Imitation: the sincerest form of insanity

A friend has sent me some briefing papers on the transgender issue from The Christian Institute. They speak of the “social contagion” aspect of this phenomenon, in explaining the 3,000% rise in referrals of children for “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in the UK in the last decade. This is a lot more convincing than the Tavsitock Clinic’s suggestion that it’s all due to the subject being more openly discussed.

It’s opportune timing, because the first court case against the Tavistock Clinic by a “detransitioned” victim is currently being heard – the first of many, if Jordan Peterson’s prediction of a couple of years ago is correct. Certainly the rapidly increasing number of such individuals, and the internal conflicts at Tavistock Clinic, have finally gained the attention of press and government, to the extent of the latter’s beginning to put the brakes on the legal changes and school indoctrination rolling out in recent years to accommodate gender change as a fact of nature, and therefore unchallengable under legal penalty.

I’ve discussed transgenderism before – and particularly how it has arisen from, essentially, nothing at all to become a progressive shibboleth within my adult lifetime. But here I want only to consider it as an example of “social contagion,” which I must treat carefully because of the similarity to Richard Dawkins dubious concept of ideas as “memes” that one catches like viruses.

The Christian Institute briefing describes how large a part is played by immersion in social media “groupthink.” It’s one thing when, in conversation, someone’s aversion to homosexual acts is thrown back at them as evidence of their repressed homosexuality. They will ignore it. But it’s another when an unhappy teenager’s random thoughts are constantly interpreted back to her, in a close-knit community, as sure evidence of her transexuality. One example taken from social media:

“Not all dysphoria is direct dysphoria, Some forms of it can mask themselves as depression or anxiety. Others can be a weight on your day leaving you tired and without energy. Some can make cognitive tasks difficult. Overt dysphoria is actually fairly rare.”

Notice how this makes almost any form of unhappiness possible evidence of a newly identified condition with no objective criteria – and only rarely even the subjective experience it describes. If the speaker appears to have some form of authority, from simple peer group dominance, to academic or medical accreditation, then the seeds of self-deception have been sown. The more of a “thing” the alleged phenomenon becomes, the more it will become an early port of self-diagnostic call.

The briefing gives other examples of “fashions” in complex disorders, from the “dancing plagues” of mediaeval Europe to the social clustering of conditions like anorexia nervosa.

The alarming thing for all of us to consider is that beliefs inevitably come to define social groups and their members. That phenomenon consolidates something like gender dysphoria because ones social existence comes to depend on it. Consider how central group membership has become in all issues of gender and sexuality: you are not simply an individual with certain feelings or habits, but a member of the LGBTQ community, the aberration becoming your very identity. This is deliberately cultivated by activists, so that any challenge to the belief or behaviour (or suggestion that one could change) may be taken as an assault on ones very existence. The extreme of this is seen in critical race activism, where the very presence of white people on a university campus is perceived, quite seriously, as an imminent threat to life itself.

Thinking people will realise that these phenomena are a challenge to us all, because we all belong to social groups defined by beliefs. Is the charismatic church where one is encouraged to expect tingling of the limbs as evidence of the Spirit’s fullness, rather than of hyperventilation, doing social contagion rather than religious experience? It’s easy to believe so when folks exhibiting “holy laughter” or “slaying in the Spirit” so closely resemble the mass hysteria of dancing plagues, rather than anything in Scripture. Even Jonathan Edwards, instrumental in the Great Awakening, recognised epidemic emotionalism as an important danger.

But then what about our less extreme experiences of God, in a church setting: that sense of God’s presence as we all sing his praises, for example (back in the days when that was not forbidden by emergency legislation)? Is it merely due to mass suggestion? Atheist skeptics would certainly leap on that explanation.

But one needs to spend very little time on forums where such people congregate to find their own self-reinforcing social beliefs, quite divorced from evidence. It takes only one expert-sounding person to say that some climate skeptic’s science has been debunked, for all the other rationalists, who have never read the debunking, let alone the original research, to chant “He’s a climate denialist paid by Big Oil” in unison. And the same goes for Intelligent Design, Biblical Studies or the Great Barrington Declaration.

