So, whilst this isn’t a political blog, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not a Trump fan. After the US election last week, like many, I was stunned, and weirded out, and frightened for the future, and a little bit weepy. I also had a strong urge to be angry. I wanted to rant and rave and shout, and blame all the people who voted for him, and to tell them that they were wrong. Today I want to write about why I didn’t do that.
In my last blog, I wrote about our tendency to respond to fear with anger (see here). In the past, I’ve also written about our defaults around tribalism (here, and here), lack of complex thinking (here), and how easy it is to be infected by memes (here). It’s normal for humans to get freaked out when we’re exposed to things that are outside of our usual experience, or when we’re exposed to new ideas, or opinions that differ from our own. This usually happens automatically (i.e., without a conscious thought or decision), making it our default response. These defaults are the result of short-cuts or heuristics in our neurological systems (read here for an explanation) – not our fault, but not particularly useful for getting through the 21st century either.
And that’s our problem as a species: we default to fear and anger, and we can be so very easily manipulated into experiencing these emotions. Because our feelings are so beguiling and so easy to listen to (read here for why), we tend to act on them (usually to try to make the feelings go away). In fact, it turns out that when the motives of those who voted for Brexit in the UK, and Trump in the US were analysed, fears about immigration and terrorism came out on top. The primary message of both these campaigns was about fear of the outsider, and it worked, because we’re just that easy to hack.
Of course, with a bit of emotional distance, it’s possible to work out that, in the UK, the US, and Australia, immigration just isn’t a ‘bad’ thing. Actually, given that the populations of all three of these countries are nothing more than large collections of immigrants (through multiple waves), the whole notion of social and racial ‘purity’ is farcical. Moreover, without sustained immigration, none of these countries (all of which are now close to negative birth rates) are particularly sustainable. We know that sustained immigration actually results in a healthier society (both culturally and economically), and can encourage integration, collaboration, and acceptance. Isolationism, on the other hand, begets nationalism, economic contraction, and belligerence. There’s a lot of good sociological, psychological, and economic research supporting both of these assertions – worth a Google if you’re unconvinced (but be careful of the confirmation bias – see below).
Equally, there are plenty of statistics that accurately gauge the real threat of terrorism. Unless you live in a Middle Eastern country like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, you are dramatically more at risk of harm from your daily commute, or even from donkey attack, than from a terrorist. But humans are crap at statistics, and we can easily fall victim to the availability heuristic (we give preference to information that is more available – like newspaper headlines) and the confirmation bias (we attend to information that reconfirms our existing worldview over any and all other information).
So for Brits, Americans, and Australians, immigration is probably really good, and terrorism is probably an extremely minor threat. Huh…
But there are some things to be genuinely frightened of. A while back I wrote that, as a species, we’re probably doomed (here), and I still hold to that rather depressing view; humans just aren’t good enough at recognising complex threats when they can be so easily hoodwinked by pretend threats (to stimulate fear) by those who want power. But if you want to learn to step back from knee-jerk hashtags, the very real threats of manmade climate change, environmental degradation, and biosphere collapse should be getting your attention.
So here’s the nub of it: fear, anger, and short-term, pointless action to make ourselves feel better (like voting for a political candidate who is really good at making us feel afraid, by blaming the issue du jour on another tribe so we can get angry at a specific target) is the last bloody thing we need. Getting angry at people who vote for fear-mongering candidates (because they were afraid and angry) is also the last thing we need. We’ve already got enough fear and anger and kneejerk responses to well and truly fuck us from here to Sunday. We genuinely don’t need more simplistic slogans that trigger heuristics, and we don’t need anymore stupid memes. Talk is cheap and primary emotions (fear and anger especially) are easy. Action, on the other hand, is difficult. So are complex emotions like compassion, and it’s even harder is to act compassionately.
What we really need now is a large-scale, reasoned, compassionate response. Understanding what’s actually going on by educating ourselves (rather than cherry picking what we want), and looking at the more complex issues underlying the world’s problems, can help us to to determine the types of actions that might actually make a difference. Scapegoating and stereotyping certainly won’t work, and nor will action for its own sake.
I’m going to suggest we all take a bit of time to inform ourselves about two really important skills: learning to think and act compassionately (read here, here, and here), and learning to understand and act on our values (read here, and here). There’s a good chance that you’re already thinking and acting in compassionate, values-congruent ways. If you genuinely are, please keep doing so, and helping those around you to do the same. Don’t get too angry at people who are already frightened and angry; instead, try to help them to understand that it’s exactly those emotions that stop us from acting on what genuinely matters.
What actions? Well that’s up to you – but in line with the ideas of compassion – how about standing up for those who have fewer rights and freedoms than you do, learning to accept that different from you doesn’t have to mean “bad” or “threatening”, saying “no” to the politics of anger and fear, and encouraging others to respond to complex issues in a more reasoned and thoughtful manner?