Fear and Back Again: A Trip through the Woods of American Politics
If you’re ever lost in the woods, the threat you should be most concerned about is not snakes or spiders or even running out of water. The greatest threat to your safety and survival is panic. It’s easy enough to do: you’re suddenly separated from your group, you can’t find the path, and you start running around in circles getting more lost with even step. You don’t have enough food or water, and your tent is with your group. Night is falling soon. You shout with every ounce of strength in your lungs, but all you hear is an echo and the sounds of wildlife gathering around you, probably preparing to feast on you once it’s dark. The situation is dire. Your heart beats furiously, and you start to hyperventilate. At this moment, you have a choice. You can succumb to the panic, and suffer grave consequences from the irrational, reactive actions your panic will drive you to take. Or you can sit down, take a deep breath, and calmly assess your situation.
You can weigh your options, and devise a rational plan. This approach will likely save your life. A former roommate of mine once was lost in the woods for a week, and this calm, rational assessment led him out of the woods alive – shaken severely, no doubt, but alive.
The Political Wilderness of 2017
In the past year, I’ve had the feeling that our entire country is lost in the woods.
The fact that were lost as a group introduces another level of challenge, as panic tends to spread like a contagion. The panicked group can’t agree on what threats they’re facing, and they definitely can’t agree on a strategy.
Fear turns to anger. Anger turns to fighting. Fighting turns to making really bad decisions.
It seems that fear has crept into society at every level, with all sides of the political spectrum seeing danger and certain doom around every corner. One of the difficulties is that we can’t even agree on what to be afraid of. Whether it’s the economy, crime, climate change, terrorism, or fascism, our fear has been reaching a fever pitch.
I’ve certainly tripped in this rabbit hole myself. Reading the news every day honestly gives me a pit in my stomach, partly from the fear of events in the news, but often even more from a sickening feeling of hearing my countrymen and women bickering endlessly about who is right and who is an idiot.
The Trump administration’s latest controversy, the travel ban, has clearly provoked a tremendous amount of fear. For those of us who are deeply opposed to this executive order, we can easily envision a dark future to come. I’ve spent much of the past week considering all of the ways in which this can go horribly, irrevocably wrong.
However, when I catch a breath and think calmly, Trump’s first two weeks in office strike me as political pyrotechnics more than anything else: a fireworks show meant to delight his supporters, and to create further fear and disarray in his detractors. (Unfortunately those cheap tricks have also produced immeasurable heartache to countless human beings around the world.)
Whatever the motives, this policy was born of fear.
It is a policy that capitalizes upon and fans the flames of an irrational fear of an entire religion.
Closing down our borders like this is the near equivalent of thinking we see wolves in the shadows, and then breaking into a sprint through the forest screaming like a Viking berserker in the hopes it will scare those predators away. Maybe it will just work… but more likely will create more problems than it solves.
Fear acts like a poison, coursing through our veins, slowly debilitating our mental and physical functioning, until it runs its course – or causes our demise. I think that we all can agree that making important decisions while under the influence of hysterical fear endangers the stability and safety of our society.
What we likely disagree on are the particular sources of threat that are worthy of our fear.
Neither can we seem to admit, that each of us falls into this rabbit hole of fear in our perceptions and judgments of social issues.
“He Said, She Said” Hysteria
Depending on the news source you read, accusations of hysteria are shouted back and forth. A few days ago, I read two articles with starkly opposing hysterical beliefs. One article cited a high level politician as saying that environmentalists are the greatest threat to the free world, while the other painted a terrifying picture of a plot by Trump and Bannon to dismantle American democracy, and form a neo-fascist regime in its place.
Both sides of these debates will fling insults back and forth; and both will fail to recognize the irrationality of their own perceptions. It’s easy to see in others, much harder to notice in ourselves.
I had an eye-opener of this nature following the election. For me, Trump’s election was like a punch to the soul, a major step backwards in so many ways. I fell into envisioning the worst, and the Orwellian nightmare of an authoritarian regime destroying our democracy seemed quite realistic on the morning of Nov 8th, 2016. One of my old friends pointed out the prematurity of my fear and the depths to which this fear was affecting my rational judgment of the situation – which was difficult to hear at the time, but valuable once I accepted his critique.
Seeing my own irrationality through the eyes of another allowed me to take a deep breath, and assess the situation more calmly.
