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As Obama Combats America's Tribal Fears, Expert Says Biological Stress Reactions Fuel Polarization

The White House message machine went into over drive this weekend as President Obama in public remarks emphasized the need for national unity and tolerance of others, especially for Americans of Muslim faith.  In a news conference on Friday and in a speech Saturday to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Obama described the perpetrators as attacking the very idea of America and its values.  As a consequence, Obama said that the greatest honor we can pay those who died is "to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are."

Obama's goal was to define the frame of reference for Americans on the 9/11 anniversary and as they look toward to the Midterm elections.  Yet can the efforts of the White House begin to turn around the escalating polarization in the country? What factors have fueled apparent historic divisions among the electorate?

In a guest post today at AoE, risk communication expert David Ropeik offers several important insights about our own human tendency towards tribal behavior and the conditions that have turned latent differences in self-identity among Americans into ever deeper perceptual cleavages.

David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard University, consultant in risk perception and risk communication, former environment reporter in Boston, and author of the newly released, “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

For readers in the Washington, DC area, Ropeik will be speaking Thurs. evening at 6pm at Reiters Bookstore (1900 G Street). On Friday at American University, the School of Communication will be hosting a talk by Ropeik at 11:30am followed by a book signing (6th Floor, Butler, Map).--Matthew Nisbet

You don’t have to look far these days for evidence of how threatened people feel. The vitriolic opposition to a mosque in lower Manhattan, and the hatred that would burn the holy book of another faith, are just two current examples. But they may represent the same underlying pressures driving antipathy toward immigrants, gays, and even the ferocious anger of the culture wars about all sorts of issues generally. The circle-the-wagons attitude of Us Against Them grows stronger, the more you think you are under attack.

President Obama observed as much in a news conference Friday. “At a time when the country is anxious, generally, and people are going through tough times, fears can surface, suspicions can surface.”  He went on to caution that ‘we have to make sure that we don’t start turning on each other. We are one nation under god. We may call that god different names but we remain one nation.” As the standard bearer for the national tribe, it makes sense that the President would invoke nation as the uber unifying affiliation, but that’s not how the social human animal works.

Our country is just one of many tribes to which we belong. Think of the others you’re part of; your family, your religion, your race or gender or economic class or age group or political party or profession or the school you went to, even just your local community (Go Red Sox!). These are all groups you see yourself as a member of at one time or another, and it is inherent in the social human animal that whenever any one of our tribes is threatened, we feel threatened.

When terrorists attacked America in September, 2001, we said “we are all Americans”. But how quickly that honeymoon from our fierce divisiveness disappeared. We were soon back at each other’s throats, fighting for the other groups/tribes to which we also belong. By early 2002 we were once again Republican Americans and Democratic Americans, and White Americans and Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, and Catholic and Protestant and Baptist and Jewish and Muslim and Hindu Americans, and all the other sub-divisions of the human species that help us define for ourselves who we are and where we belong.

But group…tribe…is more meaningful than merely providing a surface label of self-identification, and that’s why tribalism grows more fierce the more we feel our tribe is threatened. A threat to the tribe is a threat to us individually, at the most profound level. We social human animals have evolved to depend on our tribes, literally for our survival. When the lion attacks, alone we are lion chow. Together we stand a chance. Time to go hunt down that wooly mammoth? Better get the boys together, because you’re not going to be able to feed yourself as well if you go hunting alone. Our tribes protect us and provide for us. We are exquisitely sensitive to threats to the tribes on which our well-being and safety depend. As our tribe’s chances go, so go ours.

When the bad guys are attacking America we circle the American wagons. When we feel they’re attacking our religion, our race, or our local community, those are the flags we raise over our circled wagons. What’s interesting, and troubling, is that the circling of the wagons seems to be getting more frequent, all around the world. People aren’t just “…anxious and going through tough times” in the United States. Resistance to immigration, and ugly xenophobic nationalism, are rising in many countries. Tribal warfare is exploding in Kenya and Uzbekistan and China and the Balkans, to name a few. Extremism itself, whether it’s militant Islam or militant Ultra-Orthodox Jews in the settler movement in Israel, is really just tribalism ramped up to a violent fever pitch.

Is there something endemic to the human condition throughout the global village  at this point in history that is causing anxiety everywhere, some pervasive state of affairs that could be fueling these dangerous self-protective instincts? Could it be the economy? That certainly has people everywhere unsettled. Could it be the deteriorating state of the global environment? How about the inescapable “The Sky is Falling” alarmism from the news media and the online “scream-o-sphere”? Maybe it’s the polarizing effect of the Internet, that allows us as never before not only to broadcast our own tribal views, but to seek out the reassuring affirmation of the voices with which we already agree? Or maybe it’s as profound as an overcrowded planet, with too many people competing for limited resources and space and water (which causes stress and violence in many species when they find themselves in such conditions)? Some of all of the above? Something else? Something’s up.

The risk perception antennae of the human animal are wonderfully alert to the slightest sign of threat and instinctively trigger Fight or Flight responses, known clinically as stress. The cognitive emotional labels President Obama used for these responses were “anxious, troubled”, but at the biological level, it’s stress. When we are threatened, one outcome of the  Fight or Flight/stress response is to grow wary and protective, as direct result of which “fears and suspicions surface”. The more threatened we feel, the more the biology of this system compels us to circle the wagons. What we are witnessing in the heated fight over the mosque in New York, or in the fiery talk of burning Qu’rans, may be tiny symptoms of a larger and more profound threat that extends far beyond those issues, and far beyond America, and which, to the extent these observations are true, can only lead to more widespread and more serious trouble.

--David Ropeik, author How Risky Is It Really?

See Also:

Islamophobia: Expert on America's Irrational Fear

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