As discussed in Narrative Complexity’s essay on emotions, anger & fear each have very specific purposes when shaping our behavior & decision-making. Anger is experienced in response to an actual loss that has already occurred—basically, something has been taken from you (a thing, a life, any kind of value). The anger’s goal is to seek retribution for this loss (a mechanic we explained in an earlier post).
Fear is experienced in response to a predicted potential loss that might occur in the future—suddenly it seems very likely that something will be taken from you (a thing, a life, any kind of value). The fear’s goal is to help prevent or mitigate this possible future loss.
And because these emotions are, indeed, based upon ancient behavioral mechanics that emerged long before the development of complex cognition, they tend to frame their goals in a direct & simple way: by focusing that anger or fear on the most immediate source (or causal agent) of the actual or potential loss. This “Agent of Loss” is essentially the person (or persons, or entity) who has caused (or might cause) you to suffer in some way.
In other words, when a terrorist attack happens & losses are suffered within our community, we obviously see the terrorists (& their supporters) as the Agents of Loss. (And if we’re being overly & harmfully indiscriminate, we might foolishly include a broad category of circumstantially-related individuals among the supposed Agents of Loss—immigrants, refugees, Muslims.) Thus, our anger & fear are directed towards those Agents of Loss and our behavior & decisions are focused on seeking retribution & preventing those Agents from causing us future losses via similar attacks.
And to many of us, that seems to make perfect sense. Which is exactly why the merchants of war feed on anger & fear.
Why That Actually Doesn’t Make Sense
Anger & fear both initially seek to generate one common response: blame someone (or something). Before anything else, identify the direct source of this actual or possible suffering—because you can’t seek retribution or prevent losses if you don’t first have a target to act upon.
And because these emotions originally evolved to serve immediate, vital needs, anger & fear tend to generate immediate & highly-focused responses. This means that the targeting of our anger & fear can also can tend to be immediate & highly-focused.
Unsurprisingly, immediate & highly-focused targeting & responses aren’t always the best strategies when tackling complex problems. This is where complex cognition can help us in refocusing those ancient emotions. And we can thank complex language for complex cognition; words allow us to think, which his how we can usefully refocus our emotions.
If we let our initial emotional responses control all of our behavior, humans would do a lot of really stupid stuff. For example (I’ve used this in a previous post, but I promise to add a new twist…) y’know how you stub your toe really hard on a chair, and your first instinct is often to kick the chair while yelling something profane in its general direction? And then, when you realize the chair can’t actually be at fault for your pain, you start looking around for someone who might’ve forgotten to push-in the chair, so you can target your anger toward them?
Well, without complex cognition you wouldn’t be able to get past the chair, which might lead to the futile attempt to seek retribution from the chair or to cause the chair equal suffering, which would be really stupid. But sometimes life isn’t as obvious as stubbing your toe on a regular chair.
Imagine it’s actually a magical chair that’s designed to always slide out in front of you & cause harm. In this case, the chair did cause the loss and thus, smashing the chair to bits seems entirely appropriate & effective. Sadly, being a magical chair, soon after a new one simply appears in its place—sometimes, two chairs even appear in its place, each one seeking their intended harm. Smash! Smash!
Now those complex cognitive powers must go the extra step: Are the magical chairs directly & intentionally harming me? Yes. Will smashing the magical chairs achieve retribution or prevent future harm? Ummm…maybe? Wait…is there a way to stop the chairs from being made in the first place? How are these chairs really made anyway? How do you figure that out? Didn’t we try to do this differently before and the chairs still kept reappearing? Man, this seems complicated…I think I’ll just go back to smashing the magical chairs.
Terrorists are magical chairs. And although it feels good in the moment, and it seems to fundamentally make sense in terms of targeting your anger at the most direct agent of your loss—ultimately, smashing magical chairs is a pretty bad strategy for solving the magical chair problem.
Confusing Blame & Cause
When our angry or fearful minds seek quick targets for our blame or wariness, they can easily make a critical cognitive error: they can assume that identifying blame is the same as identifying the actual cause of the problem. In other words, returning to our magical chair analogy—identifying that the magical chairs are to blame for your suffering is not the same as identifying how & why the chairs are actually appearing.
And when tackling complex problems, identifying how & why is the first step toward effectively disrupting the process that’s producing the problem. But sometimes blame for a loss can be so apparently clear, and desire for retribution so intense, that its power can subvert our ability to separate that blame from the actual causes—leaving the vital how & why hidden or unaddressed.