The ubiquity of this social force is ever more evident in science nowadays. It is not just Skeptical Zone (or, for balance, Answers in Genesis) where social contagion is seen in force. It is rampant within the major institutions of the world. Some authority-figure in the WHO or CDC sets the tone for dealing with COVID-19 by advocating unprecedented totalitarian controls, and not only do most of the world’s governments and intelligentsia follow suit, but equally well-credentialled alternative views are censored, professionals lose their jobs, and social media shadow-ban, demonetize, or at best direct you to Wikipedia (of all places) for the “truth.”

Social contagion is perhaps the only viable alternative explanation to actual conspiracies in such matters. The groupthink becomes so religiously pervasive that interacting with other views becomes heresy-hunting… no, more witch-hunting, because heresies are real in religion and may well require counter-arguments and internal discipline. Witch-hunts, however, require less honest methods, and the generation of new, esoteric, investigative tools.

Hence Augustine will show Arius to be in error from his own sayings and the Scriptures. Witchfinder-General Matthew Hopkins, however, will find sure signs of witchcraft in skin blemishes, keeping a cat, or in the very attempt to deny the charge.

Now, Boris Johnson has done his stuff to camera in front of a sign saying “Build Back Better,” which happens to be the very same slogan chosen by Joe Biden. It also happens to be the slogan used by the World Economic Forum in their stated plan for a “Great Reset” of the post-COVID world economic order to “stakeholder capitalism” (does anybody else worry when the new-model capitalism is being imposed unilaterally on “stakeholders” by the world’s 1000 biggest monopolies? Maybe they see themselves as the stakeholders). And “Build Back better” also happens to be the slogan adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as the way of exploiting any disaster that might just happen to come along.

Now is that unanimity of slogan the result of “conspiracy,” or of “social contagion”? In the end it may not matter much, because to deceive and to be deceived are two sides of the same coin. The UN concept, as you will see from the link, boils down to a 10-point checklist of general platitudes – so far most of them seem the very opposite of what is happening with COVID. Neither conspiracies nor social contagion tend to produce the results hoped for.


But what about our own beliefs? How can we be sure we are not just following the groupthink of our culture, our party, our church – or even some random doctor’s blog? For certain, beliefs are both necessary and necessarily social. We certainly don’t simply generate our own belief-systems entire, for the more we do so, not only do we become more isolated, but we simply insulate our past influences from present challenge.

Reason and logic certainly help. To examine the evidence behind the tenets of critical race theory, for example, is to debunk it as entirely as the Freudian Oedipus Complex. But the rationalists’ own disagreements, as well as their proclivity for groupthink, show that reason and logic alone cannot inure us. Still, the evidence for biblical Christianity has stood two centuries of attack significantly better than most alternatives.

Then again, truth will eventually tend to out. It was costly for the world to suffer a century of classic Marxism, but eventually it collapsed because it was false. It is not insignificant that Christianity in Russia has revived from Communism’s ashes.

But in the end, beliefs are human feelings that, by their nature, come without a guarantee. Certainly no social media “fact checker” can guarantee them, because the checker too acts on belief. There is, however, a unique truth-claim within Christianity, which I suggest is borne out by experience. And that is that our faith in the Gospel “is not from us – it is the gift of God.” It is a supernatural endowment, which is why Peter says it is “of greater worth than gold.” That is what Tertullian was getting at when he wrote:

and the Son of God died, it is [utterly] credible, because it is unfitting;
and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.

He does not mean that extreme gullibility is a Christian virtue, but that for ordinary, down to earth people to come to glory in such things is evidence that they haven’t simply succumbed to social contagion. Unlike transgenderism as a mysterious new cure for all kinds of psychological pain, the Cross of Christ is not seductive, but a scandal.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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