(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, May 11.)
NEWSFLASH: Researchers have identified a previously unrecognised psychological phenomenon which they say is sweeping the developed world. They have given it the name Acute Sensitivity Disorder.
Quoted in the latest edition of the British medical journal The Lancet, Dr Fergus Aitken-Humphreys of Edinburgh University says the condition is characterised by quickness to take offence at the merest slight and to demand redress.
An acute allergic reaction to certain “trigger” words and expressions is a common symptom. Researchers noted that someone had recently laid a complaint against a New Zealand television host who used the term “schizo”, Dr Aitken-Humphreys said.
Symptoms of ASD may be displayed by groups as well as individuals. Dr Aitken-Humphreys said the next step for the researchers was to establish whether there were any links with the phenomenon known as identity politics, in which members of minority groups focus on perceived differences with the community at large and are hyper-sensitive to statements that are seen as stereotyping or stigmatising them.
By coincidence, Dr Aitken-Humphreys’ research team released its preliminary findings at the same time as a political furore erupted in Britain over prime minister Gordon Brown’s description of lifelong Labour voter Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”.
Dr Aitken-Humphreys said the reaction to Mr Brown’s gaffe was consistent with ASD. “Some people might take the view that Mr Brown was perfectly entitled, in what he thought was the privacy of his car, to express a personal view about Mrs Duffy.
“It was an off-the-cuff statement made amid the stress of a closely fought election campaign. Some people might take the view that it was a perfectly normal human reaction in the circumstances. But suddenly the entire election result was supposedly hanging in the balance because of it.”
He noted that the news media, which was often complicit in the spread of ASD, had made great play of the Duffy incident. “What we don’t yet know is whether the fuss created by the media reflects community attitudes at large.” He pointed out that despite the adverse publicity, opinion polls showed no drop in Mr Brown’s support.
Some scholars suspect that ASD is closely related to apology fever, first noted in the 1990s, which takes the form of an obsessive quest for expressions of remorse, often over events that took place in the distant past and for which the party apologising had no responsibility.
Dr Aitken-Humphreys said there was some support for the view that advanced societies were becoming more thin-skinned.
“What’s striking about our research is that ASD seems confined to affluent, developed countries. One theory is that people are no longer preoccupied with the business of sheer survival. They have time on their hands to dwell on perceived grievances and allow them to become magnified out of all proportion.
“In the few primitive societies where ASD has been diagnosed, it has invariably been transmitted by activists from developed countries who, ironically, were just trying to help.”
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TALKING of psychological disorders, I was recently seated on a plane next to a smartly dressed young woman who had not one but two cellphones. As she carried on a conversation on one she was texting on the other.
She continued texting after the plane started taxiing out to the runway, despite the usual request to turn off electronic devices. Two or three times, when she seemed on the verge of shutting her phone down, she suddenly remembered one more message – clearly a matter of life and death that couldn’t wait the 40 minutes till we arrived at our destination – and began texting again.
You could sense the mental turmoil when she eventually forced herself to put both phones in her handbag. And the moment we touched down, one of the phones was out and she was at it again.
What causes this compulsion to remain constantly in touch – a compulsion so strong that some people seem to have difficulty stopping even for the duration of a short domestic flight? Should it be classified as an addiction, or perhaps a form of mania?
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TV COMMERCIALS are considered an abomination in our house, and I can hit the mute button faster than Wyatt Earp could draw his Buntline Special. But some ads retain the ability to irritate even with the sound off.
Take the ad for Dettol disinfectant wipes. It shows vile germs rampantly proliferating on every household surface touched by vulnerable children. All that stands between these innocent, unknowing creatures and an outbreak of the bubonic plague is a conscientious mother busily disinfecting everything.
The ad not only panders to a ridiculous hygiene obsession propagated by the purveyors of disinfectants, but misleadingly suggests that everything can and should be sanitised.
The truth is that germs are everywhere, and thank goodness for that. We need them because exposure to germs helps keep our immune systems armed and alert.
Some medical specialists suspect that germ phobia, paradoxically, is to blame for the extraordinary growth of food allergies, and that what we need is more, not less, exposure to dirt and allergens to keep our immune systems on their toes.
I say we should cut Bertie Germ a bit of slack. He has as much right to be here as we have.