On Talking To Each Other about Fear and Threats

This blog post was inspired by a Hidden Brain podcast that posited that the central difference between liberals and conservatives is their different reaction to threats, that fear is a more powerful trigger for conservatives than liberals. Without getting into possible nature/nurture considerations, I want to take seriously the idea that many liberals and conservatives respond to the world differently when it comes to danger and threat and to think about how we can talk to each other from our different worldviews.

The idea that a different response to danger is at the heart of the right/left split is an old one: “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” As someone who has been mugged (over thirty years ago now), I can testify that the experience brought up some dark, unexpectedly racist thoughts. An urban friend gave me good advice: “Be vigilant. Don’t be stupid. But don’t let this change your relationship to the city.” That encouraged me not to withdraw into a fearful, protective stance.

The centrality of fear-based appeals (and the resulting narrative of “protection”) helps explain the political conversion stories for some people who are close to me. My late father-in-law (who inspired the political portions of this blog) was a liberal for most of his early years before he switched to become a staunch conservative for the rest of his life. Guns became a large part of Bob’s life (he kept a “Dirty Harry” gun in his living room in his final years), and I suspect that the liberal opposition to guns played a big part in that shift from left to right. I think many liberals think of gun ownership as a hobby when it comes closer to being an identity for many folks (at least in its contemporary form). The NRA has been particularly effective in arguing that a criticism of gun ownership is not a criticism of your possessions but it is an attack on who you are. The narrative of guns as “protection” is an emotional touchstone for many, and if we criticize this as being fundamentally misguided, we risk losing those folks entirely as political allies. If you talk sensibly with many gun owners, they will acknowledge that conditions have to be exactly right for the “protecting myself with a gun” scenario to work (after all, many trained police officers mess up under such circumstances). But that doesn’t mean that the possibility of successful protection from a threatening world isn’t emotionally important for them.

There are relatively few examples of people switching political teams nowadays based on argument about issues. One of those possible turning points appears to be guns, or rather the combination of fear/threats with the narrative of protection through guns. My late father-in-law’s story demonstrates this, and to a certain extent my son’s story does as well. After a lengthy stretch of occupying geeky fan territory (Doctor Who, Firefly) as his central identity markers, he has pivoted more toward the emotionally powerful narrative of being an armed protector. Asking my son not to do concealed carry is not a simple request like taking off his hat indoors; it is a challenge to his values and identity. He has channeled these beliefs into a socially valued form (I am proud to say that he’s a corpsman in the Navy), but I recognize up close the transformative power of the threat/protection mythos in our culture.

I am struck by how our media consumption and fan allegiances play a role in all this. Following Doctor Who involves embracing a broadly humanist set of values emphasized in the show (which also de-emphasizes the idea that the Doctor is essentially a vigilante, albeit a vigilante with humane goals and a sonic screwdriver). One of the cultural axes activated by the current superhero boom is the need for the vigilante to overcome the obvious breakdown of official institutions. The omnipresence of apocalyptic fictional universes feeds the WTSHTF mentality (that’s WHEN The Shit Hits The Fan, not “if”). The survivalist version of this may seem paranoid, but it’s not that far off from the imagery that circulates.

I am certainly not making an attack on the “evils” of popular culture here. I am writing this as a comic fan who mourns the end of the superhero book Invincible and who is a Walking Dead follower (both the TV and comic series). The pleasures of pop culture can’t be simply read from the pop texts by an outsider. Pop culture can be both apparently simple/direct on the surface and surprisingly complex/polyvalent when it’s adopted into people’s lives. (Superhero stories, for instance, continue to allow people who are marginalized by race, age, body image, gender identity, and sexuality to feel what power might feel like and to envision alternative worlds.) But there are certainly aspects of our pop culture environment that can bolster a fear-based outlook on the world: a need for a Dirty Harry or a Captain America to operate outside the system, which can only squelch or hinder their righteous pursuit of justice; the seeming inevitability of social collapse as a way to envision the future; the apparent utility of the gun in dealing with threats (it’s much more difficult to shoot accurately than it appears on The Walking Dead). The combination validates a stance: shit can go down anytime, anywhere (true); you can’t depend on anyone else to protect you (also true); therefore you should approach the world with constant vigilance and maximum defense.

