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The Other News Round-Up: Paranoia Will Destroy Ya

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you a round-up of the week’s stranger happenings. This week: a coup by any other name would smell like a coup, and any number of other miscommunications.

While military officers in Zimbabwe were doing their best to convince the region that it was all BAU in Harare – despite journalists, including Daily Maverick’s, getting booted out short and sharply – and while the City of Cape Town was stepping up its communications game regarding the drought crisis, officials in Berlin were dealing with a communication problem of a different nature. Emphasis here on “nature”.

According to Associated Press, a panicked resident alerted police to what appeared to be a World War ll bomb in his garden – a large, blackish oblong object of the kind that is frequently unearthed during construction work in Germany, causing mass evacuations while they are defused.

The “bomb” was a large zucchini.

We’ve previously noted that folks seem poorly acquainted with their garden greens these days. Now, I hate to squash (sorry!) any remaining doubt here, but I’ve seen a picture of this courgette and there is no way it could be mistaken for anything other than – how shall we put this? – a vitamin bomb. It has a stem, people! Not a fuse! Nonetheless, the kindly police officers issued an apologetic statement explaining that the offending veggie “really did look like a bomb”.

Overreaction has not been limited to the zucchini-defusers. Parents at a Utah school have been petitioning to have the school’s mascot changed from a Phoenix because the shouting of “Phoenix, Phoenix” apparently sounds “crass” to their ears at matches – more like “penises, penises”. It’s not a parallel I would have drawn, but there you go.

In Florida, meanwhile, officers – not wanting to take a chance – arrested a woman for drunk driving when she appeared inebriated atop a horse. Donna Byrne, whose blood alcohol level was an eye-watering .161, was charged with driving under the influence and neglect of an animal. (Tell that to the South African farms that arrange wine tasting on horseback.)

AFP in Japan, on the other hand, has reported that a cat is the prime suspect in an attempted murder investigation, after an elderly woman was found the victim of the “attack”. Once police had confirmed there were no signs of forced entry, the suspected perpetrator was identified: an aggressive neighbourhood stray, after human blood was allegedly found on its coat.

And we won’t even talk about the Zimbabwean media crackdown.

Anxiety, it appears, is running thick and fast. It’s always concerning when journalists are treated with suspicion before they even flash their press card. Never mind the usual precautions like not carrying a camera. We have it on good authority the journalists in question weren’t even dressed like journalists. No black polo necks or horn-rimmed specs in sight.

Here’s the interesting thing. Paranoia, it turns out, probably evolved as an evolutionary strategy. (Which sits strangely, as it suggests uncomfortable corollaries about the evolution of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.) Nonetheless, the British Journal of Psychiatry reported in 2013 that wariness of the intentions of others “may be adaptive” and “becomes a clinical problem only when it is exaggerated or distressing, or interferes with functioning”.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans are designed to experience anxiety, wariness, etc in response to social threat, or signals of hostility from others. We can discern unfriendly facial expressions very quickly, whether we consciously register them or not, and our busy little brains begin assessing the level of threat. This is largely because, as social animals, human beings are reliant on successful group function for survival. We must be able to play well with others. Any sign of a threat means we must react quickly or (our primitive brains tell us) possibly die on the spot in a bloody mess.

So healthy paranoia, if one can phrase it that way, is merely the good functioning of this threat detection system. “Just because you’re paranoid,” as the pithy Kate Atkinson puts it, “it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you”.

Unhealthy paranoia – or on the extreme, distressing end of the scale – is something different. But Psychology Today reports it is, in fact, far more common than previously thought. And, in the age of constant exposure, it’s possibly becoming more pervasive. Why wouldn’t we feel like we’re constantly being watched?

At its core,” writes Professor of Clinical Psychology Daniel Freeman, “is a deep-seated belief that we’re in danger—that we’re not safe. That belief appears to be partly genetic in origin and partly the result of the things that happen to us in our lives”.

Is it any wonder, then, that we’re feeling so very jumpy? Despots and dictators, of course, have the greatest reason of all to feel anxiety (we won’t mention names), because deep down they all know their days are numbered. But the rest of us are feeling anxious too. We’re waiting for more bombs, shootings, accidents; more bad news.

And scientists, the Washington Post reported on 13 November, issued a bleak “second notice” to humanity – a kind of global report card that bluntly, says we all failed. In short, if we don’t kill each other first, we’re well on our way to killing ourselves.

So paradoxically, our increasingly irrational behaviour is perfectly rational. We’re responding to a hostile environment as we’re wired to. And if that means grabbing a hip flask and riding off into the sunset, I guess I’m with Donna and her horse. Don’t wait up. DM


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