Monthly Archives: July 2014

Fear and Loathing, Part II

So, yesterday I raised the subject of fear as it is related to the diverse world reactions to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 and Israel’s conflict in Gaza.  I noted my belief that fear is the root of most evil.  Today I’d like to talk about evil stemming from fear, not as an active behavior, but as a passive one. That is the type of evil in which most people engage, and in fact is the behavior exhibited by most of the world with regard to Flight 17. But it is also, I think, the type of behavior exhibited toward Israel.  In the case of Flight 17, silent appeasement is the reaction because the weak — the appeasers —  fear the strong.  Those who are silent believe Russia can actively hurt them. In the case of Israel, passive fear takes on a different dimension because it is in some real way fear of the weak.  Israel cannot hurt the rest of the world, despite the generalized fear the Gaza conflict causes.  In this case, the evil reaction may stem from guilt at inaction, and results in demonization as rationalization.

People who are unafraid rarely engage in evil behavior, or so I will suggest.  They don’t, at least in part, because they don’t need to (or don’t think they need to) in order to achieve their goals.  This statement is almost certain to raise immediate objection, because everybody can think of a list of people who appeared unafraid –self-confident and self-assured —  but who in fact have done evil.  Hitler and Stalin may come to mind. But I’m not talking about sociopaths or psychopaths. And while I am not an expert in mental health, I suspect that most people who appear to be fearless and engage in what we might consider evil behavior are in fact not so confident.  If they were, they wouldn’t engage in that behavior because, as noted, they wouldn’t have to, or wouldn’t think they’d have to.

In any event, I am less interested in extreme cases of genocide and world dominance than I am in what Hannah Arendt controversially described as the banality of evil.  And I’m not even interested in Arendt’s case of somebody like Eichmann, who actively engaged in extraordinarily awful behavior.  I’m more interested in ordinary people, people who would never perceive themselves as doing anything wrong at all, people for whose behavior there is at least a patina of deniability.  I am interested in omission rather than commission.  And I am especially interested in the stories we tell to assuage our guilt at our passivity stemming from fear.

I think that inaction in the face of wrongdoing or injustice is, perhaps, the most pernicious kind of evil, because it is the most prevalent. Most people don’t actively engage in wrongdoing.  The famous Kitty Genovese murder comes to mind as perhaps the classic example of passivity, where so many people were witnesses that none stepped forward to prevent it.  A common explanation is that each person felt absolved of responsibility because somebody else could have (but didn’t) intervene.  But fear, obviously, is another explanation.  Involvement meant possible harm, hence passivity.

It’s pretty obvious that this passivity from fear is the dominant reaction.  That’s why we make heroes of those who actually interject themselves into situations of potential harm to help somebody else.  Heroism wouldn’t be conferred if that were the quotidian response.  That kind of heroism is not only conferred in situations of physical danger, however.  It is also conferred on those who stand up to denounce unfairness and injustice, whether it occurs on a large public stage (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King), or in a venue as ordinary as the workplace, where a particular employee may be singled out for unfair treatment.  People just don’t want to get involved.

Now, the really interesting phenomenon is what happens when people abjure involvement in situations where they know a person (or people or group of people) is being maltreated because of fear or self-protection.  I suspect that most people know that their non-involvement, whatever their rationalization, stems from fear.  That realization leads people to feel guilt.  On some level, they know they shouldn’t tolerate injustice.  But guilt is a heavy burden.  Hence, denial of guilt through rationalization of inaction is the common response.

This denial of guilt can take a number of different forms.  Perhaps the less self-aware among us simply can feel absolved of responsibility because it just isn’t their problem. Common, as well, is the assertion of inability to help.  “What can I do?  I have no power.”   This — especially in the  tolerance of unfairness or injustice — is an extremely easy cop-out, but often untrue.  Unfairness and injustice often — not always, but often — melt in the face of even mild objection.  So people do in fact have power.  Hyper-rationalization is another defense.  The passive person looks for the justification in the behavior of the perpetrator of unfairness and injustice.  He teases out reasons for bad behavior that likely don’t even convince him, but are close enough for comfort.  Some of this is going on in the world reaction to Israel.  Ignoring Hamas’s horrific behavior, we look to the legitimate complaints of Gazans to help us repress our knowledge of Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s legitimate response, in order to make it easier to criticize Israel.

