When we discover that ‘us’ and ‘them’ aren’t really that different, we have no reason to fear ‘them’ | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 18: The U.S Capitol Building is prepared for the inaugural ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as American flags are placed in the ground on the National Mall on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC. The approximately 191,500 U.S. flags will cover part of the National Mall and will represent the American people who are unable to travel to Washington, DC for the inauguration. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Behaviorists tell us that human babies are born with only two inherent fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Beyond that, all fears are learned.

Lloyd E. Sheaffer (Capital-Star file)

With the way fear is controlling so many modern lives, there must be a whole lot of learning going on.

Joshua A. Sky, a human resources consultant, writes, “We have [these] two innate fears which are universal and are common to all humans regardless of the society or culture into which they were born and raised. And yet, every other fear we have is based on our own reaction to an experience in our lives and how we’re still being held back by that fear.”

Fear per se is not a bad thing. Fear can prevent us from doing some foolish and dangerous things; fear can keep us safe when faced with deadly situations.

What I am objecting to is how in our times people in power or positions of authority use fear to manipulate constituents, to rouse others to participate in destructive actions, or to alienate one group of people from others to the point of inciting violent confrontations. Using fear as a motivator more often than not leads to detrimental outcomes.

Now full disclosure: In my past life as a public school teacher, I might have, on occasion, instilled a mite of fear in some of my students as a method of establishing the importance of having a good classroom environment or of indicating the deleterious outcomes of their not taking our studies seriously. Likewise, the fear of losing a job in order to encourage productivity is not in and of itself a bad thing. A hint of trepidation at times can stimulate good outcomes.

What I found unacceptable is the deliberate, dangerous use of fear and threats to tear people apart and to encourage outrageous conduct against those who are somehow “different.”

We are still in the throes of wrestling with the repercussions of four years of fear mongering demagoguery from the White House. Our nation has become a house divided in ways not experienced for over a 150 years; the presidential hatred-hurling of the last term has rent our country and citizenry asunder.

“Demagogues have always used fear for intimidation of the subordinates or enemies, and shepherding the tribe by the leaders. Fear is a very strong tool that can blur humans’ logic and change their behavior,” notes Arash Javanbakht, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in fear and trauma.

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“Tribalism is the biological loophole that many politicians have banked on for a long time: tapping into our fears and tribal instincts,” Javanbakht writes. “Some examples are Nazism, the Ku Klux Klan, religious wars and the Dark Ages. The typical pattern is to give the other humans a different label than us, and say they are going to harm us or our resources, and to turn the other group into a concept.”

Javanbakht continues, “When building tribal boundaries between “us” and “them,” some politicians have managed very well to create virtual groups of people that do not communicate and [who] hate without even knowing each other.”

The U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6 clearly shows how a political fomenter can use fear to manipulate members of his tribe into committing violent insurrection against a perceived enemy, the “them.”

The winning ticket in the 2020 presidential election was not above casting fear-inducing claims about the incumbent office holder; for instance, a Biden campaign ad contended, “If Trump gets his way, Social Security benefits will run out in just three years from now,” a cringe-worthy claim found untrue by fact checking organizations.

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It seems that for too many months we have been living in a miasma of fear: the political attacks; the lethal pandemic itself; the adverse effects of the pandemic on the economy, education, and daily life. The consequences of constant fear are as far-reaching as the viral epidemic itself. These outcomes are not healthful.

Dr. Christiane Northrup explains why fear is so damaging to one’s health.

“The biochemical state that fear creates in your body adversely affects your immunity and increases your susceptibility to viruses and bacteria that are all around you. For example, most people have the bacterium that causes pneumonia in their respiratory system at all times, but it stays in check until your vibration is lowered in some way,” she said.

“Fear can lead to chronic health problems. Living in a constant state of fear can cause gastrointestinal issues, including ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome,” she continued. “It can increase your risk of cardiovascular damage.  And fear has been associated with decreased fertility, depression, fatigue, and accelerated aging. Fear has even been associated with an increased risk of death.”

Not only does personal health suffer from overriding fear, so does our community at large. The current divisiveness festering in our culture grows both from and on fear which leads to hatred.

In 1962 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, no stranger to hatred and fear, explained this dynamic in a speech to Cornell College in Iowa: “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.”

In an earlier column for the Capital-Star, I offered some suggestions as to how we might go about healing some of the divisions we live with now. In that piece I cited business consultant Kathy Caprino, who suggested the disunion need to be as wide as we might perceive.

“We are all far more alike than we are different, and we all tend to agree on way more than we realize—we just don’t highlight the similarities and the agreements, especially when there is vulnerability and discomfort.

“For each of us as humans, what we can do is listen. Listening is one of the most powerful tools to facilitate connection, change and growth.”

What we can do is listen. We should all try to turn down and tune out the discordant rhetoric and listen.  As we listen to each other, it is possible we might be willing to go further and actually sit down with others and have a conversation.

Javanbakht concurs, “. . . if we spend time with others, talk to them and eat with them, we will learn that they are like us: humans with all the strengths and weaknesses that we possess. Some are strong, some are weak, some are funny, some are dumb, some are nice and some not too nice.”

When we discover that “us” and “them” are really not so different, we find we have no reason to fear “them,” whoever they are. The Dalai Lama, the paragon of peace and goodwill, offers similar advice: “Instead of harboring fear and suspicion we need to think of other people, not as “them,” but “us.”

If we as a whole do not soon take steps to heal these fear-fostered divisions, our humanity will wither, and our inhumanity will devour us. That is something we all should fear.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].