Credibility in an age of crisis

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In ancient Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan priestess who was blessed with the gift of prophecy but cursed with the inability to have others believe her accurate predictions. She could foresee future disasters, but nobody would ever listen to her warnings until it was too late.

For hundreds of years, the myth of Cassandra has served as an appropriate metaphor for the ways in which society tends to diminish and devalue the concerns of marginalized groups, such as women, people of color, people with disabilities and more. This phenomenon is so widespread that psychologists often refer to it as the “Cassandra complex.” From 19th-century medical diagnoses of “female hysteria” to 21st-century social justice activists being dismissed as “hysterical,” this raises important questions about who we see as credible, especially during a time of multiple overlapping global crises. 

Perhaps the most recent example of the Cassandra complex is the public’s reaction to Texas’s new abortion law. 

In early September, Texas banned the majority of abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — well before many women even know they’re pregnant — and gave private citizens the right to sue anyone who performs or aids an abortion. When the Supreme Court let this law stand, this essentially gutted Roe v. Wade, giving conservative states all over the country the green light to enact similar laws. Inspired by the Texas law, politicians in Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina have already expressed their intentions to introduce six-week abortion bans. As a result, hundreds of millions of women in Texas and similar states will soon be unable to access abortion services.

In recent years, feminist activists have been incessantly warning us that reproductive rights in the United States are in danger. The election of former president Donald Trump and his appointment of three conservative justices to the Supreme Court was considered as a sign of the eventual end of Roe v. Wade by the feminist community. But their foresight was often dismissed as overblown and exaggerated — instead of being believed and listened to, they were regarded as hysterical and dramatic, especially by people in power.

For instance, a few years ago, CNN news correspondent Brian Stelter dismissed a feminist activist expressing concern about reproductive rights in the Trump era, tweeting, “We are not a few steps from ‘The Handmaids Tale.’ I don’t think this kind of fear-mongering helps anyone.” 

Stelter later deleted the tweet a few hours after the Texas abortion law went into effect.

During the controversy over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse described women who were angry about sexual assault allegations as “hysterical,” while Maine Sen. Susan Collins claimed that people worried about abortion rights were spreading “over-the-top rhetoric and distortions.”

Of course, the “hysterical,” “over-the-top” feminists ended up being entirely right. The Texas law is an unprecedented rollback of reproductive rights and will have devastating consequences for anyone who’s pregnant and doesn’t want to be. People who were dismissed as alarmists and treated as overdramatic for years were, perhaps, just acutely aware of the dangers they were facing.

A similar phenomenon is evident in the decades-long fight to protect the environment. In the 1960s, scientist Rachel Carson was described as “hysterical” and “probably a communist” after she wrote about the harmful effects of pesticides. Decades later, climate activist Greta Thunberg is similarly disparaged as an “indoctrinated child” and a “hysterical teen” by conservative media personalities. 

People who were dismissed as alarmists and treated as overdramatic for years were, perhaps, just acutely aware of the dangers they were facing.

In the mid-2010s, Native Americans and environmental activists mobilized against the construction of several oil pipelines, which they said would leak and contaminate their drinking water. Many activists were tear-gassed and arrested, and the Trump administration went ahead with pipeline construction. And then, three years later, exactly what Native American communities said would happen actually happened — the Keystone XL pipeline leaked almost 400,000 gallons of oil in North Dakota. The activists were vindicated by history, but at what cost?

Over the past few years, it’s been surreal to see climate disasters that would have been unthinkable a decade ago — from orange smoke-filled skies in the Bay Area and lethal heat waves in the Pacific Northwest to unprecedented flooding and snowstorms in Texas — while also seeing fossil fuel executives still claiming that they didn’t play a role in causing our climate crisis. 

It’s the meme of the dog sitting in a flaming room, saying “This is fine,” except the dog knows that it’s not fine but is going to gaslight everyone else into thinking it is. 

People who are concerned about the state of the world are encouraged to ignore real-world evidence — as George Orwell wrote in 1984, to “reject the evidence of their eyes and ears” — and accept what they’re told by people who have privilege and power. 

Relatedly, it seems as though many people who are fully vaccinated believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is now over and that we can return back to “normal.” And when people with disabilities, parents of unvaccinated kids or people from countries with limited vaccine access, for example, express concerns about returning to “normal,” their worries are downplayed and ascribed to “COVID hysteria.”

It’s the meme of the dog sitting in a flaming room, saying “This is fine,” except the dog knows that it’s not fine but is going to gaslight everyone else into thinking it is. 

The disturbing realities of power relations in America are evident in the dismissive, often mocking reactions to the very real and valid concerns of marginalized people and movements for social change.

A centuries-old myth says more about the unequal power dynamics of today than one might think at first. Cassandra was destined to know the truth and not be believed — her detractors recognized the validity of her concerns only after it was too late and her warnings came true. (And even then, I’m sure at least one man probably still thought he was right and she was overreacting.) 

As environmentalist Alan Atkinsson wrote in 1999, “Too often we watch helplessly, as Cassandra did, while the soldiers emerge from the Trojan horse just as foreseen and wreak their predicted havoc. Worse, Cassandra’s dilemma has seemed to grow more inescapable even as the chorus of Cassandras has grown larger.”

More than 30 years later, Atkinson’s observations are more true than ever and will become increasingly relevant as we face inevitable disasters in the coming years. 

Whose voices do we think are worth listening to? Whose warnings do we take note of? Whose fears do we see as valid, and whose fears do we see as “overreactions?” The answers to these questions depend on whether people in power recognize the importance of lived experience.

Contact Sanjana Manjeshwar at [email protected]

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