Fear, Disgust and Peaceful Politics

estnihil omnisestnihil on 2018-04-29

Non-aggressive political discussion is seemingly impossible; participants begin calm and polite, but debate inevitably descends into a shouting match. The cases in which there is resolution, even ‘agreement to disagree’, appear mainly to occur when there is only minor fundamental disagreement. Here, I shall discuss why even calm discussion can provoke feelings of fear and repugnance.

Specific political exchanges are often said to have “devolved into tribalism”, sometimes with the implication that it could have proceeded otherwise. Instead, I believe that perceived danger, albeit subconscious, renders emotional detachment a lost cause. This threat a person experiences builds and builds the longer the argument persists.

Ideological Distance and Threat — Authoritarian/Libertarian

The political compass above is somewhat reductionist, but it should serve well enough for me to sketch some examples of subconscious threats.

It is trivial to see how fringe, genocidal viewpoints pose an existential threat to those they target. But it is not obvious how this would generalise to those distant from your views.

Here I will use ‘existential threat’ in a loose fashion: in many cases, the arguer truly fears execution or murder by another political faction. In some cases it is imprisonment, others even simply the ‘death’ of one’s community based on a tradition or religion. Note as well, that one does not have to be the direct target to feel threatened — it is enough that one’s friends or family is part of your political rival’s Other.

To run through these as examples: one who is socially Authoritarian will usually pose a major existential threat to those of the LGBT community, sometimes a major threat to those of other races, and almost always a moderate one to those with alternative (‘degenerate’) lifestyles, such as those who practice BDSM, sex workers, nudists, polyamorists and so on.

On the opposite side, one who is socially Libertarian as I am will pose a moderate to high existential threat to traditionalists and some religious people. This is partially due to disgust reflexes (disgust of those I would not wish policed), but mainly for fear that their families, communities, and culture would degrade from relaxed laws on pornography, prostitution, drugs and so on. I do not believe this is an unsubstantiated fear —if the moral pillars of society no longer support a community’s traditions, then that community itself may start to wither away.

Ideological Distance and Threat — Left/Right

The Left/Right division is much harder to tackle, because the vernacular has overloaded these terms. On the compass and in my own usage, Left/Right signifies economic predispositions (wealth redistribution versus less corporate restriction).

Note that certain poor feel existentially threatened by the Right, but it is by no means a rule, e.g. some rural poor communities fear loss of social Authoritarian cohesion more. Likewise, certain rich fear the left (particularly nouveaux-riches, seeing their wealth as fairly earned) but again there are many who are instead actively socialist.

The threats Left/Right economics pose are thus varied and almost contradictory, perhaps because the distinction is less based upon intrinsic moral pillars than the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis. It is also perhaps instead that the latter axis takes precedence over the former. These discussions are beyond the scope of this article, however.

Nonetheless, one should see that existential threats likewise arise from the Left/Right axis of the compass.

Disgust Reflexes and the Othering

Visceral reactions arise not only from existential threat. Disgust is a large part of most ideology; one finds an Other, feels disgust and siphons hatred into that demographic.

Unlike existential threat, this is something which the individual has more control over — practicing empathy can combat the dehumanisation of opponents, economic groups and/or minority groups and lifestyles.

However, it is fiendishly difficult to empathise while hearing implicit arguments for your imprisonment, banishment or death. In fact, one does not even have to hear such a thing, when one’s paranoia supplies the argument instead. Politics can create an emotional speed-dial for existential threat; I believe we create an environment of explicit labels so we do not thrust our terror upon an ally by accident.

That being said, there is a certain instinctual nature to Disgust as well; on a low level, it is very easy to hate those who disagree with you. It is easy to feel so disgusted by the thoughts, even the existence, of another human being you feel you need to take a shower. Fear and Disgust are the most prominent impediment to non-volatile political discussion.

We Need a Better Solution than Willpower

To end on hyperbole: maintaining civility during a political debate is like remaining calm at gunpoint while cockroaches scale your eyelids. It’s optimistic to assume diverse politics can result in civility via good intentions alone.