Saturday, February 13, 2010

Fearing Fear Itself

Nicholas Kristof is talking about how conservatives and liberals may be hard-wired differently:
We all know that liberals and conservatives are far apart on health care. But in the way their brains work? Even in automatic reflexes, like blinking? Or the way their glands secrete moisture?
That’s the suggestion of some recent research. It hints that the roots of political judgments may lie partly in fundamental personality types and even in the hard-wiring of our brains.
Researchers have found, for example, that some humans are particularly alert to threats, particularly primed to feel vulnerable and perceive danger. Those people are more likely to be conservatives.
One experiment used electrodes to measure the startle blink reflex, the way we flinch and blink when startled by a possible danger. A flash of noise was unexpectedly broadcast into the research subjects’ earphones, and the response was measured.
The researchers, led by Kevin B. Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that those who had a stronger blink reflex at the noise were more likely to take such conservative positions as favoring gun rights, supporting warrantless searches, and opposing foreign aid.
That makes intuitive sense: If you are more acutely sensitive to risks and more fearful of attack, you also may be more aggressive in arming yourself and more wary of foreigners.
It also would explain the conservative response to terrorism-namely, abject fear and cowardice, which is manifested in its willingness to sacrifice the Constitution, the rule of law, and the ideals of America in exchange for the mirage of security.

It would explain why they are too afraid to hold a public trial of accused terrorist Khalid Shiekh Mohammed, and insist that he is some sort of scary superhuman who will break out of his cell and kill us all in our beds. Or something.

It would explain why they are so afraid of the terrorist bogeyman that they are willing to soil the reputation of the United States by demanding the torture of even innocent people, on the off chance that they might know something about something.

It would explain why right wing politicians and pundits, almost without exception, decline to join the military (even though they are of prime military age), choosing instead to demand that others fight and die in the wars they constantly agitate for.

It would explain why they are so afraid of change that they believe that Obama, a centrist if there ever was one, is preparing to turn the country into a giant Gulag, and why they would prefer that the U.S. return to the nice, quiet, un-scary 19th century.

It would explain why they are so paranoid that they insist the government be given the power to spy, without warrants or even the pretense of probable cause, on the phone and email communications of its own citizens.

It would explain the irrational fear conservatives have of anyone with different colored skin, or with different sexual preferences, or different accents, or pretty much anybody that doesn't look, talk, think, or belong to the same religion as them.

It would explain the irrational fear of drugs, when in reality, they know nothing about drugs.

Obviously, this is painting with a wide brush. I realize that there are many conservatives out there who haven't really thought through their positions, and if they took the time to do so, would realize that they are wrong, and would not be afraid to admit it.

But there are are a lot more who realize that they are trashing the Constitution, and the rule of law, and are supporting truly evil things like the invasions of helpless countries, and torture, and endless warfare, etc, but who just don't care because they are so scared they can't help themselves.

These people won't help reform a broken health care system because they are scared that the country will turn into Stalinist Russia if they do.

They fight tooth and nail against reforming our insane drug laws, because they are frightened that zombie potheads will be roaming the land, feasting on the bodies of the weak and old that they rape and kill.

They are so terrified of criminals, particularly of black criminals, that they scream out for executions; the chance that someone could escape from a life sentence in prison is just too frightening for them contemplate.
They are so scared that the Banking Masters of the Universe will intentionally crash the system, that they refuse to take the necessary steps to reform and save it.

They are so scared of gays in the military, a military that they would never join themselves, that they insist on kicking vitally important soldiers out of the service because gays make them sexually insecure.

I could go on all day. It certainly explains why right wingers are so eager to call liberals soft, even though many liberals (JFK, George McGovern, John Kerry) are genuine war heroes, while so many conservative heroes (Reagan, Bush II, and just about every single neo-con out there) has avoided military service. Projecting your own cowardice on others probably makes you feel better for a few minutes. 

The supreme irony is that in many cases, their reactions to these imagined threats threats makes them less secure in the long run.

I guess there isn't much that can be done to change the way these people think. Frightened, irrational people are always dangerous and prone to panic, and we will have to learn to live with them. And it might also help us to understand them, because they are our families and neighbors and coworkers and friends, and they deserve our support. 

But it would certainly help if the rest of us realized that the manifestations of fear listed above are simply the irrational reactions of a small but loudly shrieking group of truly frightened people.

At least this might keep us from following them down the rabbit hole.


  1. So conservatives are chickens.

    Explaining Chicken hawks.

  2. Dude, try not to over-interpret some very basic science. A trait of anyone with irrationally strong opinions, conservative or liberal, is to take a very simple and unassuming experimental finding and see their entire world explained. You wouldn't want to know how this same acoustic startle blink phenomenon could be twisted to link liberals to psychopaths, but I could build you a very coherent argument.

  3. I have no idea whether this science is valid or not. I'm just saying that if it is, it would explain why right-wingers are some of the most easily frightened people on earth. If you want to build a coherent argument refuting that, well, I'd love to hear it.

