A year ago, I referred publicly to a woman’s blog post as “hysterical,” and was shouted down by a few people for using a misogynist term. I wasn’t being flip, I tried to explain. To me, being hysterical online is a very specific thing, when you don’t really read the piece you are responding to, and are instead responding to some perceived insult that may or may not truly exist, and then you inflate your own sense of hurt and wear your injuries around in order to protect yourself from any sort of logical response. Taking an argument out of the realm of logic and taking it to this heightened, and personal, emotional state and deliberately blocking a person’s ability to argue.

…Take the 19th century French hysterics at Salpêtrière. They had obvious problems, all of them. Abusive families, rapes and assaults, emotional disorders, PTSD, etc. And that caused physical symptoms, as it tends to do. So off to the asylum they went. Where they were responded to if their physical symptoms lined up with the expectations of the doctors. If they convulsed, they were rewarded with attention. If they contorted, they were asked to perform and found a level of fame. Soon their physical symptoms, which had been chaotic and very wide-ranging, aligned with what the doctors believed about hysteria.

The problem was, the emotional problems and past traumas were never addressed and dealt with. The physical symptoms were all anybody saw. Most of the women were lifelong inpatients. The performance becomes a distraction, a way to keep the conversation or our train of thought or psychotherapy sessions from hitting the real source. It allows us to “win,” an argument or a belief or whatever our rewards are, and that is often times the only thing we want.

Reading André Comte-Sponville’s book, I came across this related passage:

All too often we confuse femininity with hysteria, which is merely (in men and women alike) a pathological caricature of femininity. The hysteric wants to seduce, to be loved, to attract attention. This is not gentleness or love; it is narcissism, trickery, thwarted aggressiveness, control (“The hysteric,” Lacan says, “seeks a master to rule over”), and certainly seduction, but in the sense that seduction exploits or (as its etymology suggests) misleads.