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Tribe Trump. How Fear Makes Us Bigots, and Puts Us At Risk
When we're worried, identifying with our in-groups feels safe. Demonizing others feels reassuring.
In all the outrage over Donald Trump’s outrageous suggestion to keep Muslims out of the United States, a proposal repugnant to most but supported by millions, there has been little comment on what makes such overt bigotry so popular. It’s true that “paranoia is overriding reason,” as Tom Brokaw suggested. But that only observes what’s happening. It doesn’t explain it. The more important question is why, whenever we are afraid, does fear so readily trump (sorry) reason? We need to understand these root causes in order to protect ourselves against the dangerous mistakes we sometimes make even as we try to make ourselves safer.
The most important answer comes from decades of research into human cognition that has found that we're just not as smart as we think we are. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and many others have found that a lot of how our brains produce our perceptions and behaviors is subconscious and instinctive. Much of our "thinking" happens outside the realm of conscious reason, and beyond its control. As satirist Ambrose Bierce said in The Devil’s Dictionary, the brain is only the organ with which we think we think.
Neuroscience has found that our brain is wired to give the upper hand to instinct and emotion. As Joseph LeDoux, a pioneer in the neuroscience of fear, put it in The Emotional Brain, “the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connection from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” It might not be rational to fear more and reason less, but that’s just how the brain works.
Research on the psychology of risk perception by Paul Slovic and others has found that some threats feel scarier than they actually are because of their nature, regardless of the numbers. The statistical likelihood of being a victim of terrorism is infinitesimal, but when something bad happens to people like us — for Westerners that means terrorism victims in Paris more than in Beirut; for Americans, it means victims in San Bernardino more than in Paris — we feel like that same harm could happen to us, and so we worry about that risk more than the odds say we need to. And we don’t know what we need to know to protect ourselves from terrorists, since we don’t know when or where or how we might be attacked by whom. That feeling of powerlessness and vulnerability raises the fear as well.
But how does fear lead us to demonize whole groups of people based on the actions of a few? Social psychology has found that when we are worried, we tend to band together into groups — tribes, if you like. After all, as social animals, humans have evolved to rely on our tribes for our own safety and survival. When we face a threat we can’t protect ourselves from as individuals, we metaphorically circle the wagons, and anyone inside our circles — those who share our race or gender or nationality or socioeconomic class or religion or general beliefs and values — is friend, and anyone outside those circles is foe. It feels reassuringly safe to be inside the protective circle. This instinctive subconscious "cultural cognition" powerfully overwhelms cool, calm, objective reason.
These sobering realities about the limits to objective reasoning help explain why Trump’s fear-mongering racism is so resonant to so many. They explain the bigoted calls to ban immigrants from some Middle East countries unless they are Christians. They explain the rise of anti-immigrant parties in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland, groups that are circling the wagons and demonizing "others" as the enemy.
And they explain the long human history of hateful, destructive behavior committed in the name of fear, and why we can’t learn from that history, and why even when such bigotry is likened to the Nazi genocide or the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans during the fearful days of World War II, that can't counteract the racism that Trump and supporters of the ban are relying on for their sense of safety and protection.
It’s not as though the vast majority of people offended by Trump’s bigotry aren’t also afraid of terrorism. They are. But they find reassuring solidarity by identifying with the larger tribe whose moral values reject racism and bigotry as repugnant. And those people also share a fear of how Trump’s bigotry plays right into the hands of terrorists and incites more violence.
We can’t undo these instincts. That fear overwhelms reason is simply built into human nature. But there is value in recognizing why this happens. Understanding why paranoia overrides reason can help us recognize when we are overreacting to a threat that feels scary but doesn’t actually threaten most of us. That can help us temper that overreaction and try to minimize the dangers it can produce, including the dangers from bigotry and tribal divisiveness that does all sorts of harm all by itself.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.