The Drunk Uncle De-volution

And the pathology of “Fear Itself”

“It’s a Wonderful Life” for Donald J. Trump: Every time he blows his dog whistle, a Drunk Uncle gets its wings. If the Centers for Disease Control kept stats on the rise and spread of Drunk Uncle Syndrome, it would surely be labeled an epidemic.

Far beyond the inebriated ranting Saturday Night Live character, a “Drunk Uncle” is any malcontent whose certainty of judgment is based on a salty and exasperated intuition — a 21st Century Archie Bunker. And no, you don’t need to be “drunk” or an “uncle” to qualify.

My first encounter with a modern day Drunk Uncle came after my return from military service in Iraq, in 2004. While sharing my thoughts on the war, a man from New Hampshire felt obliged to tell me that “them Iraqis had what was coming to them after what they did on 9–11!” Iraq, of course, had no involvement with 9–11. But facts didn’t matter to this man. He already merged his feelings — fear and anger — with a convenient target group: Iraqis. Sadly, any discussion of facts only reinforced his obstinance. I understood it then as the Dick Cheney Effect, because Vice President Cheney proved himself a master of distorting facts to fit his preconceptions. In many ways, Cheney is the Godfather, or God Uncle, of today’s Drunk Uncle.

Binary Minds

A Drunk Uncle’s modus operandi is relatively uncomplicated: to ignore facts and protest all divergent opinions that contradict their prejudice. It is a strategy aimed at keeping both people and issues bound to simple, easy to understand, binary categories. Senator Paul Ryan, for example, used to say “there are two kinds of people in America — the makers and the takers.” And he kept repeating that sentiment until it stopped being expedient. He has since apologized, maybe.

But despite Senator Ryan’s regret, binary thinking is alive and unwell in the United States. The growing popularity of false dilemmas — where only two solutions exist for every problem — is a testament to binary thinking and highlights the perversion of popular thought today. Sadly, these binary impulses continue to find expression in American culture today. They are, and always have been, a signal to our collective fear, flagging imagination, and devolving sense of empathy.

If, as it is said, “everything absolute belongs to pathology” then Drunk Uncle’s opinions are surely pathological. But they are not crazy, per se. They are fear based. And led by fear, Drunk Uncles strike a divisive posture toward the world around them. They believe “You’re either with us or against us. Your either my friend, or my enemy.”

Fear on the Brain

On a neurological level, the ability to act on fear is largely determined by the functions of our brain’s temporal lobe. Often called the “reptilian” part of our brain, it responds to fearful stimuli with a binary option: fight or flight. If we allow this part of our brain to shape the majority of our thoughts, then binary thinking is a natural consequence. More fear creates more binary thinkers, like Drunk Uncle— #demagoguery.

But not all is lost.

Our ability to moderate fear is determined by the functions our brain’s frontal lobe. It is responsible for reflexive thinking, planning, impulse control, language, empathy, and many other redeeming personal and cultural qualities.

But don’t fret.

All the regions of our brain — all that grey matter — has “white matter” that connects it. White matter integrates and reinforces communication between these areas allowing for more flexible thinking and problem solving behavior. Look at it this way, Drunk Uncle: “White Brain Matters!”

Humanity and Fear

Yes, we must always recognize and address the dangers around us. But we must not sacrifice our humanity in the process. A Drunk Uncle’s imagination is guided chiefly by fear, which only promotes more fear, highlighting the wisdom that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Our humanity is always available to us when we care enough to imagine other human beings as human beings — not categories. So, before fear inspires you to espouse some blunted wisdom about not letting any of “those people into my country”, think first. Imagine:

What must it be like to watch your loved ones killed? or mutilated? to be forced to flee your country? to walk across a continent cradling your hungry child? What does it feel like to then be turned away? to realize your family is trapped between terror and indifference? to the point you can no longer distinguish between the two?

Drunk Uncle cannot imagine those things. His walls are already up. And he demands you put your wall up too.

But let’s give Drunk Uncle’s binary mind the benefit of the doubt. Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world: (1) people who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and (2) people who refuse to surrender their humanity to fear-based divisions.

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