Spreading hate is not OK; spreading anxiety shouldn’t be either

Ask almost anyone about their experience this year – myself included – and you will hear tales of anxiety – of obsessively washing hands and avoiding social contact, of outrage at those whose COVID habits don’t pass muster, of lamenting our nation’s supposed descent into racism, fascism, or anarchy, of terrible futures where The Wrong Party wins the election and our democracy is irreparably doomed, of late nights spent “doomscrolling” for news of the latest catastrophe.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that anxiety is a logical and reasonable response to a perfect storm of events, and that we are all justified in our fear. However, a historical perspective will quickly poke holes in this idea. There is arguably very little happening in the year 2020 that will be remembered a century from now, and we have lived through far more challenging times without being transformed into quivering puddles.

COVID-19, a novel respiratory and cardiovascular virus, has so far killed 200,000 Americans and caused lengthy and occasionally chronic illness for quite a few more. It turns out that 200,000 is approximately 10% of the number of deaths in a typical year. Or to put it differently, nine out of ten people who die this year will not have died of COVID-19. Logically then, we ought to be 10% more concerned about death than usual. But instead, we are 200% more concerned. Even in the face of evidence that relaxing restrictions will not create a tidal wave of death – from countries like Sweden – we insist on living in a state of perpetual anxious disruption and treating each infection as an avoidable tragedy.

Contrast this with the year 1918, when not only were our young men fighting in the horrendous trenches of WWI, but we experienced a pandemic nearly an order of magnitude more severe than COVID-19, and much more likely to kill young and healthy people. The “Spanish Flu” killed 600,000 Americans out of a population 1/3 as large – the equivalent of two million people today. Those were trying times, to be sure, and yet moving farther back we can find plagues that wiped out 50% or more of the population in affected areas. The survivors made it through those times, and we will make it through 2020 and the years ahead.

Anxiety is an experience of pain or suffering that is not actually occurring. When we fear something – whether it is death or loss or illness – we experience the same emotions we would feel if those things were actually happening. The problem being of course that those things are not actually happening. If we examine life as a finite sequence of present moments, we will find that a very small proportion of those moments have actual pain and suffering. Add anxiety, however, and we can fill a majority of our waking moments with painful or unbearable future narratives that are not currently happening and in all likelihood will never enter our experience. This might be partially justifiable if anxiety helped us to avoid the experiences and situations that we fear, but in most cases this is demonstrably untrue. So anxiety makes us miserable and does not make us safer. Therefore we should be able to agree that anxiety is not useful and is in fact a severe impediment to a joyful life.

How is it then that we have transformed from a society that stoically endured pandemics and world wars to a society of perpetually anxious worry warts? How is it that we have allowed fear of loss to eclipse the joyous, miraculous experience of being alive?

I believe there are two answers to these questions. The first, which I have occasionally discussed previously, is that we have embraced a mythology of technological progress that holds that we ought to have dominion over disease and perhaps ultimately death itself. Whenever nature reminds us of the fallacy of that myth, of the fact that we remain intelligent primates subject to the limits and conditions of biological existence, we experience cognitive dissonance and anxiety.

The second answer seems to be an outgrowth of unrestricted global capitalism. Inducing anxiety, it turns out, is a very effective way to sell things – from insurance plans and beauty products to books and news stories. When we feel anxious, afraid, and insecure, we are more apt to buy things that we don’t really need. This has given rise to a media and advertising landscape where we are continually bombarded by anxiety-inducing narratives, which makes it difficult for even the more level-headed among us to filter out the noise and embrace our in-the-moment experience.

Related to this is the vast spatial expansion of real-time news, from within one’s own small community 500 years ago to nearly an entire planet of seven billion humans today. Our capacity for empathy allows us to feel emotions in response to others’ experience, and this is generally helpful in building relationships, sustaining communities, and avoiding sociopathic behavior. However, since the pool of available narratives is now effectively infinite, some sort of filter becomes necessary, and the filter – that determines which stories are told and which are not – can easily introduce bias.