A final form of denial is demonization.  This, I think, clearly is occurring in the case of Israel.  Demonization is mostly easily accomplished from some distance, because it involves at least to some degree the dehumanization of the person being demonized, although it can occur at closer distance as well. (The only important thing is that the demonizer not be in the physical presence of the demon.)  In its mildest form, demonization takes the form of the argument that the person suffering unfair treatment did something to deserve it, thus justifying the injustice and assuaging the guilt of the passive.  While the person suffering the injustice might in fact have done something that the perpetrator claims justifies the injustice, the demonizer amplifies her understanding of that action to make the victim appear more culpable.  It is, for example, clear that Israel has caused a disastrous number of civilian deaths in Gaza.  Much of world reaction has been to take that fact, ignoring Israel’s extraordinary vulnerability, it’s entire history of terrorism by the Arab world, Hamas’s bombing of Israel, etc., and assuaging our collective guilt at  our inaction by demonizing Israel.

Collective guilt, you might ask? Yes.  We don’t really acknowledge it, but Israel and the Middle East conflict is everybody’s problem.  Israel is necessary because of the world’s treatment of Jews for 2,000 years.  This is an uncomfortable fact. Israel exists in a place that is, to say the least, awkward in terms of history, convenience, affinity, etc.  This is why there is conflict.  But instead of active help- specifically, in the case of Gaza, the world helping to build an economic Palestinian state in the 9 years since Israel voluntarily left — we watch, we remain passive, and we blame.  I think that when we blame Israel excessively, we are using the trope of demonization to assuage our guilt at our passivity born of fear.  The sources and depth of that fear are for another day.

Lawrence Mitchell


The DMV (or Strange Interlude)

I interrupt my posts on fear and loathing to give credit where it’s due.  I visited the DMV, mid-town, near the post office, to obtain my New York driver’s license in exchange for my Egyptian license (regular readers will know what I mean).  What an extraordinary and wonderful experience.  Really.  I mean it.

I mean it leaving aside the fact that I also went last week, having made an appointment, only to be turned away because, well, I in my supine arrogance decided I knew what documents I needed.  The kind young man at the kiosk asked me if I had brought my social security card and my passport.  “Ha,” I said. “I have proof of my address and my voter registration.”  He gently informed me that such documents were unnecessary, and that I really couldn’t be issued a license without the aforementioned documents.  He then showed me a hard copy of the instructions on-line, which I had somehow blithely disregarded.  Grumpy and sweaty I shlepped back uptown, with nobody but myself to blame.  After beating myself up at the gym, I made a new appointment.

I arrived half an hour early for my appointment.  OK, so I’m always early, but I haven’t yet calibrated my walking time finely enough, and think that two miles will take me longer than it actually does because, well, I walk like a New Yorker.  On steroids.  In any event, this time when the nice young man asked me if I had the requisite documents, I smiled and proudly proclaimed, “oh, yes!”  He scanned my barcode, and gave me a number.

I’ve spent too much time in my life in DMV offices.  And this one was full.  It was hard to find a seat.  Nonetheless, two minutes after I sat — seriously, I checked the time on my phone — my number was called.  I went to the requisite window and presented my papers.  I took the ridiculous eye test.  I was then reissued a number and told to wait.

As I was about to sit — really — my number was called.  Again I went to the requisite window.  The clerk was delightful.  He took my papers.  I swiped my credit card.  IT WAS OVER!  Ten minutes tops, from beginning to end.

I happily shlepped uptown where I again — with less reason — beat myself up at the gym.  But this time, as a licensed New Yorker.

There is much in life about which to kvetch.  The NYS DMV, at least the mid-town Manhattan branch, deserves kudos from us all.

Lawrence Mitchell

Fear and Loathing

I’ve been struck by a contrasting set of reactions to two world tragedies.  On one hand, almost the entire world is highly (and, I think, unreflectingly) critical of Israel’s self-defense against an enemy sworn to destroy it and that rains down bombs on its citizens by the thousands. On the other hand, most of the world is oddly averse to leveling even the mildest criticism against Russia for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17.  This is strikingly true of the two countries most affected, the Netherlands and Malaysia.  A principal explanation of each reaction, I think, is fear, and so I shall spend the next couple of posts musing a bit on fear and loathing.   Fear, I shall argue or at least speculate, is the root of most evil.  Fear can lead seemingly decent humans to behaviors that, viewed clearly and without apology or excuse, none of us can respect.

