Hairy tales

Hairy tales: Mass delusions are symptoms of social stress, which really do need remedying
August 8, 2017, 2:00 AM IST

It would be funny if it wasn’t both a symptom and cause of very real misery. Over the last two months women from across Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have reported that somebody cut off their hair – without their consent. There are WhatsApp groups warning that the culprits have occult or shapeshifting powers. A Ludhiana victim has claimed that her hair was chopped off by a creature with the body of a man and the face of a cat. An elderly Agra woman has been beaten to death on suspicion of being a braid-chopping witch. This kind of mass hysteria suggests heightened levels of pre-existing stress among the fear-stricken communities.
Collective insecurities have long provided fertile ground for collective hallucinations. On a much-storied Halloween Eve of 1938 for example, a US radio drama based on the The War of the Worlds by HG Wells led to panic about a Martian attack. Experts said this manifested the cumulative stress created by the Great Depression and an impending World War.
Mass hallucinations in modern India, including the 2001 sightings of Monkey Man, likewise betray the collective anxieties of being convulsed by extreme social and economic change. Fear of losing a braid dissembles the fear of several other dispossessions. In villages traditional livelihoods and relationships are rapidly coming to grief. In the overcrowded urban clusters where villagers go to start new lives, both infrastructure and security are woefully short. Living in baking hot shanties, amidst lightless streets lined with garbage and open sewers, menaced by high crime rates and sometimes even aggressive monkeys – these are conditions rife for breeding phobic neuroses and ghoulish urban legends.
In many of the ‘choti katna’ cases, investigators believe the women have been cutting their own hair to “draw attention”. These are selfie-obsessed times, where social media not only sets canards ablaze but also plays host to macabre forms of exhibitionism – like the live streaming of suicide. How can authorities tackle mass hysteria against this volatile backdrop? For one they must communicate the rational narrative persuasively, with both reassuring and accurate updates. In the longer term though, it is essential to improve the conditions of people’s life. Build more habitable and humane cities. Provide better jobs, infrastructure, education. More civilisation will mean less unreason.

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