The Only Thing We Have to Fear is How We Fear, Itself
‘If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.”
Sent-Ts’an, circa 600 CE
We were warned to “Be Afraid”. Of illegal immigrants. Of crime in the streets. Of “radical Islamic terrorism”. “Be Afraid”, we were told. And “I will keep you safe, so vote for me.” And millions of Americans did.
Many millions more didn’t, of course, and those Americans are now saying that what Americans really have to fear is President Trump himself, the man who promised to protect us from all those other threats. A President, these non-Trump voters say, who is so emotionally unpredictable, insecure, and desperate to be liked, that he lies about millions of (phantom) attendees who (never) came to celebrate his inauguration, about millions of (phantom) voters cheating him out of victory in the popular vote, about being wiretapped, about being falsely investigated for (actual) ties to a true foreign threat, who fires the person in charge of investigating him because that investigator refused to profess his loyalty to the President rather than to America, a President so childishly desperate to impress that he shares sensitive intelligence information with the top spy of serious foreign enemy, violating the trust of the vital Middle East ally who shared that intelligence with the United States expressly on the grounds that it NOT be shared with any other foreign country. (Not to mention violating the trust of most of the other intelligence services of the world which help actually keep us safe.)
Yes, Be Afraid, America. Be Very Afraid. But of what? Of whom? Of the bad guys “out there” out to destroy America and kill Americans, or of the American who watches TV to see who is picking on him now, and then uses the machinery of the federal government to back up his wildly paranoid claims. Should we fear the illegal immigrants sneaking in to rape and kill and take ‘our’ jobs, or the man so unready to lead America that, after being elected, he discovered that health care, and relations with China, and our foreign trade treaty with Canada and Mexico, are “more complicated than I thought.”? Should we fear the countries of the world driving hard bargains with America over international trade, or the unstable man who dashes off egregious lies on a thoughtless ego-driven whim, and who attempts to interfere with the American legal system to protect himself?
Or is there something else we need to worry about, something far deeper, something far more potentially dangerous? Shouldn’t we also be afraid of subjective way we figure out what to be afraid of in the first place, the cognitive system that leads to these disparate views on what we need to fear based on precisely the same evidence? It’s a system that relies more on subconscious emotion and instinct than on conscious objective evidence-based reason, and the different things that different Americans are afraid of demonstrates just how dangerous this subjective ‘motivated’ sort of reasoning can be.
Voted for Trump? Fear Muslims and immigrants and globalization, and deny any suggestion that Trump is dangerous. Voted for someone other than Trump, (or didn’t vote, as was true for roughly half of the registered voters in America)? Fear Trump more, and Muslims and immigrants and globalization less, if at all. Why the difference, if the facts are the same in each case? Because our subjective way of seeing the facts is powerfully shaped by what makes us feel safer or more imperiled, and our sense of safety strongly depends on how much control we feel we have over how our lives are going, and one of the ways we give ourselves a sense of empowerment and control, is to get tribal. We identify with a group of people who share similar values, adopting and espousing the views of this tribe, since in return for such loyalty we know the tribe will protects us, and since together we have more power than we do as individuals to shape how the world we live in operates. The tribe gives us control. It helps us feel safe.
The more we feel like we don’t have control over how our lives are going, an uneasiness shared in these unsettling times by tens of millions of Americans across the whole spectrum of beliefs and values, the more virulently tribal we get. The more blindly we see things the way our tribe does. The more we treat those in other tribes as the enemy, a threat. So some Americans fear Muslims, or immigrants, or Democrats, but not President Trump. And some people fear Trump, and Trump-supporting Republicans who seem to put party loyalty ahead of patriotism, but reject concern about the immigrants who have broken American law to come and live here and benefit from the country’s opportunities. Same facts. Same country. Radically different views, and divisive enmity, driven by the way we instinctively affiliate into tribes for safety and protection.
So we are at a really dangerous time. Not because of immigrants or Muslims (who are not nearly as much of a danger as nationalist paranoia would have us believe) or because of President Trump (an unstable man-child who clearly does pose a clear and present danger), but because we have devolved into tribal warfare so fierce and closed-minded that it is tearing apart the society we share, tearing apart the basic we-are-all-in-this-together idea of America. Our differences, always there, have escalated from disagreement to conflict and combat, at every level, from our interpersonal relations in neighborhoods and local communities all the way up to the federal government, which can get nothing done in the name of the greater common good because the whole idea that there is a common good has been dissolved by the acid of our divisiveness.
And this danger state of affairs all arises out of our instinctive need for control in order to keep ourselves safe. Too bad that this instinct can sometimes lead to more conflict, and combat, and in the end leave us more afraid, and less safe.