More official media sources boost our fear quotient, too. (I believe that I can recognize Fox News just by hearing the vocal intonation, which is always at crisis fever pitch.) There’s still a strong “if it bleeds, it leads” factor across all news reporting (though it takes a large amount of brown people’s blood shed outside of America for such tragedies to register in mainstream news). Although “the media” are often accused of having a liberal bias, this tendency plays in a conservative direction, stoking the fires of fear. Culture (official and popular) presents us with pieces that we can use to erect a terrifying edifice.

We need to recognize that fear is a product that can be sold and to recognize that it is economically advantageous for businesses (security firms, insurance, gun manufacturers, news organizations) and politicians to sell that compelling product, even if it’s not an “accurate” picture of the world. This should make us all suspicious of whether we’re being sold a bill of goods when we hear fearmongering claims. Conservatives (who tend to react particularly strongly to fear and threat) should be particularly vigilant, knowing their tendency.

Liberals, on the other hand, should recognize that it’s perfectly reasonable to see the world as threatening and to feel the need for more protection. (There’s always more protection you can purchase. It’s never enough) We are unlikely to convince conservatives that their fears are misguided, misplaced, or overblown. The confirming data circulate all around us, after all. But if we don’t learn how to talk about threats with conservatives, we will lose them as potential partners for the future. Talk about fear doesn’t have to be irrational. We can learn to talk about how to evaluate threats without having them becoming all-encompassing.

Maybe we liberals need to say to conservatives, “I understand how scary the world can look. It makes sense why you believe we need such strong protections, given what you see in the media. While I do recognize that bad things happen, that doesn’t mean the world as a whole is dangerous. Protection can cause problems, too.

“If you agree to consider the possibility that the world’s threats are particularly vivid for you (they are real but they aren’t perhaps as pervasive as you are encouraged to believe), I will agree that we can target the most specific threats facing us. I’m not going to oppose increasing security in certain areas that really need it; I’m not going to tell you that your view is unfounded or to repossess your gun. You will agree that a limited response to threat is what is needed. Let’s agree that threats may look different to both of us, and let’s find the largest threats that we both can agree on. There are real threats, but let’s agree that the whole world is not under siege.”

Perhaps we need to take a break from apocalyptic thinking. If we believe that we’re headed toward the end of the world, why should we be concerned with repairing damage to the social contract? After all, we’ll inevitably end up at each other’s throats anyway in either a race war (the right-wing apocalypse) or an ecological disaster (the left-wing apocalypse). The apocalypse is an economic product that’s going through a boom cycle. If we let it have too strong a command on our vision of the future, it can discourage the energy needed to work together.

I planned and started writing this blog a few days before a couple of highly publicized acts of hate-inspired political/ethnic violence (pipe bombs sent to leading liberals; a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue), and I could almost feel the argumentative ground shift under my feet. I sense how many of my left-leaning friends are beginning to think of the world as a fearful place, how the emotional gap I’ve been talking about between liberals and conservatives may be closing (except with different visions of “the enemy”). In the face of such events, I feel how tempting it is for the left to adopt and adapt a fear-based politics of our own. After all, we’ve seen how effective fear-based appeals are at rallying the troops for the right. But fear is a greedy emotion. It is the perfect commodity; it calls to be fed endlessly with no end in sight.

I’m not advocating a politics of pure logic with emotion expunged, as if such a thing is possible. Passion is part of politics. But I do believe that one of the roads back to a shared politics is for us to dial down the fear. That’s easier for liberals than for most conservatives, and I believe my people (left-wingers) have a responsibility to model what a politics of decreased fear looks like. We have to keep the faith.

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