  4. A broad brush, indeed!

    What a shame, because you do make some good points, but they're obscured by the name-calling, superficial assumptions, and unbelievable stereotyping.

    Are you trying to discuss issues on their merits and persuade your readers, or are you simply ranting?

    Why use ridicule and broad generalizations to refute your opponent? Make your case, Muldoon!

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  6. As I said, I do not presume that all people who in favor of the above list of fear-driven policies are, in fact, fearful people. There are certainly many people who don't actually think very hard about those issues, and just accept whatever they see or hear on Fox News or talk radio.

    But if you understand and still support the majority of those policies, I can see no other motivation than fear. It's glaringly obvious that support of these policies comes as a result of the belief that security is more important than justice, freedom, the Constitution, or any number of ideals which the less-fearful would consider to be worth fighting for.

    If you can think of a motivation besides the two I mentioned-ignorance and fear-I'd love to hear it.

    And again, I have no idea if this study is valid or not. If it is, then it simply shows that some people are biologically more fearful than others, but whether the fear is of biological origin or not, it still exists.

  7. No, I'm saying that my problem is with statements like this:

    "It would explain the irrational fear conservatives have of anyone with different colored skin, or with different sexual preferences, or different accents, or pretty much anybody that doesn't look, talk, think, or belong to the same religion as them."

    Seriously, you can't keep lumping everybody who doesn't agree with evvverything you say into one group and slapping a "conservative" label on 'em. For example, I am 100% with you on the war on terror bullcrap, TARP bailouts, etc. But I also don't believe that homosexual behavior should be normalized in our culture, and it's not because I'm ignorant or afraid of people who are gay. I have perfectly legitimate reasons for that that have absolutely nothing to do with ignorance or fear. I'm also against capital punishment and abortion too. I'm pretty damn tolerant of people who have a different religion than me, and I'm not afraid of skin color, not at all (well, except for my blindingly white mid-winter Irish complexion). So, what group do I belong in?? What label should I wear?

    Or would it be better if we stopped labeling everyone so much? I realize it's human nature to group things into categories, but if you insist on doing so, you'll need a lot more specific categories, I'm afraid. I don't like being lumped into a category with racists, Wall St whores, and homophobes just because I happen to believe that human rights start when human life begins or that a bloated government will burden my kids with a crushing debt.

    Seems to me that a big part of the problem is complacency - people are all too content to be put in a box and labeled as a "Democrat" or "Republican" or "liberal" or whatever, and they don't ever bother to think outside the box - they just follow the leader and vote accordingly. I don't think you should encourage that. Convert, don't rant! We don't have to all agree on everything (impossible), but you make some very good points sometimes but the stereotyping and ranting that follows often makes me not want to read on... Just sayin...

  8. The truth speaks for itself. But the Republicans reinvent history so quickly and Americans follow this reinvention as the truth. So the fault is in the audience, not the inventor.Is there really any hope for a nation that parades torture with pride?? We talk instead of helping our neighbor. We spit on the less fortunate here and send money to help any NOT in our back yard. We have not only lost our way but change it every day.Sorry but I see little possibility for us as a nation. We need no enemies to be afraid of.We have become our own worst enemy.

  9. Anonymous white Irish person:

    Fair enough. But you don't really sound right wing to me.

    The people I'm talking about (the Tea Party encapsulates them nicely) are most definitely homophobic, and are most assuredly afraid of people that don't look like them.

    And in all fairness, if it isn't fear of the unknown, then I'm curious about your concern about homosexuality, and what your argument against allowing them equal rights is. (And if this isn't your argument, then I apologize for mischaracterizing it; please elaborate.)

    Being concerned about the deficit is not a right-wing position; a paranoid belief that the reason we have deficits is because black people and immigrants are sucking up all the welfare (as opposed to insane military spending and out of control health care costs) is.

    If they were concerned about the deficit, we wouldn't have one right now, after a decade in which the right controlled virtually every aspect of government.

    And it's not really a question of lumping people together. The policy positions I outlined in my post are unquestionably conservative, right wing positions; to the extent that someone does not accept these positions, they become less and less conservative, and so the criticism will apply less and less as well, and in fact does not really appear to be directed at you at all.

  10. Very little time to reply at the moment, but wanted to leave you with a link to ponder. Interested to hear your thoughts.

    I dare say that very, very few in the political realm who call themselves "conservative" would even understand those general principles as outlined by Kirk. How many Republican politicians can you think of that embody those principles? I can't point to a single one. Can you picture Sarah Palin even being able to follow that? Yet, like so many others, she calls herself a conservative, and it goes virtually unchallenged! Astonishing.

  11. FCP,

    I figure if people take the time to read me, I should take the time to read the things they send me. So I did, and I had some thoughts, and I wrote them down, and it took me a couple hours so I decided to turn it into today's post since I was running out of time. You can find my response here:

    Thanks for the input!