In the case of terrorism, confusing blame & cause has led to a self-perpetuating cycle of suffering & response that simply continues looping around, gaining more momentum as it goes. We blame the terrorists for our suffering & we respond. The terrorists blame us for their suffering & they respond. Anger & fear breeds another round of anger & fear. We all ignore the how & why. The merchants of war feed at the trough.
And thanks to our highly-networked, digitally-interconnected planet that suffering has become global. No matter where an attack actually happens, all of us who see ourselves as aligned with that target find some way to emotionally suffer the loss. When we say something like We are all Parisians, it might seem to be a beautifully supportive sentiment, but such neurally-impactful solidarity can actually influence our own behavior & decision-making in emotionally-clouded & unproductive ways.
Suddenly, everybody wants to kick everybody else’s ass. Or we desperately want someone somewhere to kick someone else’s ass on our behalf (in retribution for a loss that was actually suffered by another someone else in some other place).
Basically, the anger & fear spreads like a virus across the globe, sneaking its way through all the channels of information dispersion & communication, infecting new soldiers with a powerful desire for retribution & the need for an immediate target—regardless of whether or not the initial loss was actually their loss. Blame begets blame. Anger & fear breeds another round of anger & fear. We all ignore the how & why. The merchants of war feed at the trough.
When we worry about the “flow” of possible terrorists across borders or focus on attacking the most-centralized bastions of terrorism, we’re ignoring the fact that these acts are more & more likely to be committed by homegrown terrorists—small networks of local individuals whose anger & fear are bred through the global dissemination of losses actually suffered somewhere far away.
Attacking those most-centralized bastions only sends more waves of suffering through the target’s global network, infecting new soldiers with a powerful desire for retribution & the need for their own immediate target.
And creating a massive logjam of refugees (because of an unfounded fear that they carry terrorism with them like a disease) only creates more disaffected, disillusioned, suffering individuals who might become vulnerable to recruitment for nefarious causes. Treating refugees with hostility instead of sympathy also broadcasts more waves of suffering through the global network that breeds homegrown terrorists, helping to justify their anger & fear.
This is how you globalize hate, by creating an ever-growing, self-perpetuating, echo-chamber of animosity & distrust—a cycle fueled by a planet-wide network that broadly & efficiently disseminates every grievance and every act of retribution to opposing armies of sleeping soldiers, a looming mass of hate just waiting to be awakened.
And that hate always requires a precursor: suffering. Suffering is the wizard that conjures the magic chairs, the commander that sends these soldiers on all sides into battle. But the suffering itself does not just emerge from nothing, it is caused. And within our intricately-woven modern societies, the greatest suffering is often caused by the unraveling of that social fabric—across towns, nations, even entire regions of continents. The greater the unraveling, the greater the suffering, the greater the fury. Chaos, destruction & destabilization—those are the true societal agents of the suffering, its creators.
Dimming The Hate
This ever-spreading instability is the real monster in our tale of global terrorism, this is the cause of our problem—the how & why that continues to go dangerously unaddressed. While we pound away with all manner of munitions, contributing our fury to the center of the chaos, destruction & destabilization, we are only feeding the fire of suffering & subsequent global hate that echoes back into the hearts of our far-away cities.
When we herd & house refugees like infected cattle—instead of boldly, openly accepting the new reality and stabilizing these chaotic & persecuted populations of humans as soon as possible—we are simply allowing (& encouraging) a highly-unstable situation to inflate until explosion.
Do we really want more people either stuck in the center of the chaos or left dangling in the cold winter of some limbo between everywhere? Does fostering that kind of broad destabilization of huge populations of humans help us to stem the suffering that breeds the hate? Does that course of action in any way help us to stop the magical chairs from reappearing?
Doesn’t it make sense to stop contributing to the chaos, destruction & destabilization in all of those far away places, focus on stabilizing the flooded river of refugees, lessen the suffering where we can, and find ways to rebuild the broken places within our actual reach? It might not satisfy our anger & fear in the same way as smashing things, but it might keep us from having to smash so many things in the first place.
Undoubtedly, the desire for retribution is powerful, but ultimately, the only way to de-electrify that global network of hate is to stop sending new waves of destruction & suffering through its wires.
What’s that? You say that there’s oil in those far away places? The merchants of war feed at the trough.*
* When George W. Bush took office in 2001, U.S. defense spending was already almost $305 billion annually. When he left office in 2009 total defense spending (Defense Department + Global War on Terrorism categories) was more than $660 billion. Proposed defense spending for 2016 is about $625 billion; the next closet category in 2016 discretionary spending is Education, at $74 billion.