The Stupidity of Fear
Most anything you or I do can be traced down to an essential desire to live, pounded into our ancient ancestors over millenia as yet another way to keep their hearts beating and their brains online in the death-dealing clutches of ice ages and competitive African savannahs. Many of these human adaptations are still as useful to our not dying today as they were in the jungle—ingesting and digesting food, eyesight, nociceptors etc. etc. on and on.
But some simply aren’t useful.
Like speed. Right?
The moments in an average human being life when we actually have to run are probably countable on one of our two highly adapted hands. We enjoy running, sometimes it saves us a few ticks, we enjoy watching very fast people run, but these days our motives for moving faster than necessary are rarely short-term survival-related.
And then fear—a wildly complex emotion.
Fear’s practicality is undeniable. Fear is what kept the monkey out of that dark swamp. Fear is what keeps the cat on the right side of the windowsill and what makes a flock of birds leave a freshly discarded Italian BMT when a jogger whisks past.
The cat doesn’t know what it means to fall from a 35-story building, nor does the bird know why the jogger is jogging (and probably wouldn’t understand the purpose of such an unnecessary activity if it did). Nah. The not knowing, that’s enough.
But what of human beings?
Us in this fortunate corner of the globe with society and law and relatively incredible safety.
Formerly middling members of the food chain, now Lords and Masters of the food chain.
Of unprecedented historical intelligence.
What about us?
Are we scared of the basement because, we’ve actually found that 50% of the time we go there, we see a monster. Or are we just afraid of the fact that we can’t see? And who knows what to make of what you can’t see?
If you fear nothing, you will not be long for this world. You’ll go to prison or get hit by a bus or do some real dumb shit at the zoo. That was true 40,000 years ago and it is true today.
But, if you fear everything, your desire for survival will often exceed your desire to live. You will throw away the most wondrous, marvelous advantages of being an up-to-date-evolutionarily-speaking human being animal—feelings, experience, understanding, capacity to appreciate discovery—in favor of being more like what came before us—a chimp in the dark, a stoop kid afraid.
The cat, of course, is rational when fearing the business end of an open window. The bird, of course, is irrational in fearing the jogger.
But, neither animal knows this.
I bring this shit up because we have just emerged from our quadrennial national fearing. And because we have just recently elected the more feary fearer to fear us for the next four years.
Elections, and the people that compete in them, tend to hit more saliently in the parts of us that feel like relics of early evolutionary biology. They implore us to run for our fucking lives, when walking or not moving at all would be entirely appropriate. They play to the shit we are supposed to be humanizing out of ourselves—fear, us vs. them, hate etc.
They speak to our inner non-definables, like the 35-floor wind-ride speaks to a cat. They speak to our quote un quote gut.
Sure sometimes they try to speak to our meticulously hewn, millenia’s refined intelligence, but they seem to always remember that, on the clock of human history, their constituents (us) emerged from the jungle only a few minutes ago.
In cognitive terms, most of us are still there.
Fear speaks to survival mode. It eschews rationality in favor of running for your life or hiding for your life or believing for your life. It is inherently disorienting. So, if you have the invaluable political gift of being able to conjure up fear, you also have the even more powerful, near-omnipotent, near-hypnotic capability of inducing irrationality.
This ability, I have come to learn, is AKA being a good politician.
The sentence that most regularly follows You’re going to hell almost certainly begins with Unless…
Fear comes in two shapes and sizes:
1). Real time, duck and cover, bowel-voiding fear.
2). Gradual, creeping, slow burn fear.
Fear 1 is ISIS and law and order and border hopping, ethnically ambiguous rapists.
This is: if you don’t vote for me, you’re toasted two times.
Fear 2 is globalization and civil rights and immigration—this particular element can be conflated with fear one for devastatingly effective results (see above).
This is: if you don’t vote for me, your lifestyle is in peril.
The evolutionary nature of Fear 1 is self-evident.
Fear two is slightly more opaque, but, naturally, like everything else, ultimately influenced by a desire for survival. Loss of culture means loss of implicit superiority means loss of dominance means loss of resources means loss of power means, maybe, danger.
But, the utility of being afraid has a time and a place. And this ain’t it.
Back to the basement.
We are afraid of the basement because it is dark. There is literally speaking no other reason than this. We are afraid of the dark because it is unknown. And we are afraid of the unknown because the unknown could be a terrorist or a rapist or rabies or anything bad.
But, we forget that 99 point many many nines, it isn’t.
You get told that in all likelihood, even though you can’t see it, everything you can’t see is wildly dangerous.
You get told to believe me.
That’s how it always is in this game. And it’s in the best interest of the gamers to leave the lights off in perpetuity.
This is why people in rural New Hampshire are scared shitless about R.I.T.s. That’s why segregation leads to fear and mistrust. That’s why people believe that the human beings predisposed to raping and criming and drugging come from thousands of miles away and speak strange languages.
Fear what you can’t see. Fear what you don’t know. Believe me. Who are you to disprove me?
It’s not that easy. Because, 99 point many, many nines is not 100%. Sometimes unlikely shitty things do happen. And fear, like all emotions, happens to be substantially more powerful as anecdote than statistic. An anecdote only needs to be imagined once. Every stereotype, every misconception, every fear can be made into reality over a long enough scale and with a narrow enough focus. With enough imagination, we can find truth in bullshit and vice-versa.
But what’s the point?
What’s the point of being irrationally afraid of something that almost certainly isn’t going to happen? Why do we still think that something’s lurking in the basement after years of actual experience to the contrary?
I don’t know. Maybe because we’re still in the biological jungle.
This is what nagged me most about what just went down in our own USA. People had the fear so brazenly, surgically even, extracted out of them and converted into irrationality to the point where anecdotes—some of which may have even been true—overwhelmed and beat statistics and rationality into hands in the air, deep-sigh, walk away submission.
Because we see in images, not in spreadsheets.
In the jungle, we didn’t have spreadsheets. In the jungle, we had our gut and a split second.
But, the real downer is that experiencing the world in this way—on guard, suspicious, survival-mode-activated, Condition Yellow (as they say), fearing what you don’t know—makes it very difficult to enjoy the beauty that is knowing what you don’t know. The joy of, you know, turning the lights on and having a new part of the human experience opened up to you. That discovery, that illumination, that wonder, that’s fucking great. That’s what this is all about, man.
Don’t let anyone ask you to believe otherwise.