowitz examines irrational behaviour and hatreds, a common occurrence today. Irrational behaviour, part of our human psychology, can drive stock markets and economies both upward and downward. Politically, it can lay bare hatreds and the need to kill. We can learn a lot from art and literature, Prof Jochnowitz writes: "Eugene Ionesco explores the question of mass hysteria in his 1959 play Rhinoceros. He apparently was inspired by the rise and spread of Nazi sentiment before World War II, but the play is not realistic and not overtly political. Every character in the play except one decides to turn into a rhinoceros. It is the thing to do. The characters cannot resist the temptation to change into rough, rampaging animals. Ionesco gives us no answers, but he recognizes that sometimes a whole community becomes psychotic. He named this phenomenon “rhinoceritis.”


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by George Jochnowitz
Stock market crashes and depressions are not ordinarily caused by floods, droughts, transportation failures, earthquakes or other such tangible problems. The most important reasons for economic crises are psychological. Buying and selling stock reflects people’s views and hopes. One sudden drop leads to many others. Mass hysteria follows.

Mass hysteria has never been understood. We have seen murderous reactions to the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in countries as far from each other as Pakistan and Nigeria. Violence has taken place between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip. For years we have seen destructive violence in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims killed each other. There is a long history of conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, and there is added hostility concerning issues of power under Iraq’s new constitution and the al-Maliki government, but the intensity of their emotions seemed to be connected to an unrelated issue: many radical Iraqis feel hatred towards America and Israel. Hatred is hatred. If you feel you have to kill somebody and if the somebody is not there waiting to be killed, you kill whoever is available.

Eugene Ionesco explores the question of mass hysteria in his 1959 play Rhinoceros. He apparently was inspired by the rise and spread of Nazi sentiment before World War II, but the play is not realistic and not overtly political. Every character in the play except one decides to turn into a rhinoceros. It is the thing to do. The characters cannot resist the temptation to change into rough, rampaging animals. Ionesco gives us no answers, but he recognizes that sometimes a whole community becomes psychotic. He named this phenomenon “rhinoceritis.”

The rise of the Nazi Party, the inspiration for Ionesco’s play, may have been the result of the fusion between two different but irrational movements: anti-Semitism and fascism. The word “anti-Semitism” was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, who wanted a movement that would continue to hate Jews even if they had lost their religion or converted to Christianity. Before Marr, the words used to justify hating Jews—whatever the underlying motives might have been—were based on interpretations of the Bible, in particular Matthew 27:25, where we read the following verse about the Jews: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.” Marr wanted Jews to be hated because of their genes, not their religion. His movement grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It had no connection, at first, with fascism, an irrationally nationalist party that Mussolini created in 1919 and which took power in 1922. Hatreds apparently seek other hatreds and unite with them, creating new hatreds exponentially more powerful than either hatred was alone.

Selling stock is very different from hatred. Economics is very different from prejudice. Nevertheless, mass hysteria can occur in all sorts of different situations. Why did the Dow-Jones average drop? Rhinoceritis.

Literature may point to a psychological problem before it has been recognized as such. That’s what Ionesco’s Rhinoceros did. Today people are choosing to turn into rhinoceroses all over the world. We have to fight them, of course. We also have to try to learn what made them go crazy.

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George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

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Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This post, in a somewhat different version, it does not mention the Dow Jones average at all, was originally published in Volume 22, No. 1 (2008) of the New Zealand-based journal Mentalities/Mentalités; it can also be found on George Jochnowitz.   It is republished here with the author's permission.

5 comments:

  1. The wave of murderous riots that included the assassination of Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, are a recent example of rhinoceritis.
    The perpetrators believe that they are responding to a film that dishonors Islam. However, it is their violence that dishonors Islam.

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  2. Dear Perry / Prof. J
    There is a question which has been troubling me recently. I have noticed that when someone goes 'crazy' and murders others for no apparent reason other than 'rhinoceritis', it seems that within hours there is usually an expert in the media detailinig the crime for us within the framework of some explainable psychological disfunction or rare, or at least understandable, psychiatric disorder on the part of the perpetrator(s).
    I'm sure there are cases - many perhaps - which are due to psychiatric or psychological causes and are thereby excusable, as far as moral and criminal guilt are concerned. But I feel we 'colloquialize' the explanation with words like 'crazy' when we don't actually mean to excuse the perpetrator. The thing that bothers me about this is that I wonder if we aren't inadvertently implying that, since the crime was committed by a 'crazy' person, there is therefore no hard accountability - in other words, no retribution by the justice system to fit the severity of these horrific crimes against innocent victims.
    What do you think?
    - Mark O'Brien

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    1. The whole point of Ionesco's discussion of rhinoceritis is that people who are not psychotic nevertheless all join to do crazy things.

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  3. Mark,

    That is an excellent question; I am not sure if I can answer it sufficiently, since I am neither an expert in psychiatry nor a legal jurist. But I have sufficient knowledge of the media, having been trained in journalism and the philosophy of modern media and communications to offer an informed opinion as to its inner workings.

    There is an underlying assumption that we live in an ordered, rational universe, and if someone commits an act that is irrational, inexplicable, horrific, then by definition he or she must be a marginal person, unfairly treated, maligned by the "system" or, stated in more sympathetic terms, suffering from a psychological illness or psychiatric disorder. (The idea behind modern journalism is not to offer any judgment.) This is done in accordance with Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, and its latest edition.

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