Fear and Politics

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I can differentiate fear’s arrival in my body. When a car leaps around a corner without warning, there’s a hot zap in my chest. When worried thoughts swirl out of control, a tide of panic rises in my torso. When I see Trump’s name crawl across the bottom of CNN next to the word President, fingers of dread tighten around my gut. Perhaps most people are used to feeling the gravitational pull of politics in their body—but it’s new for me.

I tend to avoid the political fray. It isn’t welcoming to caution or indecision, and sport often drowns out substance. The intolerance and polarizing agenda of politicians and pundits on both sides exhausts me.

But the effects of political outcomes are real—and 2016 is the first time that they’ve invaded my emotional space. I see a man who has displayed every pathological -ism there is shaking Obama’s hand in the White House. I wonder whether I really understand what being “British” means now that the U.K. has severed ties with Europe.

It’s become clear that many lucky circumstances, like my skin color and my family’s unwavering support, have allowed me to enjoy nationality as a pastime. But these things we call countries are fragile—and I’m as much a piece of the scaffolding as anyone else.

I’ve tried, like every other liberal-leaner, to make sense of the Trump victory and Brexit—blows to the assumed linear progress of Western societies towards multiculturalism, tolerance, and globalism.

There’s clarity in the biological perspective. Just as our ability to read and write co-opts brain systems originally designed for pattern and object recognition, the ability to coexist peacefully among mixtures of tribes, cultures, and values requires complex coordination between animal instinct and high-order reasoning. Our minds are running enlightened calculations through circuits optimized for a long-past way of life.

These physical and computational limitations don’t entail a worldview that’s racist, xenophobic, hateful. But the pull of these primal forces is inevitable, no matter how far we’ve come in distancing ourselves from them, through those aspirational stacks of documents and institutions that we call democracy.

Fear has infected D.C. in the wake of the election. It lurks in phrases like “I’m going to be depressed for the next 4 years,” or “I’m dreading going home—half the family are Trump supporters.” It crackles in observed parallels to Hitler’s nationalism-fueled rise. It hides in jokes made at the expense of Trump voters, demeaning their intelligence and worth as human beings.

In the presence of fear, the nervous system kicks into gear. Fight: Stamping those whose values we refuse to accept with the same crude and undiscerning mark of “other.” Flight: Dismissing those whose political alliance we disagree with, and fueling our own fantasies of an apocalyptic future, instead of listening to their side of the story.

I don’t yet know what the Trump presidency means. Perhaps he will fold in to the wider arc of history, and this swing of the political pendulum will pass with minimal lasting damage. Perhaps recognizable great terrors are around the corner, stoked by the fires of nationalism and pure accumulation of human frustration. I feel similarly to the writer Vann Newkirk on this—agnostic, with the knowledge that “history and hope are often at odds.”

But as someone with a prolific doomsday factory in my own head, I find that dwelling in elaborate fearful visions is neither pleasant nor productive. It strikes me that perhaps the biggest challenge for educated, well-off, urban-dwelling liberals right now is not Trump, but the whirlpool of reflexive emotions he induces in us. In the words of a wise green puppet: Fear leads to hate; hate leads to the dark side.

I’m still figuring out what my role in politics is—I’ve always found protest extreme and intimidating. Perhaps that will change. For now, I’m recommitting myself to deepening empathy as I move through my daily life; on digesting my own fear as I walk past someone I might find threatening or alien, because of my own biases. On taking the extra second to look people in the eyes and see them for the human beings they are.

I like this quote from Mark Nepo:

To listen is to continually give up all expectation and to give our attention, completely and freshly, to what is before us, not really knowing what we will hear or what that will mean. In the practice of our days, to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.

Moving forward doesn’t mean accepting the status quo; but it does mean quieting our own fear enough to listen.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Lauren,
    I’ve been looking forward to reading something from you.
    Having thought about the insidiousness of fear quite a lot over the past months, feel the same challenge to quieten, listen & learn. Smiling also helps- especially on a London bus!
    Beth B

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