How do we analyse and respond to groups of apparently normal people behaving in violent, deranged ways? India has seen these numerous, successive instances in lynchings, first by self-appointed “cow protectors” killing mostly Muslim cattle traders and then in a series of mob attacks across several states targeting “outsiders” they suspected of child-lifting. While authorities must take necessary legal action against the perpetrators of violence, we must recognise that this wave of violence is more than just a failure of law and order.

The concept of “pathological normalcy” can provide a relevant lens to understand this phenomenon. The concept originated in ideas of social psychology, which deals with how social interactions shape the behaviour and mental processes of individuals. American cultural psychologist Carl Ratner and social psychologist Erich Fromm analysed pathological normalcy, that is, unhealthy psychological states and behaviours, which appear so commonly in society that they come to be regarded as the norm.

Pathological normalcy can also be understood as pathological processes that become so socially widespread that they lose their individual character and come to be regarded as common and acceptable. Disturbed or unhealthy behaviour – such as display of irrational hatred, or support of violence – becomes very common, and such persons find much to share with many other individuals having a similarly unhealthy mentality. In this situation of an unhealthy herd mentality, the fully sane and objective person may find themselves in a relative minority and may even feel isolated.

For example, very large sections of the population in Germany in the 1930s displayed widespread and extreme discrimination against Jews along with endorsement of state violence against them. A set of economic, social and political conditions including massive unemployment, economic depression and hyperinflation, a sense of national injury in the wake of Germany’s defeat in World War I and resultant collective insecurity contributed to such mentality becoming widespread.

Ratner and Fromm’s work shows that these behaviours often become part of what is considered the norm but is not at all healthy. These disturbed psycho-social conditions provide highly fertile ground for emergence of extreme incidents such as mob violence. Therefore, we cannot fully understand such extreme events without locating them in context of the distorted psyche that exemplifies pathological normalcy.

The new diseased normal

In his chapter on overcoming pathological normalcy in the book Health Care Under the Knife, Ratner argues that pathological normalcy explains abnormal psychology in new terms. Normal forms of pathology – such as widespread discrimination and hatred against particular groups, a diffuse but powerful sense of rage without logical basis, tolerance to violence – always surround and underlie abnormal, extreme forms of pathology like mob violence. Abnormal behaviour is neither discontinuous with, nor anomalous to, ‘normal’ behaviour. “Extreme, abnormal violence is an outgrowth of normal violence,” Ratner says.

In case of the recent wave of lynchings across India, a combination of socio-economic, political and psychological factors have created a situation of hyper-reactivity among large sections of the population, especially in rural areas and small towns. These factors includes large scale, deep discontent and anger in rural populations, especially among youth, due to the worsening crisis of agriculture and blocked employment opportunities.

To add to this, political interests have cultivated an atmosphere of morbid suspicion and hatred towards religious minorities and people perceived as outsiders, which has been aggressively propagated through the social media. In many states, the ruling dispensation has projected a sense of political impunity to vigilante groups attacking Muslims, thus encouraging them further.

Another factor is the withdrawal of the welfare state where beneficial public services and entitlements such as public healthcare and education have been weakened. At the same time, the state has emerged as an alienated ‘surveillance state’. Both these changes seem to be contributing to loss of trust in the state and has given rise to public perception of the state being external and unwanted. This in turn has induced groups to take law and order into their hands. In this situation, behaviours that are widespread and considered ‘normal’ are no longer equivalent to being healthy, and such pathological normalcy provides conditions for eruption of recurrent, apparently irrational mob violence.

Remoulding the public psyche

Pathological normalcy is evident not only at the level of social psychology, but can also manifest itself at the political plane.

As Ratner has noted, such a distorted but widespread public psyche was manifested in the massive popularity of the Nazi Party in Germany in the late 1920s and 1930s. Nazism as a pathological political formation was endorsed by large sections of German society, including major sections of the middle class, most industrialists, and the President of Germany who appointed the leader of the party Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. The Nazi Party was mainstream, popular, and normative. Germans who did not support this party were at risk of being exterminated, like six million Jews across Europe.

In retrospect, people across the world including an entire generation of Germans, wondered how such a deeply inhuman force could have attracted such unthinking loyalty from millions of German people for over a decade. It is these processes which prompted Wilhelm Reich to write in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism:

Dictatorial power and truth do not go together. They are mutually exclusive … There are, in social life, degrees of power and degrees of lying. The more truthful the masses, the less despotism; conversely, the fuller the masses of irrational illusions, the more comprehensive and the more brutal is the despotism of groups of individuals.

Reich also says:

The lessons from Germany of the 1930s must be relevant for India today. The recent wave of lynchings in India show that many current social tendencies considered ‘normal’ are not necessarily healthy, and may underlie more extreme violent events. In fact, today powerful socio-political forces are remoulding the public psyche of ordinary Indians by brewing a mixture of deep suspicion and hatred towards the ‘other’, a hyper-nationalist identity which tolerates no dissent as exemplified by recent arrests of human rights activists across the country, and active endorsement of violence through relentless verbal aggression on social media. All of this provides the basis for apparently irrational incidents, where scores or hundreds of people descend into pathological, violent behaviour.

This manufactured pathological mass psychology is increasingly driving the new normal in society as well as politics. Fortunately, there are powerful counter-tendencies which are standing up for a different idea of India, voices of humanity and sanity across the country. Drawing strength from these countering forces, we must recognise the major peril and defeat it at all levels, before it consumes us as a civilised society.

Dr Abhay Shukla is a public health physician and health activist, associated with Jan Swasthya Abhiyan.