I think there is little question that what is happening in Gaza is tragic, and that the loss of civilian life is terrible.  And, although I am no great fan of President Obama’s, I also doubt very much that he (who has shown himself to be very cautious) would have accused Russia of complicity in the bombing of the airplane without some pretty good evidence (a statement I would not have made about his predecessor).

Why the different reactions?  Why the loathing, in the case of Israel, and the fear, in the case of Russia?  Well, I don’t know, but I’m going to speculate that in both cases the answer is fear.  Fear, I think, produces loathing as well as its more mundane variety.  The difference, I’m going to speculate, is in the relative power positions of those reacting.  So, the Netherlands is highly economically dependent upon Russia for energy.  Never mind that Russia reaps profits from selling the Dutch oil and would likely not forego those profits because the Dutch stood up for themselves.  But, one can at least see how the Dutch perceive themselves to be highly vulnerable.  Vulnerability leads the fearful to be silent.  Prime Minister Rutte’s reaction echoes the voice of Neville Chamberlain.

Israel is strong, at least relatively speaking.  The complexity of world reaction to strong Jews is itself a phenomenon, but one I shall skip in these postings.

The Dutch and Malay are dishonoring their own dead in giving in to their fears, and repeating an historical pattern that in the long run only leads to disaster.  The world, in general is, in its loathing, isolating Israel in a manner that could legitimately produce defiance of that world rather than cooperation.  No matter how it manifests, fear is a terrible emotion. Because ultimately fear brings hate, contempt, and retribution.

So to begin.  Fear, like most human emotions, comes in a variety of forms.  There is of course the simple fear of physical danger.  This kind of fear is immediate and must be confronted.  We are told that the well-known fight or flight response characterizes this kind of fear.  And most of us do flee or fight.  But it’s not as simple as all that.  There is the biological reaction to fear — survival. And then there is the moral reaction.

When the object of our fear is not human or not animate, how do we react?  If the danger confronts us alone, it’s hard to imagine immoral reactions, unless the consequence of our reaction is to put others in danger.  But what if we are not alone?  I don’t have to outrun the bear — I only have to outrun you?  I’ll get off the ferry and abandon the passengers?    We’ll kill and eat the weakest among us so we don’t starve?

We are slow to judge the morality of most of these types of behaviors simply because the physical imperative is so immediate.  Sometimes (as in the cannabilism case), our inherent utilitarianism provides a justification in the greatest good for the greatest number.  Sometimes we understand that we ourselves don’t know how we actually would react in such circumstances, although we like to think we’d act morally, by which I mean with regard to other people.

Another relatively simple and obvious kind of fear is fear of the unknown.  I will have little to say about this except to suggest that our reactions probably run the gamut of our reactions to other kinds of fears.  But, related to this, is another kind of fear — fear of the other.  We know what that often produces — prejudice and hate.

And then there is fear of a threat to our general well-being, whether it is specific or general. It is this kind of fear that explains the silence of most Germans in the face of the Holocaust.  It is this kind of fear that explains Vichy France.  It is this kind of fear that, every day, leads individuals in the workplace, in families, in institutions and organizations, to remain silent in the face of obvious injustice.

One of the marvels of the human mind is our ability to rationalize.  And it is in fear that our rationalizations often are most creative.  Those of us who allow harm to come to others for our own perceived safety, whether that harm is physical, imagined threats of the other, or threats to our sense of well-being, generally convince ourselves that we act with motives other than fear.  In the case of physical harm, the threat is obvious and we can identify with it enough that less rationalization usually is necessary.  Everybody understands the survival instinct.  It’s when the threats are less immediate and physical that rationalization triumphs. “Not enough evidence,” is a good excuse, and is the one used by Prime Minister Rutte.  “I don’t know who’s right.”  Sometimes we even blame the victim.  “She had it coming to her.”  “If he hadn’t done x, this never would have happened.”  Variations of these latter are used in the case of Israel.

Enough for today.  I urge every reader to think about the ways in which we translate fear into bad behavior.  And of how fear can breed loathing.

