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Friday, December 11, 2015

Fear and Loathing

I grew up in a segregated suburb in Northern California.  It was mostly white, with a smattering of Hispanic and Asian folks.  There was not one black person in town - they all lived over the city's border in Oakland.  My father was notoriously cheap, so we would drive to downtown Oakland to the Oakland Barber College to get our haircuts every three weeks or so (haircuts for 10 cents provided by student barbers - quality was inconsistent, but the price was right).  We went from a lilly-white environment to a mostly African American environment.  I can remember my seven-year old self feeling disoriented and fearful around these people that were different from me.  My dad's Tennessee bigotry and racist narrative about black people during these trips added to my unease.

Well, life unfolded and I grew up.  In high school, I fell in love with jazz, blues, soul and funk music. If I loved the music, I had to love the people that invented and performed it.  My heroes were Charlie Parker, Count Basie, James Brown, Miles Davis, Al Green, John Coltrane, J.J. Johnson, Roland Kirk, Otis Redding, Thelonius Monk.  I got out of the "white ghetto" and moved to Berkeley, went to Cal.  I actually got to meet and hang out with Real Black People!  I was thrilled.   The fearfulness of my childhood experiences in downtown Oakland became a faded memory.

So here is the obvious truth - fear and loathing springs from isolation and separation.  The cure to fear and loathing is to live with the people you find frightening.  Guess what?  Most of them are regular folks.  Just because our social infrastructure accommodates prejudiced thinking doesn't mean we have no choice regarding  how we behave towards people that come from backgrounds different from our own.  The other obvious truth - it is wrong to generalize about a large group based on misinformation or the actions of a tiny minority within that group.

The typical power move by authoritarian individuals or groups is to create fear and loathing.  This increases separation and inspires hatred. The authoritarians then promise to protect the fearful people from the hated ones, and to deliver retribution.   When people are gripped by fear and loathing, they can do some truly awful stuff - oppression, terrorist acts, all-out war, genocide, and miscellaneous depravity.   They also hand over their personal agency to the authoritarians that generate the depraved plan of action.

We are seeing this play out right now, of course.   The so-called Islamic State extremists are using the old fear and loathing playbook, and it is working like a charm. The terrorists unleash mayhem against defenseless people, creating fear and loathing. Some politicians in the West  inject bigotry into the mainstream,which increases fear and loathing.  The stated goal of the Islamic State is to attract Western armies to the Middle East for the Islamic Apocalypse (that is why they are doing awful shit - to provoke a military response).  There are politicians in the United States that seem ready to fulfill this grand ISIS goal.  It seems pretty obvious and basic, but lots of people are stepping right into the trap.

It is always easier to destroy and cause misery than to cultivate and cause happiness.  People are lazy and opt for the easy path, in spite of its horrible costs.  And let's not forget the "other guy" dilemma - it makes no sense to be a pacifist if the other guy is a warlord.

Steven Pinker wrote a great book four years ago called "The Better Angels of Our Nature."  It is about the decline of violence throughout human history.  I wonder what Mr. Pinker would say about recent events.  Is it a bump in the road or a shift in direction?

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