I still don’t agree with Trump on the majority of what comes out of his mouth, I fiercely oppose his Muslim ban, and I’m not exactly hopeful for what will come from his presidency.
However, this moment caused me to question how we perceive the issues we face as a society, as well as the strategies we devise to address those issues.
In all likelihood, things won’t turn out nearly as bad as we who oppose Trump might imagine (total catastrophe); but it’s also extremely unlikely that America will enter a new Golden Age, as many Trump supporters seem to believe will come of this presidency.
The fact is: both of these are two extreme ends of an emotional spectrum: a debilitating fear for the worst, and a naive hope for the best.
None of this is to say that the threat of terrorism doesn’t exist, that authoritarian regimes couldn’t one day overthrow our democracy, or other dangers aren’t lurking in the shadows. We know these things are real. But how do we know which threats are most demanding of our attention? Currently, whichever gets the greatest emotional reaction tends to get the most attention from our politicians and the media.
As informed citizens, we have a right and a duty to guide the conversation, and to infuse a dose of rationality into the otherwise frantic and emotional national debate.
If we were lost in the woods, we would want to make an assessment of our situation: do we have enough water? Enough food? Do we need to build some kind of shelter? Are there immediate dangers such as predators? Exposure to the elements? What resources do we have at our disposal for meeting needs and addressing threats to our safety?
From there, we would likely establish some kind of safe base of operations, a temporary camp from which to plan our strategy. Do we know how far we might be from civilization or other hikers? Is there a river nearby that might lead us to a town? Any major landmarks to help guide us towards familiar terrain?
In a social context, our assessment would likely examine all of the threats we face, and make some effort to rank them. How urgent is the threat? For example, lack of drinking water is obviously an urgent issue for a population, one that would demand immediate attention. What is the scope or extent of the threat, as in how much of the population is at risk from the threat? And what is the severity of the threat? Some are clearly life-threatening, others are harmful to health, others might affect the economic output of a population.
How much and what kind of evidence do we have of the threat and its effects? Do we trust the quality of the evidence?
There are no doubt many other ways of ranking and prioritizing threats. The point is: are we as average citizens currently doing any form of rational assessment? When we get red in the face and shout each other down over various issues, it’s safe to say we’re thinking with our fears, and not our minds. We see issues that strike us emotionally, take whatever scarce evidence we have, and go on the rampage, demanding answers and action.
We are more likely to achieve our goals of guaranteeing the security and prosperity of our nation if we make the effort to calm down and question the urgency, scope, and severity of the threats we face.
We might just find that it’s not wolves but running out of water that is the bigger threat.
Understanding threats is one key step towards survival in the wilderness. Developing a sound strategy to address threats comes next. When my old roommate was lost, he established a basecamp, and then tore one of his shirts into small ribbons. From his camp, he set out in different directions, tying ribbons to trees along the way to retrace his steps. He made progressively longer paths from his camp, until he finally found a trail leading to safety.
His rational strategy saved his life. Likewise, rational strategy can save our country.
Rational strategic thinking requires a consideration of the numerous potential outcomes of any particular course of action, and comparing the benefits and tradeoffs of various strategies. Jumping head first into a radical new policy without consulting experts in the field of concern, and rolling out this strategy blindly and without warning… not exactly a promising way to achieve our goals.
Strategic planning, particularly as the national and international scale, should involve extensive dialogue with multiple parties and partners, collaborative brainstorming, and testing of theories on small scales before launching on a global scale.
When you have wolves charging you, it’s better to tell your rational brain to shut the hell up – it’s time to act. Fight or flight. Any other time, well, we have the prefrontal cortex, the most evolutionarily advanced part of our brain for a reason: for reason. Rational thought.
It’s easy to be swept away by fear and anger. Terrorist acts, Machiavellian political maneuvering, extreme weather events from climate change – any of these things can make our blood boil. But look around you right this moment. Do you see this directly in front of you? If so, then take action.
If not, then you have time to think more deeply, to weigh threats and consider strategies.
The major threat to freedom is not external; it is our own reaction to the external world. It is our fear that causes the greatest threat. Neither terrorists nor fascists can ever destroy America; only apathetic inaction, narrow-minded partisanship, and blind anger towards our neighbors can chip away at our democratic foundations.
If we truly value the democracy we are blessed with in this country, then we should be able to agree on one thing: it’s time for us to take a collective deep breath, calm down, and engage in productive dialogue. That may be our best bet for finding our way out of these woods.