© 2016 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
As we enter 2016, fear is in the air – worldwide. With the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, fear of terrorism is polling at its highest in the United States since 2001. The 2016 Presidential Elections have been dominating the news media throughout 2015, with an ever-increasing level of emotionalism, personal attacks and false statements. Tension seems high, especially in the Middle East. Syrian refugees pouring into Europe are triggering anger and nationalism among many citizens. Now Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries are cutting diplomatic ties.
All of this suggests that 2016 will be a year driven by fear around the world. Yet fear is what prompted the U.S. to help create this mess, when we over-reacted to 9/11 and invaded Iraq, destabilizing an uninvolved sovereign nation and dismantling the existing power structure – with many of the top military becoming leaders in ISIS. It is important that we don’t give into fear again, especially as we elect new political leaders.
Our enemy is not a group of people, it’s a set of defensive reactions characterized by a preoccupation with blaming others, lots of all-or-nothing thinking and extreme behaviors. Some people are stuck in this type of thinking and behavior and we call them high-conflict people (HCPs) – not to judge them or attack them, but to understand how to communicate with them better, manage their rough edges and set limits on their behavior.
Thinking in terms of stereotypes (Muslims, Mexicans, Blacks, etc.) is a form of right-brain defensive thinking – the all-or-nothing thinking that we are hard-wired to use in a crisis or totally new situation. Thinking logically is more of a left-brain approach to problem solving. Our modern problems are too complex to simply react to them – we need to use our full capacities to analyze and manage them. We shouldn’t tolerate group hatred or even exclusion. Yes, there are bad-behaving members of every group. But HCPs are part of every group. We have as much to fear from our own HCPs as from the HCPs in any other country or religion. If we’re to survive as a civilization, we need to use our civilized brain more than our crisis brain.
In managing our fears, I hope that some lessons from history are helpful. Over the holidays, I read a book titled Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power by Andrew Nagorski (2012). Two themes jumped out at me.
The first was how naïve and ambivalent the German people and the American reporters in Germany were about Hitler in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
“There were those who met Hitler and recognized he represented almost a primeval force and possessed an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions and anger of the German people, and those who dismissed him as a clownish figure who would vanish from the political scene as quickly as he had appeared.” (1-2)
The second theme surprised me. While I always understood that Germany was reeling from the financial burdens placed on it after World War I, I didn’t understand the emotion of resentment for being so humiliated in their defeat. While increasing poverty spread after the stock market crash in 1929, finances alone didn’t explain it. As one reporter described a fictional average Hitler supporter in the early 1930’s:
“He was male, in his early thirties, a town resident of lower middle-class origin, without high school education; … had no political affiliations before joining the National Socialist party and belonged to no veteran or semi-military organizations. … He was strongly dissatisfied with the republican regime in Germany, but had no specific anti-Semitic bias. His economic status was secure, for not once did he have to change his occupation, job, or residence, nor was he ever unemployed.” (148)
In other words, the emotions of feeling disrespected by the world, disregarded by his own government (which was fairly immobilized in endless parliamentary conflict) and unimportant, left him ripe for a leader who seemed to speak to him – even though he wasn’t starving or unemployed. But, you would still think that logic would prevent him from following someone like Hitler very far. Yet, here’s an example of a reporter’s interview with a young Nazi in 1932:
“Everybody in Germany knows that the Jews are our misfortune,” one of the Nazis replied.
“But just how? Why?” Edgar [the American reporter] persisted.
“There are too many of them. And then, Jews are not people like the rest of us.”
“But in my country the proportion of Jews is much higher than in Germany. But we lost no war, have not starved, not been betrayed to foreigners; in short, have suffered none of the evils you attribute to the presence of the Jews in Germany. How do you account for this?”
“We don’t account for it. We simply know it is true,” the Nazi replied.
“Is that logical, is that clear thinking?”
“Ach, thinking!” the exasperated Nazi replied. “We are sick of thinking. Thinking gets you nowhere. The Fuhrer himself says Nazis think with their blood.”
And this lack of thinking was everywhere… (99-100)
With this historical perspective on emotion-driven politics, I hope that we can remember the following as we face new crises and controversies in 2016 (which are sure to come):
To manage our own emotions when new violence and dramatic news events occur.
To seek accurate, useful information before deciding how to logically respond.
To approach those who disagree with us with empathy, attention and respect.
To avoid logical arguments with people who are emotionally hooked.
But don’t be silent: Speak up and respectfully provide useful information.
Turn off the news when it becomes too histrionic and repetitive.
And don’t forget to vote!
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of the High Conflict Institute. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He is the author of 20+ books and has a popular podcast and a blog on Psychology Today.