In this post I want to talk about how we can regain our national sanity. It starts by making a conscious choice to stop reacting in fear.
We know from studies in neuroscience that threats to our strongly held opinions and beliefs can trigger our fight/flight/freeze survival drive. The reason for this, says the late physicist David Bohm, in a mind-blowing little booklet called On Dialogue, is because we identify with our opinions and beliefs, and therefore defend them “as if we are defending ourselves.” He goes on:
“The natural self-defense impulse, which we got in the jungle, has been transferred from the jungle animals to these opinions. In other words, we say that there are some dangerous opinions out there — just as there might be dangerous tigers. And there are some very precious animals inside us that have to be defended. So an impulse that made sense physically in the jungle has been transferred to our opinions in our modern life.”
Now, we can all agree that some opinions, beliefs, perspectives can, over time, become dangerous to us physically. The mistake we make is assuming that the self-defense impulse we learned “in the jungle” to avoid physical harm from an attacking tiger, can also help us avoid physical harm from an attacking ideology. An abundance of evidence suggests this is not so. Dangerous ideas, unlike dangerous tigers, cannot be trapped, caged or killed. Trying to do so seems only to make them stronger.
Let’s take the anti-vacine movement as a case in point.
According to a recent article, the anti-vax movement really got going in 2014-2015, following the swift and rather vicious public reaction to a small outbreak of the measles (125 people). The outbreak was traced back to “mostly unvaccinated visitors at Disneyland in California.” (Note the use of the word “mostly.”) Of those unvaccinated visitors, 28 of them — 18 children and 10 adults — were intentionally unvaccinated.
28 people. That was enough, apparently, to “[wake] up the nation to the threat” of those who questioned or were resistant to getting vaccines. Fearful of what might happen should this anti-vaccine mentality spread, a campaign of public humiliation soon followed, “with everyone from soccer moms to late-night television hosts lambasting parents who refused to vaccinate their kids.” And in California, nonprofits and state legislators worked together “to push for a bill that would remove all non-medical exemptions for school vaccine requirements, which had grown in recent years to allow pockets of low vaccination coverage to spring up.”
In other words, an aggressive, all-out attack on those who questioned vaccines had begun.
So what happened next? Now under threat themselves, those “pockets of low vaccination coverage” transformed into a mobilized national movement. They organized, fundraised, grew, developed sophisticated and targeted messaging, and formed alliances and political action committees to help elect politicians sympathetic to their cause. Everything the pro-vaccine folks most feared.
Did it have to be this way? Might there have been a different reaction back in 2014-15 other than drafting laws and engaging in public humiliation — which Amanda Ripley in her book, High Conflict, calls the “nuclear bomb of emotions” and the driver of “all manner of conflict”?
What if in 2014, instead of “waking up to the threat” of those resistant to getting vaccines, we simply “woke up” to the existence and consequences of people who had chosen not to get vaccinated, and then, without fear, got curious and made an effort — before everyone’s defenses were raised — to understand their mindset so that we could come up with creative, respectful and effective responses?
Would that have made a difference? Well, I don’t know about you, but personal experience tells me the answer is yes. It’s just common sense that people are more receptive to talking and listening when humiliation bombs are not being dropped on their head.
So what can we do now? For starters, we can refuse to act out of fear, refuse to take part in the vilification of the other. None of that helps. It just feeds the conflict. Another thing you could do is help spread this meme:
“Fear ends where conversation begins.”