Fears and Symbols

Fears and Symbols

“Its a natural human instinct to turn our fears into symbols, and destroy the symbols, in the hope that it will destroy the fear,” writes Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari writes this to explain the ways in which American culture has responded to drug use and addiction. We have demonized drugs and cast out drug addicts as moral failures. Our mindset is that the eradication of drugs and the expulsion of addictions will solve many of our countries ailments. If only there were not dangerous tempting chemicals to hook our brains, and if only people were more strong to resist the temptations to use use drugs, we could all be happy, productive, and united again.

 

In reality, drug use and societal ailments are more complicated than this paradise lost narrative. Hari’s quote continues, “It is a logic that keeps recurring throughout human history, from the Crusades to the witch-hunts to the present day. It’s hard to sit with a complex problem, such as the human urge to get intoxicated, and accept that it will always be with us, and will always cause some problems (as well as some pleasures). It is much more appealing to be told a different message – that it can be ended. That all these problems can be over, if only we listen, and follow.”

 

I think it is really interesting that we have such a tendency to turn our fears into symbols. We take the things we are afraid of, the things that disgust us, and create symbols to represent that evilness and reprehensible aspect of the world. The symbol could be a president you dislike, a foreign religion or character, chemical substances, or personality traits (laziness, close-mindedness, selfishness). This gives us a heuristic for addressing the thing we don’t like. It creates a less complicated version of the thing we fear, and allows us to draw a moral line in the sand, separating us (the good ones) from them (the bad ones associated with the evil symbol).

 

As Hari’s quote reveals, these symbols, and our efforts to destroy these symbols, can be problematic themselves. The Crusades were costly wars waged on outsiders, witch-hunts wrap up innocent people and threaten lives, and political polarization fueled by the hate of one political party or candidate only increases the gulf between us and our fellow citizens and human beings. Fears and symbols might be useful for galvanizing action, but they can have a wide range of negative externalities, and they can be misunderstood and over-generalized. Additionally, our fears and symbols can be captured by actors and institutions which seek to further their own ends, deliberately harming others in pursuit of their own agendas.

 

I don’t think Hari would tell us to abandon all of our symbols for our fears. He might agree with me that it is likely impossible to do so. The alternative seems to be to recognize when you are using such symbols and to understand how you are reacting to them. Are you allowing a symbol to stand for something you will avoid in your own life, or are you allowing a symbol to stand as a marker of your own righteousness? If you are using fears and symbols for self-control and discipline, you might be ok, but if you are using them simply to judge others and to justify avoiding or out-casting them in an effort to signal your virtue to others, you may be more of a problem than you realize. When these symbols and our efforts to destroy them start to harm others, we have a problem and need to redirect our energy to find real solutions to the real problems that underlie the fears and symbols in our lives.

The Solution to Non-Functioning Politics

In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. And our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.

 

We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do.  One way to increase participation and expand democracy is to increase voter turnout and make it easier for people to vote. Another strategy we have pushed for has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and to support their candidacies through individual donations and through our actual votes. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. Changing the mix of people participating in governance may chance some of the optics and signal something different to our population, but it does not necessarily address the problems and challenges that people dislike about our government.

 

Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians in his book Political Realism. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”

 

Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.

 

This does not give us a perfect solution, but it is clear that simply encouraging more people to vote and encouraging more political amateurs with strong political opinions to run for office won’t solve how we distribute and organize power in government. It is important that people recognize that more passion and energy is not necessarily the answer they want. Unfortunately, however, I think we may be stuck with this increasingly angry and outsider political ethos for some time. Very few of us have coherent political ideologies about many issues, but all of us are good at analyzing identities and finding where we fit. Once we have staked our identity claim, we learn what ideologies to support and begin to push toward greater participation among people who share our identities and use the right ideological words to signal their faithfulness to our identity. Breaking this system seems to me to be the place to start to change government as opposed to trying to break the participation structures we dislike inside government.