When we receive all of our stories from within a small community, we get a sense of the true nature of that community. To some extent, this was my experience growing up in rural Minnesota. Every day there are fundraisers for families in need, neighbors checking on each other after storms, graduations, weddings, potlucks, and expressions of human goodwill. Once every year or so there is some sort of violent crime, and maybe once every decade someone is murdered. These events create anxious empathy waves that crest and pass, as faith in human goodness is restored.

Expand out to a city, state, nation, or global society, and it becomes more difficult to obtain a balanced view. It ought to be the responsibility of journalists to maintain this balance, but anxiety sells stories in a way that warm fuzzy feelings don’t. And so we hear about all of the murders, all of the COVID-19 deaths, all of the racist attacks, all of the crime reports, and very few of the positive stories. This leads us both to experience a continuous empathic anxiety response to personal stories of pain and suffering and to imagine the world as a much darker and more dangerous place than it actually is. It also leads us to project those visions of darkness onto our political enemies and to believe that our differences are much greater and more irreconcilable, and our commonalities far fewer, than is actually the case. This means the anxiety-based media narrative filter is actively contributing to a dangerously polarized society.

(The media is also actively filtering out some anxiety-inducing stories – particularly those related to the gruesome effects of US military activities abroad and the impact of rising economic inequality on everyday Americans. I’ll save that discussion for another post and just refer to Caitlin Johnstone who reports on this daily, but the unfortunate reality is that media fear narratives serve not only to generate clicks and sales but also as a distraction from discussion of real avoidable suffering and a real need for redistributive, equitable socioeconomic change.)

Anxiety will not motivate the change we need

Evolutionarily speaking, anxiety probably evolved to inspire forward-thinking individual action: gathering food ahead of winter, or taking action against hostile neighbors. When there is a clear course of action that can eliminate the threat, then anxiety can be an effective motivator. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to most modern predicaments. We cannot individually or even in small groups ameliorate climate change, or restore faith in democracy, or stomp out racism, or bridge the divides that threaten the fabric of society. So if these problems make us anxious, the anxiety never fades. Unfortunately, continuous anxiety tends to make us unhappy, and so we hunker down, hoard what we think we need to survive, and don’t have the energy to address these challenges in a real or effective way.

We have laws against hate speech; perhaps it is time to eliminate fear speech as well. Narratives that induce anxiety divide us, diminish our potential, and prevent us from achieving the change we supposedly seek. During World War II, rationing and victory gardens were not primarily promoted with fear but rather with appeals to loyalty and hope (“Join the war effort”, “Do your part to ensure victory”). Contrast this with 30 years of failed climate change activism, which has been almost entirely fear-based. “Drive less or DOOM!” “Cut emissions by 50% immediately or EVEN BIGGER DOOM!” And still we never change, because we are either too paralyzed by fear or else reacting emotionally and irrationally against the fear narrative. Whatever happened to positive messaging? “Build a better world for our children by driving less and conserving energy.” “Invest in the future of your company, your community, and your country by taking action against climate change.” Might that be more effective and less divisive?

We all need to do personal work to let go of our fears and to live more fully in the moment, but this would be much easier if we could silence the media narratives that shout “BE AFRAID” every day, whether the fear du jour is COVID-19, gun owners, gun control advocates, rioters, racists, Trump’s tweets, liberals, conservatives, immigrants, ICE, wildfires, hurricanes, crime, or whatever is sufficiently sensationally scary and alluring to our pre-existing anxieties to generate clicks and advertising revenue. What would it take to tell more positive stories? Of communities coming together across ideological lines to fight wildfires and save homes. Of those who have survived COVID-19 against long odds. Of new farms starting and bringing in local food in times of need. Of neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, friends helping enemies. Of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of loyalty, of love.

We may have reached peak anxiety in 2020, but the world outside is not the source of our fears. We have found the enemy, and it is…us. Peddling fear stories to anxious people is like serving alcohol to drunks. It is destructive, immoral, and ultimately dangerous if it leads to a fracturing of society and a breakdown of democracy. If we can censure hate speech can we do the same for fearmongering? I think it is high time that we try, or at the very least stop listening.

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