Professor Mattias Desmet has been a controversial figure in the Belgian corona discussion. He has made several statements about the government’s ‘project fear’ and the unwillingness of the masses to see they are being manipulated. His friendship with Dr Robert Malone, another contentious figure, has allowed his ideas on mass formation to go viral beyond the Dutch-speaking world. We therefore found it important to translate existing discussions on Desmet’s flawed rhetorics and expand on the flaws in his narratives.
The main mantra Desmet has been building on for the last 2 years of this pandemic has been that those who follow the dominant discourse (as in “the government’s narrative”) are anxious. Fear drives them into mass hypnosis. He pays homage to the “non-anxious ones” who go dauntlessly against the dominant discourse because they are not trapped in this hypnosis. Only they are capable of seeing the truth. From a psychological view, the messages on fear that he is proclaiming are rather dubious.
The purpose of fear in a pandemic
Desmet presents people’s fear for the coronavirus as something that is instrumentalised by the government for mass formation and mass hypnosis, making comparisons to nazi Germany, preferably by quoting Hannah Arendt’s analysis. This hypothesis has several problems.
First of all, from a group psychology perspective, masses are not uniform mindless drones that can be hypnotized into submission. This was also not the case in nazi Germany, complex group dynamics were at play in the 1930’s that led up to the 2nd world war and ultimately the Holocaust. Secondly, Desmet’s narrative implies a denial of the severity of the pandemic.
He sees no other reason behind the government’s concern and narrative than bad intentions from the government and their willingness to install a totalitarian state.
One can both accept legitimate concern for the virus and be critical of certain government interventions.
Fear of fear
A pandemic is a crisis situation for a society, with plenty to be fearful of. Loss of lives, long-term health issues, overwhelmed healthcare,… It is important to recognize that fear in the midst of a global pandemic is normal.
In psychological counseling, the normalization of emotions is important, including the emotion of fear. Avoiding to acknowledge fear (or other emotions) can cause all sorts of problems. Anxiety disorders, for example, develop mainly because one fears feelings of anxiety. One will avoid situations where one develops anxiety because one doesn’t want to feel it. Feeling fear can be very uncomfortable, which makes the reflex of avoidance understandable. But anxiety grows when one avoids situations that could make one anxious. A vicious circle is thus created: because of fear, one will avoid a situation and become more anxious, one will therefore try and avoid the situation even more, and so on…
This behavior can also cause other problems: by denying certain emotions, by pushing them away, and by dealing with them in a maladjusted way, all sorts of psychological problems can arise.
It’s incomprehensible that a professor in clinical psychology is making a problem out of feeling fear and connects this to mass hypnosis and the rising of a totalitarian regime. This way he might frighten people for the anxiety/uncomfortableness they are feeling. By problematising the totally understandable caution and concern about the coronavirus, and by suggesting this fear is something bad that no-one should bear, professor Desmet possibly incites people to deal with this fear in a way that might cause psychological problems in the long run. Research also shows how belief in such conspiracies to address feelings of anxiety only amplify feelings of anxiety.
The own narrative as a solution
One of the main points in professor Desmet’s argument is his concern about the rise of a totalitarian regime. As an alternative for what the government tells us – the virus is dangerous and people must comply with government measures to protect others – he presents his own narrative as the one that people should trust . In an interview with Dan Astin-Gregory, professor Desmet indicates that he doesn’t mind increasing fear in people by referring to the rising of a totalitarian regime (see fragment below). He states that by increasing the fear and providing a new narrative, you can make people connect with this new narrative. In the interview he also states that he used a similar technique before in propaganda videos of certain political parties who wanted to offer an alternative for the current dominant corona discourse.
There are obvious issues with this. For one, it is problematic that Desmet doesn’t shy away from using manipulative techniques to win people over to his narrative. The hypocrisy is rather blatant. He admits to using the same techniques that he accuses the government of. Secondly, one would think that the best antidote against a totalitarian regime is to reinforce a critical attitude among the people. It is unclear on the basis of which arguments or criteria his narrative would be the only valuable alternative that acts from sincere and authentic truth searching or finding and installs a critical attitude in people.
Professor Desmet’s problematic claims have also been criticized by other experts in Belgium, which we will briefly summarize.
Here is what Maarten Boudry, a prominent Flemish philosopher, writes:
A professor of psychoanalysis at my university, UGent, dismisses the entire medical consensus on COVID-19 as nothing more than a “fear psychosis” and “mass formation”, a state of “hypnosis” among virologists. Prof. Desmet (as a psychologist!) draws a medical conclusion about a virus that radically contradicts almost all medical experts, and instead of asking himself whether he might have made a slight mistake, he concludes: all the other colleagues are in a state of fear psychosis! When he proclaims a “shutting down of the intellect” among medical experts, the “collective dumbing down” and “mass formation”, the state of “hypnosis”, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of projection.
Here is what Bram Vervliet, a senior lecturer in Psychology at KU Leuven, writes:
Mattias Desmet, professor of psychoanalysis at the University of Ghent, believes that we are massively in the grip of fear. Desmet claims that we have been collectively blinded by a virus that fuels our worst fears, causing us to lose our ability to think clearly and to constantly make irrational decisions. Judging by the number of views, his argument reaches a large group of people. But it is anything but scientific.
According to Desmet, we must be especially wary of our own fear, which is far more dangerous than the virus itself. Fear kills! To this end, he cites shady anecdotes about shamans who touched someone with a staff and then, a few hours later, they suddenly fell dead of fear. Really? I have been researching fear for 20 years, but I have never heard such nonsense.
Here is what Joris Meys (biostatistician and bio-engineer at University of Ghent) and Lieven Bervoets (eco-toxicologist, Biology at University of Antwerp) writes:
Desmet repeats a number of fantasies that circulate among conspiracy theorists, and for which there is no scientific basis whatsoever. More than that, his accusations imply large-scale fraud with death certificates, and an international failure of scientists to apply their own discipline correctly. Mattias Desmet’s claims in the interview by Patrick Dewals of 18 January could encourage people to minimize the severity of the virus. That is why we want to react to some of Desmet’s statements, which seem to be based on anecdotes and personal reflections rather than on facts.