The Destructive Feedback Loop: How Fear and Differences Fuel Political Divide
Several years ago, I wrote an article about the emphasis that people place on differences and how those differences are used comparatively to our detriment, i.e., to focus on who is better, richer, stronger, smarter, most beautiful, most talented, most athletic, etc. Constant comparison breeds fierce competition and division.
Unfortunately, differences remain a hot topic in today's media. One of the unfortunate aspects of the emphasis on differences is that people begin to believe that the differences are all there are.
The truth is that people are more alike than they are different. While differences are real, so are the dangers that can arise from losing sight of what we share – our communalities.
We all share the experiences of being understood and misunderstood, complimented and criticized, loved and disliked. And we all want to feel like we belong. That's what makes us human.
Our communalities are the "whats" of life. Our differences are merely the "hows" we use to go about it.
All too often, we put our focus on the differences between our hows with the mistaken belief that it is the whole story.
Losing sight of our communalities and being mired in the differences we all experience between us activates the fear of being 'less than'.
When that fear is activated, old childhood judgments are usually not far behind. Fear brings out the worst in us as we seek to counter the self-judgments, conscious or unconscious, that we are not lovable, not interesting, not worthy, and not enough.
It is my experience that when those judgments are whispering in the back of our consciousness, we will do extraordinary things to shut them up. That's because those judgments make us feel isolated, disconnected, and victimized.
It is at these times when we feel fearful and alone that we are most vulnerable to bonding with others who share our fears to regain a sense of belonging. It's also when we are most prone to attacking those we believe are responsible for the pain we feel.
We tell ourselves that if we are in pain or feel fear, there must be someone who is responsible. We focus on those we believe are different from us and attack the "wrong-mindedness" of their difference to distract us from the uncomfortableness of the aloneness of the "less than" we are feeling.
It is a powerful dynamic increasingly exploited by media, politicians, and marketers. It is insidious as it fails to deliver its promise of silencing the inner childhood judgments. But it successfully separates us further from each other in a destructive positive feedback loop that increases fear and anxiety, deteriorates into personal attacks, and increasingly, violence.
I bring all this up because here we are, about 14 months out from the 2024 presidential election, and the pre-election stress is rapidly rising.
The dynamics outlined above are in full play with lots of finger-pointing, accusations, verbal attacks, and vivid descriptions of the horrors that await us as a nation should the "other side" win.
As a result, we grow more and more fearful, feel more and more disconnected from our neighbors, and more and more distrustful of the information we receive.
It becomes impossible to parse the truth from disinformation as each side exploits the fears they believe will attract the most supporters.
Which topics touch those deep childhood fears most effectively? Which conjure up the primal bogeyman in a way that can be used to demonize the other side and make us fear or hate our fellow citizens because they don't agree with what we believe? These are the ones we hear over and over.
This is not about one side or the other, as I see both sides using the same fear dynamics. Each side details the corruption of the other. Each accuses the other side of underhanded, manipulative, or unethical behavior while engaging in the very behavior they condemn.
True political discourse has been replaced with jingoism and appeals to knee-jerk emotional topics. If you disagree, there is no invitation to talk about the differences, no attempts to understand the other's point of view, no path to a resolution. Those with whom you disagree are idiots who deserve your scorn and disdain.
All of this is driven by fear, the powerful force of fear, fueled by our fixation on differences. It shapes our perceptions, distorts our discourse, and diverts our attention from the fundamental shared experiences that define us.
While our differences are the "hows" that color our lives, it's our communalities that constitute the core of our existence.
"Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." So says Yoda!
It is easy to get caught up in the fear cycle and more difficult to break out once it is activated. But succumbing to fear, shouting louder, is not the answer. In Dune, Frank Herbert says:
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path."
To break this cycle, we must face our fear of the differences that threaten disconnection. We must seek common ground amidst the diversity of perspectives. By shifting our focus from differences to communalities, we can reshape the narrative and dismantle the destructive feedback loop of fear and animosity.
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About Dr. Gary M. Jordan, Ph.D.
Gary Jordan, Ph.D., has over 35 years of experience in clinical psychology, behavioral assessment, individual development, and coaching. He earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology – Berkeley. He is co-creator of Perceptual Style Theory, a revolutionary psychological assessment system that teaches people how to unleash their deepest potentials for success. He’s a partner at Vega Behavioral Consulting, Ltd., a consulting firm that specializes in helping people discover their true skills and talents. For more information, visit https://www.YourTalentAdvantage.com.
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