In case it’s news – and I hope it’s not, but unfortunately, I think it is – the forces on the extremes of the political spectrum want you to be as scared as possible. Or angry. Either will do. Both is preferred.
Also: It’s easy for anyone to make you scared (or angry), and it’s hard for you to be anything other than scared (or angry) when you perceive a threat. And that is a fact of our biology.
A quick word about the structure of the human brain:
We can think of the brain as broadly consisting of these three interconnected systems.
- The hindbrain, or rhombencephalon (also sometimes called the primitive brain or the lizard brain) is the part of your brain that you have in common with nearly every other animal. It consists of the stuff sitting just at the top of the brain stem – the cerebellum and the medulla oblangata. Some animals only have brains with parts analogous to these systems, which are believed to be associated with basic autonomic functioning and basic primitive responses (think heart beating, lungs breathing, and adrenaline flowing). This is where our fight-or-flight response lives – and our fight-or-flight response works, more or less, like any other animal.
- The midbrain, or mesencephalon, also called the mammalian brain, sits between the hindbrain and the forebrain. It is responsible for the regulation of body temperature, motor control, sleep, and the basic receipt and processing of sensory input. The midbrain connects the brain stem to the frontal brain; it’s the part of your brain, for example, that controls sexual arousal, eyesight, hearing, and pain response as a function of sensory input (such as pulling your hand back when you sense that it’s being burned or injured). Mammals commonly have these structures roughly like we do, as did our distant ancestors; other types of animals have analogous, but usually less advanced, structures atop a mostly primitive brain.
- The forebrain, or prosenchephalon, also called the frontal brain, sits atop and around the midbrain and toward the front and top of the cranium. It is responsible for what we think of as executive function – logic and reason, decision-making, and advanced communication including language and mathematics. The more large, dense, and folded the structures of the frontal brain, the more advanced an animal’s capacity for these functions (for example, dogs have these structures but they lack the size, and density through folding, of the same structures in humans; as such, they are thought to have less capacity for these functions than we do).
While it’s not entirely accurate, we can think of our brain’s functions as more primitive and involving less conscious thought, the lower we go in the brain structure. When we’re afraid or angry we’re acting out of impulses that are processed largely in our lizard brain – the most primitive part of the brain. Run from it or kill it – that’s it. We perceive danger better than other animals (in some ways) due to advances in our midbrain; but, our response to danger is still rooted in the hindbrain. We are more ready to fight our way through a problem, or run from it, than to think about it – we operate more readily and quickly in our more primitive brain regions – and that gave us evolutionary advantages over other species and allowed us to develop executive functions that, thus far, we haven’t encountered elsewhere (at least not at the same level as we think we have it).
As a result of our evolutionary adaptation – making us scared or angry is easy to do. It’s much easier than making us think.
Political extremists use this to their advantage. Dividing us into groups with labels and reasons to hate and fear one another works to their immediate advantage. It consolidates political power among the people doing the hate- and fear-mongering. It sells air time and ad revenue. It makes these people rich and keeps them on top.
It also divides us further, widening the ideological gaps (now chasms) between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ thought, dumbing down and insulting everyone involved, and pitting everyone against everyone else in our society. Citizens against immigrants. Employees against business owners. Academics versus tradesmen. The wealthy versus the poor. Evangelicals versus environmentalists. There isn’t much more distance we could put between ourselves, while still calling ourselves a society.
The truth is, there aren’t simply two polar-opposite positions on everything. The truth is, the forces driving that perception want to make their perception the truth (you’re with us or against us). And the truth is, the closer this annoying and dangerous message comes to being true – the less thought occurs, on the part of everyone.
So – when you see messages from Liberal or Conservative media outlets designed to make you scared or angry – such as:
- “They are coming to take your guns away”
- “They want to destroy the planet”
- “They don’t care about the poor”
- “President Obama is at it again”
… That person is selling you something. Sales works on a simple and repeatable pattern:
- Create a want or a need. The deeper in the brain the want or need exists – the better. Convince you that you’re hot, tired, and thirsty.
- Offer a solution to the need or want that you just created. Offer you their brand of soda.
- Convince the buyer that your solution is better than the problem and better than any other potential or competing solution. Their soda gives you quick energy that you need and it tastes better than water.
The right thing to do is to think about who is selling to you and why, rather than to feel the way they want you to feel. What the pundits and the propagandists want you to do is to feel angry or the feel scared and then to respond by buying their product that product is a political party, a candidate, and thereby increasing their power and their wealth and their influence over you.
- What is this person selling?
- What do they get if I buy it? What (if anything) do I get?
- Do I have some reason to believe what I’m being told?
The answers will often be:
- They are selling fear and or hatred of a perceived enemy.
- They get my money, power, and influence. I get nothing.
- I have no objective reason to believe what I’m being told.
… and that’s true whether we’re talking about the extremely liberal or the extremely conservative. The bottom line is, the more extreme your position, the more you feel and react, and the less you think and reason.