Friday, November 8, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Nineteen

“Life Without Fear,” pages 188-196

Chapter Seventeen examined fear; now, we examine its absence.

Our wisdom in meeting our three struggles – man v. nature, v. other men, and v. himself – is compromised by inertial fears, fears that once were sensible but no longer are. Even when there is reason to fear, a rational approach dominates an emotional one. Fear sometimes is enough to preclude thought, or even undermines the willingness to acknowledge danger: the fear of death dissuades some people from drafting a will.

People must die, and nature imposes other constraints that are sure to diminish wellbeing. These constraints must be understood and dealt with rationally, in ways that involve minimal suffering. The traditional approach to the limits imposed by nature has been one of superstition, where weather gods, for instance, are placated by prayer. Some of the superstitious responses to natural calamities worsened the calamities, as when people would gather in large groups to pray that infectious diseases would dissipate. The scientific approach allows the problem to be admitted, and allows rationality to reign in seeking to limit the damage. To this day, much of the world takes an unscientific approach to some natural problems, such as overpopulation (page 190).

Struggles among people or within a person need not present binding constraints. “There is nothing unavoidable about the misery that people cause each other through hatred or ill-will, nor about the misery that they cause themselves from a sense of guilt [p. 189].” Perhaps people in distant lands present a real danger to us; nonetheless, fear does not help us to deal with that danger. A pose of courage can work with humans, as it does with dogs.

Much human aggression towards other humans results from fear. “We bark at our neighbor for fear that he will attack us, and he barks at us for the same reason [p. 191].” Kind gestures often can defang aggression; herein lies the kernel of soundness in the strategy of non-resistance, a strategy that in its unadulterated form is unsound. Non-aggression is somewhat contagious, first as mere civility, but especially when it is internalized, when it is less a strategy than it is a fundamental trait.

Actual dangers need to be met by building individual dispositions to calmness and to fortitude, and by arranging social systems to allow dangers to dissipate. Consider the common malady afflicting many prosperous people, that of excessive fear of impoverishment. This can be countered by counseling courage in facing difficulties, by improving the accuracy of the appraisal of risks, and at the societal level, by diminishing the severity of poverty. The reliance on a stiff upper lip is second-best; the optimal approach, when feasible, involves reducing or eliminating the risk within society. (Oddly, many people hold Stoicism in such high regard that they almost hope for opportunities to display it.) [Adam Smith made a similar point in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (VII.II.27), when discussing Stoicism: "A brave man exults in those dangers in which, from no rashness of his own, his fortune has involved him. They afford an opportunity of exercising that heroic intrepidity, whose exertion gives the exalted delight which flows from the consciousness of superior propriety and deserved admiration."]

Social life, especially in Britain, generates fears of being forthright. People treat you in the same cool fashion whether they like you or not. “They wear an armor designed to conceal the frightened child within [p. 193].” Human connections are degraded as a result, and the energy that could be turned in a positive direction instead is dissipated in hiding one’s true self. Friendship is perceived as risky, so friendly feelings are suppressed.

A world without fear is not a world without rules; indeed, some economic dimensions of that world will face more regulation, and laws to prevent war also will be necessary. Education will have to be augmented, and people will have to accept, not ignore or deny, unpleasant facts, even those connected to the constraints imposed by nature. Some coercion might be needed in delivering this education, just as children need to be made to brush their teeth or adopt other habits that are health preserving in the long run but insufficiently attractive on that basis alone. Though developing such habits might require increased discipline, controls over “acceptable” emotions need to be slackened. Pressure to adopt insincere emotions brings a host of ills.

Educators must nurture, not punish, as a gardener does with roses. A failure to bloom is a reason to rethink your own approach, not to chastise the victim. The focus must be positive, on what children do, not what they fail to do. Their actions will have value and serve to promote their future happiness only if they reflect the children’s own spontaneous choices, not if they are coerced.

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