I noticed a quote posted above my desk, and it struck a chord. It is from physicist Mark Buchanan's book The Social Atom (Bloomsbury, 2007) and goes as follows: "Politicians play to ethnic fears because they know fear motivates, perhaps, more basically and immediately than any other emotion. And in the right setting, the opportunistic intelligence of a power-hungry individual can control the actions of millions." (p. 160)
Now that it seems to have been established that Americans, in general, have the same level of fear as in the days right after 9/11 (as also shared in poll findings revealed by the New York Times and CBS on December 10th)--we might take a moment to reflect on the nature of our fears, and the dangers they can bread in and of themselves. In major dictatorships, and in major forms of extremism, there is not only an enemy to vanquish, but the profound fear that one group of people is the source of danger and destruction and thus in need of exile or conquest.
I am of course not immune to a fear of terrorists who bear a membership to ISIS or other extreme groups, but I am also very afraid of how fear can be manipulated. I see how people's judgment, my own included, can go underground when under fear's influence. I remember worrying about the sanity of the American invasion in Iraq and at the same time feeling scared of saying this out loud in too many places, at a time when putting the American flag in your window or on your lawn seemed to signify not being a traitor to an America that had undergone 9/11. I have learned now some years ago that major news outlets, including the New York Times ,published the so-called findings of the Pentagon, rather than doing their own investigative reporting. Why is that, then? One reason had to be fear, the fear given to them by the White House officials that should they investigate further and publish controversial findings, they would indeed be responsible for whatever deaths and terrorist attacks would follow on such heals.
I suggest that a priority is for us to interrupt the kind of fear that muddles our judgment, that insists on hatred as the only way--amongst ourselves or as it translates to any one group of people. One of the ways that this can change is for us to begin to see confusion and even fear as ways to begin a clear investigation into what the causes and potential solutions--both regarding terrorism and other sources of worry--rather than settling for rhetoric that makes us feel strong, in the saddle, immune from doubt.
I have learned that emotions trump (I know, the pun) facts every time. In a culture where we are not usually encouraged to acknowledge either the plethora of emotions inside us or the contradictions we may experience, it becomes harder and harder to argue facts, as the interest in them gets less and less. The demagogue discourages hesitation, and often shoots from the hip while helping the frightened among us become seduced by such certainty. The seduction is that he/she who is certain is braver and stronger, while the real courage may be to admit both fears and mistakes, and have the humility to learn from each other.
Along with examining our fears, we might look at the people preying on them, encouraging us to become impulsive in our hate and need to attack. These are dangerous people, who are really bullies as they insinuate that if we are really brave, we will stand with them. They make it easy for us to give up our own thoughts or opinions and questions, when in addition we also fear our own fear.
Sometimes it's the sanest thing to be scared, to perceive danger or the threat thereof. But so that fear doesn't feed on itself, we need to feel there are ways to feel safer, and I would suggest that include sober paths to solutions. The people who make it all simple and do the cowboy routines with their talk or manners, are trying to simplify things for us--to oversimplify.
I always come back to looking at ourselves in any kind of crisis. I'll admit that as a liberal, I've been prone to be intimidated and perhaps intimidating as an ode to political correctness, another form of bullying at least some of the time. I now have shifted, maybe because of the practice of writing and processing the shadows--the parts inside us all we tend to hate and reject.
For now, I'd like to say to the more conservative among us: Can we be careful of the people who magnify our fears and use them for their own power? Can we remember that thinking is not a dirty word, something we have to be afraid of. Quite the contrary we need to be afraid when we get to a point where we stop thinking. We need to be scared of being seduced or bullied by the slick politicians whose motivation is not really peace or security among us or for us.