We are more divided than ever, almost unable to share meaningfully across differences of opinion. Whether on vaccine mandates, covid restrictions, gender identity, freedom of expression or a myriad of other issues, we have become far too comfortable in our echo chambers.
Our relentless non-engagement with one another is reinforced, today, by increasingly predictable patterns of discourse. Here I want to pick up on one such pattern – specifically, our deployment of fear to dismiss others and confirm what we already know must be true. My point isn’t that we deploy fear in the sense that we want others to be afraid. (That is relatively rare, I think.) Rather, I’m referring to our tendency to accuse our ideological opponent of being motivated by fear.
Fear is, of course, a powerful motivator. If you see flames shooting up in your kitchen, you will either run toward the fire with an extinguisher in your hand or dash out of the house toward safety. It’s fight or flight, with your heart pounding and your pulse racing.
Fear also motivates us when it isn’t necessarily a question of life or death. We may fear a loss of reputation, the prospect of sickness or the pain of loneliness. In the face of such fears, we are motivated toward decisions or actions that will stave off the thing we fear. Again, there’s nothing quite like fear when it comes to human motivation.
We also know that there may be something irrational about our fears; sometimes we are motivated by a fear of things that aren’t actually fearsome. This gets us closer to the accusation often deployed against those we disagree with, which may be expressed as follows: “You haven’t thought this through carefully; you’re just afraid.” In other words, “there is something irrational or illogical about your point of view.” It’s worth noting that this kind of dismissiveness is deployed all across the progressive, moderate and conservative spectrum.
In good faith
You may hear it on the “right” against those who support lockdown measures or vaccine mandates: “You’re just driven by fear. You’ve capitulated to the mainstream media and their fear-stoking ways.” This accusation represents a refusal to believe the other person may have considered the evidence and concluded that these pandemic measures make sense, all things considered. Those who support these measures may even be aware of fear as a motivation, and be working to put it in its place.
Quite differently, you may hear this accusation on the “left” against those who raise questions about contemporary approaches to gender identity (where this is dissociated from sex and considered fluid). “You’re just afraid of those who are different; fearful of those whose dress and self and way of being is unconventional.” Again, however, this accusation undermines the careful reflection of those on the more traditional side. They may love their queer neighbours but still question the wisdom of modern gender theories.
Whether expressed on the “right” or the “left,” the intention is the same: to undermine others by denying that their position could have been arrived at with care and in good faith. This approach goes hand in hand with self-satisfaction (“I would never let this kind of fear shape my views”) and dismissiveness (“I don’t need to waste my time with this person”). The result is a breakdown of conversation and trust.
Without question we are all, at times, motivated by fear. But perhaps the first place to look for fear is in ourselves, asking: “Where have I allowed my own fears to shut down an honest conversation or shut another out? How can I get beyond my fears to embrace curiosity?” Of others, we can ask: “I wonder why this person holds this view? What arguments have they found compelling? What good things are they trying to preserve? What can I learn from them?”
How different it would be if we allowed these difficult conversations to be shaped by honest curiosity.
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