Lawrence Mitchell


The above was featured on Walmart’s website. Yes, you too could buy what was billed as an “inspirational poster” from the nation’s largest retailer.  When confronted with objection, Walmart removed the item, blaming it on a third party vendor.  And yet.

What is there to say? I simply present it for your thoughts.

UPDATE! No sooner had I posted this than a dear friend sent me the same item listing — FROM AMAZON!  What is going on in this country?

Lawrence Mitchell

The Sixth Sense

The human race is in a period of rapid evolution, at least that portion of us who live in densely populated cities.  Like other adaptive features, this stage of evolution is necessary to our survival, at least insofar as we wish to remain ambulatory.  And while the pace is meteoric in Darwinian terms, our latest development merely parallels the speed of technological innovation.

I’m talking, of course, about our cell-sense.  In other parts of the world it might be called our mobile-sense.

C-sense is our ability to intuit the need for evasive pedestrian maneuvers while staring at our cell phones.  While a new development, I must note that it is not entirely unprecedented.  New Yorkers, for example, long have been able to know without looking when traffic lights change and even, in the irrelevant presence of a red light, when no cars are coming.  Sure, a few are picked off each year, but that is precisely what survival of the fittest is about.  (Contrast this with a city like Shanghai, where masses of people cross streets in numbers sufficient to make the presence of automobiles irrelevant.)  And, in fact, I write today because on my short walk to Starbucks, no fewer than three people whose gene pools are destined for oblivion bumped into me because of undeveloped c-sense.  So it’s on my mind.  And really, what is the point of writing a blog if you can’t just spill whatever is on your mind?

In any event, it is clear that c-sense is unevenly distributed among the population.  This is precisely what one ought to expect in the midst of an evolutionary process.  But it is also important to note that there are several varieties of c-sense.  Whether all will be equally adaptable to survival remains to be seen.

The first and, to my mind, most obvious form of c-sense is what one might refer to as the bobblehead.  You may have noticed as you walk the crowded streets of your city people scattered throughout the crowds whose heads seem to bob up and down like pigeons.  There is nothing truly avian about them.  They simply have developed the bob-up as their avoidance maneuver. In this form of c-sense, the individual is uncertain as to the location of others, but is intellectually aware of the fact that others are present. Hence the brief and regular glance up from the cellphone that enables them to redirect before collision.  Of course if you live in New York, it is at least as likely that the oncoming individual, having noticed you, will do nothing to change his or her course, forcing you to do so.  As one of limited patience, I admit to having, on occasion, kept my own course as well.  After all, why should I be the one to shift?  Although I have excused myself in scientific terms, ensuing collisions have led to a few awkward social encounters.

In any event, evolutionary scientists assume that the bobble head initially was a matter of voluntary muscular action.  That is to say, such individuals made a point periodically of looking up, knowing that the failure to do so might cause collision.  Over time, however, the motion has become involuntary, transforming this portion of the population into bobble heads. Such people might produce some discomfort among others, say, at dinner parties.  Or you might be tempted to throw bread crumbs if they approach you in the park.  But they remain able to navigate our city streets. Hence they are superior, in evolutionary terms, to those who have not yet adapted.

The other predominant form of c-sense is what, for lack of a better term, we might call the trout.  If you’ve ever seen a trout swim, you will have noticed its ability to move swiftly and smoothly around objects in the water.  So it is with the trout-form of c-sense.  In this form, the individual’s proprioception is so well-developed that he or she actually can feel an oncoming pedestrian, intuit its position, and weave around to avoid collision, all the while remaining fixated on the cell phone.  Unless such people develop a permanent downward curvature of the neck, it is clear that this form of c-sense is of higher evolutionary utility than the bobble head.  It consumes less energy, and is less likely to discomfort other people.  The risk, here, is during the evolutionary phase prior to perfection of the development. Accidents will happen.  But, again, such is the story of evolution.  Within a generation or two, the elimination of the unfit should be complete. I suspect that, at least for some time, bobble heads and trouts will coexist.  Who knows, in the long run?

I have not here addressed the extent to which such behavior is producing adaptations among those who drive.  I will, however, tentatively hypothesize that we are soon to become a nation of pedestrians.

Lawrence Mitchell