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January 27, 2016

Facing Fear and Anger: Are You the Bad Guy?

It happened while I was watching “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on opening night. As Kylo Ren stood before his First Order troops at the Starkiller Base in Nazi black, white and red, I was filled with dread about what these bad guys were up to and what that meant for the good guys. I suddenly realized my feelings are similar about the threat posed by my real-life “bad guys”:  irresponsible corporations, Wall Street, fundamentalist Christians, and far-right wingers like Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, neo-Nazis and Heritage Foundation.

Then it hit me. Surely not everyone who loves “Star Wars” identifies as a progressive. Surely there were millions of people fearing the bad guys and cheering the good guys with the same intensity, but as proxies for completely different characters in real life than mine. What’s more, maybe their bad guys were my good guys.

Their “bad guys” are President Obama, liberals, #BlackLivesMatter, feminists, Hillary Clinton, LGBT and same-sex marriage advocates, Obamacare, Planned Parenthood, climate change activists, gun control activists, Muslim terrorists and anyone anti-American. Much of this list is me. I am their bad guy. But why?

I’m not bad — this list expresses good values and a positive vision for a future where everyone is better off. So why do they see me as someone to be feared, even hated?

Fear is an emotion that says: “I’m not safe!” Fear lets us know we’re experiencing a threat to our physical, emotional, psychological or spiritual well-being.  Anger is an emotion that says: “I’m being disrespected!” Anger lets us know we’re experiencing a violation of a boundary or personal sovereignty. Sometimes anger is a way we mobilize against fear. Whether the threat or violation is intended by someone else is irrelevant — our experience of it as such is completely real.

Then how much of our fear and anger are appropriate responses to actual threats?  I fear my “bad guys” because if they get their way, I lose freedom and my life becomes more unfair.  I, and people that I care about, will suffer unfairly and unnecessarily. They will pollute my air and water, expose me to toxic food and products, and leave my finances vulnerable.  They won’t support me getting equal pay for equal work, or making decisions about my own life and health.  They won’t support my neighbors of color and LGBT friends receiving the same basic respect and rights (to education, jobs, housing, healthcare, marriage) as me.  They won’t take responsibility to change the complex social dynamics that lead people to experience poverty or commit crimes.

To me, getting my way creates a world where everyone can be happier and healthier, and contribute their unique brilliance to the benefit of the collective.  So why don’t they get it?  Why don’t they trust me?

Here’s why: they fear the same thing I do. They believe that if I get my way, they will lose freedom and their life will become more unfair.  They believe that they, and people they care about, will suffer unfairly and unnecessarily.  At its most basic, my “bad guy” is any large, powerful group (especially if its mindless minions are commanded by an unempathetic, power-hungry individual) intent on controlling everything and forcing everyone’s conformity with their goals and worldview.  Their bad guy is exactly the same as mine, but with a different face behind Kylo Ren’s mask.

This may sound like a kumbaya realization. It kind of is: a recognition of the humanity in “them” and a bridge to empathy that’s sorely missing in our current conversations.  But there’s one key distinction: We fear what is and has been.  They fear what could be.  We already know what it’s like when corporations and Wall Street behave badly, when women can’t get equal pay or abortions, when LGBT people live in the shadows, when folks can’t access affordable health care, when there’s millions of guns and little regulation, when we incarcerate more people than other nations in for-profit prisons, when we take no meaningful action on climate change and when our immigration system is broken.  We’ve already lived it, or we’re living it now.

They fear what might happen: Obama taking all the guns, LGBT people and women pushing their “agenda” on others, being persecuted for their beliefs, losing personal freedoms and rights, Mexican immigrants raping us and taking our jobs, turning into a “socialist” nation, and God unleashing his wrath upon us for being so unrighteous.

However, there is no evidence any of that will come true, or the fears are deeply misinformed.  True, there are consequences for bad behavior like bigotry and yes, socialism is working well in several nations whose populations are healthier and happier than ours.  But “they” have specifically said they would do some of the very things we fear.  We also have data, science, and the lived experience of millions of people to back up our version of reality.  (The fact that millions of folks don’t believe in data or science and do believe millions of us are lying, conniving or fantasizing when we speak our experience is another – very dire – matter.)  But unfortunately, facts don’t tend to sway us, especially when we’re already triggered by fear.

Here’s the awkward truth – conservatives and progressives need each other and each has something vital to offer.  The left pushes change and justice, and keeps humanity evolving.  The right keeps us from evolving too quickly and losing our traditions and loyalties.   Progressives contribute openness, commitment to telling the whole truth about the status quo, and a vision for how things can be better.  Conservatives contribute much-needed order through values of authority, sacredness and remembering the past.

Here’s a solution to facing anger and fear across any divide.  Ask yourself:  How am I the bad guy? Why? What’s underneath “their” fear and anger?  How might I shift this dynamic in alignment with my cherished values?  How can I empathize with the very real fear, anger, and mistrust “they” have towards me?  Stay connected with your values and vision, not your “rightness.” Remember your cherished beliefs are just that – beliefs.  Seek out data that support your beliefs and that contradict them.  Adjust your beliefs and behaviors as needed.

And take care of you. Soothe your own fears and honor your own boundaries, for we are a change-averse species and like it or not, change is already here.

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