Why Fear Destroys Nations (and might destroy ours)

28 Jun

In November of 2011, I stood in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Five years later, the experience is still palpable. I recall the oppressive sun, the tattered rags of children’s clothing showing through the dirt, the sweat dripping down my back, masses of silent people walking on a land of death. I recall wondering what part of the human condition could lead to such brutality. In my wonder, I learned that enlisted soldiers of the Khmer Rouge were encouraged to get drunk before killing the accused, that they were trained to become callous – that many of the young men and women had no desire to kill, but that there was a greater pressure and a greater fear driving them. The fear was that they, too, would be cast as outsiders.

The psychology of current politics is frightening. We are nearing a decision-point in our mass consciousness – to embrace fear and hate, or to embrace a complex world with grace, patience, and rational thought. The outer political sphere is a direct reflection of our own inner ability to be (or not to be) patient, graceful, and empathetic. Unfortunately, our nervous systems are wired to respond to danger fast and efficiently. It is therefore much easier for an idiot to appeal to our fear than it is for a powerful and heartfelt leader to appeal to our grace, compassion, and rational mind. And this is what is happening: In the United States, the UK, and elsewhere, leaders are amassing power by appealing to our fear and hate. This reminds me of what I have seen while living in parts of the world that have recently endured the weapons of hatred: Burma, Cambodia, and China, among others. The regimes that perpetrated this hate may have been socialist or communist, but their motivations were the same as what is driving our current mass hysteria: FEAR.

The Khmer Rouge regime blamed “others” for the nation’s problems. Those in power created a movement against a scourge of so-called outsiders, whether they were Vietnamese, Chinese, native Cham Muslims, or American and French “capitalists”. The irony of this is that these populations had co-existed in Cambodia for decades before the Khmer Rouge took power.

Now, in the United States, we are seeing a resurgence of this kind of fear – the kind of fear that led Germany to bring Adolf Hitler to power. Any time a group of people begins to blame “others” for their problems, we see the potential for a Hitler, a Pol Pot, a Mao Zedong to rise to power. The “others” are rotating populations (Jews, Muslims, Communists, Capitalists, Christians – whoever is easiest to blame). And the problem is that it does not matter whether these leaders are intelligent or stupid. What matters is that they are appealing to our lowest selves: our fearful, shamed, worthless, abused, violated, victimized selves. And these selves are powerless. In the vacuum of power, someone inappropriate and dangerous arises – someone who will re-traumatize our world.

It begins small: ban a media outlet here or there; propose restrictions on a subset of our population; declare platitudes that fly in the face of our national values and principles (and still get cheers from the fearful populace); speak in a 5th grade dialect so that the younger and more fearful parts of ourselves will listen; and encourage small acts of violence against those who disagree under the guise of justice.

It comes down to our inner courage. I have recently experienced my own resurgence of relational fear, and I have responded to this fear by acting cowardly, by pushing others away in personal rallies against perceived injustice. These are my own inner politics – turbulent and unreliable. What is reliable is my courageous heart, the one that sees fear for what it is: a somatic, chemical response that begins with perception and demands actions. But the truth is that the perception is often wrong, and therefore the fear is unwarranted and, if enacted, dangerous.

Please, my country, let us search our soul and find our more essential selves, lest we bring to ourselves the same shame that Germany brought in the 1930s and 40s, that Cambodia brought in the 1980s. We are so much more than our fear.Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 1.39.04 PM

2 Responses to “Why Fear Destroys Nations (and might destroy ours)”

  1. Anne Woodfin June 28, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    So well said Max !

  2. Elsa M. E. Rapp June 30, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    This is beautifully articulated, and explains well the fear response.
    As history tells us, it is a dangerous time for countries when extreme positions get outsized representation. The quieter, more responsible majority needs to speak up and to vote, to let our leaders know that intolerance and suppression of freedoms is not what we want nor does it represent our best selves.

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