People who care about things will sometimes be afraid those things will be destroyed. After the attacks on the World Trade Center that killed over 3000 people I was afraid that the next attack was going to be a nuclear attack on a U.S. city. I went to the local Unitarian Universalist church and heard a friend of mine argue “We need to think about the message those attacks were sending.” I was furious — here people are getting murdered and this guy wants to talk about the message the murderers are sending!
I remember the bitter and sardonic quality to my contempt. My friend seemed not just wrong, but a self-deluded, pompous fool. I grimly sought out the darkest things I could on the internet about Islamic terrorists. I enjoyed scaring and horrifying myself. That way, I told myself, I am not like my friend the happy fool. I am facing up to the grim facts.
In the current political environment I see this same dynamic working itself out.
Friend Frank: I am really afraid of the administration attacking civil liberties and creating a country in which open dissent and discussion is impossible and where under cover of patriotism rich people rip the rest of us off.
Friend Fran: I am really afraid of more Islamic terrorist attacks like September 11th.
Friend Frank: You are a reactionary fool for not being more afraid of fascism. Your fear is being manipulated and you should be afraid of that!
Friend Fran: You are a politically correct fool for not being more afraid of Islamic terror. Your fear of fascism is going to make you a sitting duck!
Friend Frank: You’re going to do nothing while I’m shipped off to a concentration camp!
Friend Fran: You’re going to do nothing while my family is blown up and my head is chopped off!
These two friends are getting in trouble because they are each afraid of different things and are angry at each other for not being afraid.
This, I submit, is no way to have a discussion, because it raises the level of fear, and raising the level of fear (as I’m sure cognitive psychologists have proven) lowers our ability to imagine new possibilities. The more afraid we are the more fight-or-flight takes over. The more we are in a blind panic the more we are blind to the possibilities that could alleviate our panic.
- Let’s be honest about what we’re afraid of
- Let’s not be angry at our friends for being afraid of different things
- Let’s frame our discussions in terms of things we love, desire, and want to have happen, rather than things we hate and fear. Rather than say “I fear fascism” say “I want to have a society in which people can freely criticize the government”. Rather than say “I fear being killed by the next Mohammed Atta” say “I want to have a country where people are less likely to be the victims of politically-motivated murder.” Cognitively, there is no difference, but emotionally putting things in terms of what we want rather than what we fear makes the discussion friendlier and more imaginative. And we are emotional beings.