UR Here: How fear divides us

Fear may be responsible for our most zealous political beliefs. — photo by Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

The holidays are over. Many have gathered with family, and many have no doubt performed the holiday ritual of political arguments. Some family rifts may have formed, but more than likely you and Uncle Frank, despite some fireworks, hugged each other and departed with your familial ties intact. And that happened because of another seasonal trope — you were home for the holidays.

The United States’ stark political divide has many of us shaking our heads in bewilderment and frustration. Most of us seem to believe that the fractiousness of our society and culture has rarely, if ever, been greater in our lifetimes. Huge disparities in cultural values, economic livelihood and even geography are often fingered as major reasons for our current divisions. But are these more symptoms than causes? What is at the root of our seemingly insurmountable differences? Perhaps the wedge that divides us is as fundamental — and viscerally powerful — as fear.

We all have fears. They’re part of our human nature and essential to our survival. But as individuals and as groups, we often fear differently and to varying degrees. It’s a given that politicians often play on and to our fears, but a recent book suggests that, perhaps, there is hope for turning that fear-mongering away.

I have recently read several articles about Yale psychology professor John Bargh’s 2017 book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. I confess I have not yet read the book itself, but numerous reports and reviews of it summarize one of Bargh’s most interesting arguments: that by manipulating people’s fear response one way or another, they can, at least temporarily, become more conservative or liberal.

Long before Bargh’s book appeared, often-cited studies have shown how conservatives tend to be more fearful than liberals and less accepting of ambiguity. Conservatism bases many of its principles on reducing fear, anxiety and uncertainty, which is why the avoidance of change and the establishment of order are so powerful for its followers.

Some studies have even tried to demonstrate this physically: “Researchers have taken brain images of people with different political leanings and found that those who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalas, an area of the brain associated with the expression and processing of fear,” writes Hilary Brueck in the Business Insider article “A Yale psychologist’s simple thought experiment temporarily turned conservatives into liberals.”

It’s not much of a leap, then, to connect this phenomenon to a number of conservative positions. Frequently, those who are the most ardent gun rights supporters cite personal safety as among the most important reasons for their beliefs. It also could explain why conservatives tend to be more fearful of people who are different, seeing them as threatening certain values, ways of life, personal economic well-being and even personal safety.

A handful of counter protesters were in the crowd at the immigration rally on the Ped Mall. Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Bargh moved this research one step further by seeing if he could actually change behavior. He and his team had subjects imagine that they were invulnerable like Superman and could not be harmed physically. Then they were asked to respond to some political statements, such as whether they “would be reluctant to make any large-scale changes to the social order” or “whether it’s okay if some groups have more of a chance in life than others.” Self-identified conservatives started adopting more liberal views on social issues presuming their physical safety was guaranteed. Liberals did not change their views. (Nor did the control group, which was told merely that they could fly.) Other studies have shown, conversely, that liberals tend to become more conservative in their outlook when their own personal safety is threatened (and on a large scale, the broadly conservative turn after 9/11 can be cited as evidence).

While Bargh is hardly suggesting a magic wand to alter people’s political, social and cultural perspectives, his experiment does suggest that alleviating fear can perhaps bring people closer together in their social views, though I’m sure many conservatives will balk at the idea that “coming closer together” means becoming more liberal.

For me, the idea of finding common ground in our fears ties directly into our sense of home and place. I have often invoked Daniel Kemmis’ idea of “communities of place” rather than “communities of interest” (see his 1990 book Community and the Politics of Place), which acknowledges that we all live together in a place and what binds us together is our mutual desire for what is best for it (even though we will often disagree on what is best). I have found that even more universal agreement often comes about when we talk about home rather than place — which brings us back to the issue of fear and safety.

One of the most comprehensive definitions of home is in geographer and environmental behaviorist David Seamon’s 1979 book A Geography of the Lifeworld. Running through many of the characteristics in his rubric of home — rootedness, appropriation, regeneration, at-easeness and warmth — are the establishment of stability and control. These are usually invoked to stave off threats so that we may best flourish under home’s most nourishing characteristics.

I don’t mean (and neither does Seamon) that we must have a fortress mentality when we think of home. But we must acknowledge that we all have fears over the violation of the home space, however narrowly or broadly we define that. If we are to believe social scientists such as John Bargh, some of us experience those fears to a greater degree, and certain political and social positions often grow out of that fear.


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The issue here really isn’t who is more fearful. My point is that fear drives wedges and I believe is a fulcrum that has opened up the yawning chasm between so many of us along the political spectrum.

I don’t have a lot of specific remedies at this point, but if we can give the “big table” of Kemmis’ community of place a try, we can maybe find enough common ground to alleviate some fears by understanding each other better, and build solutions together. If Bargh et al. are right, perhaps we can change some attitudes long enough to bring us closer together. Once we meet on that common ground of fear — when we come home to each other — perhaps we can move forward together with higher common aspirations and heal the social wounds that have left us broken.

Thomas Dean is not fearless, but neither is he fearful. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 236.

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