Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Hannah Arendt once said, " Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival." I thought it might be a good thing to review the rational role of emotions like fear in light of a recent event that is making the news.

According to Hot Air, CAIR has sprung into action, promising "a formal complaint in the morning to protest law enforcement’s inexplicable suspicions about a group of men onboard a commercial flight rising out of their seats in tandem and praying to Allah."

A CAIR spokesman reportedly said the following:

"We are concerned that crew members, passengers and security personnel may have succumbed to fear and prejudice based on stereotyping of Muslims and Islam," said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. "We call on relevant authorities to investigate whether proper procedures were followed by security personnel and members of the US Airways flight crew."

Awad added that public prayer is not a threat to safety or security and should not be viewed as suspicious or criminal activity. (emphasis mine)

For the purposes of this post, I am only going to focus on the idea of "succumbing to fear" and not on stereotyping or prejudice.

These days, "fear" is often used as if it were a dirty word (much like the usage of terms like stereotyping or prejudice, actually), when in fact, fear is a perfectly normal emotion that we are (thankfully) hardwired to experience.

In other posts, I have explained how destructive it is to rely solely on one's emotions as a strategy for living one's life. But is equally irrational to completely ignore feelings and pretend that you don't feel what you do. In other words, fear may be an extremely rational response to a dangerous situation.

Emotion can be an important source of information about reality; or at least, an important source of information about one's internal reality --which sometimes has to be understood, challenged and compared with the external world to ascertain whether what is being felt is a valid guide for action.

Animals do not have an intervening rational process between emotion and action. When they feel fear, they react. Humans, when necessary--i.e., when in imminent danger--will react the same way as animals because we share a similar physiology. But humans are (hopefully) able to understand and appreciate fear in a way that other species cannot. We possess a rational faculty that when used correctly can expand and refine (or consider and discard when appropriate) the information emotions give us about potential threats. Thus, humans are able to deliberately plan and anticipate for future threats--a flexibility not available to most animal species, except where it is already programmed.

But in order to do that, we must still be able to experience fear and listen carefully to what our fear is telling us about reality.

The person without fear tends to achieve death far more quickly than a person who understands what he is feeling; why he is feeling it; and acts on the feeling, when appropriate and necessary.

Now, it is true that fear may indeed drive out reason. But that occurs when fear replaces reason, instead of augmenting or enhancing it. The normal course of events--for humans anyway-- is that a person experiences the fear and then determines (sometime very very quickly) what the best response to the emotion is. Again, thankfully, through a series of reflexes, we are programmed to jump out of the way of attacking rhinos without much reason or intervening thought.

The less imminently threatening scenarios where fear is likely to "drive out" reason is exactly when our psychological defenses distort an unpleasant reality and make us inclined to pretend that something dangerous isn't really so. In other words, when fear goes underground and is covered up, the blissfully ignorant are merely waiting patiently for the slow-moving rhino to strike.

In the news report cited at the beginning of the post, passengers and crew of flight were subjected to several Muslims simultaneously behaving in a manner that is, let us say kindly, extremely uncommon on an airplane (even if it may be common in mosques). In fact, I think it is fair to say that there is no way whatsoever, that these Musims who are now "outraged" and feel "humiliated" could not have had some appreciation for the amount of fear their behavior would generate in their fellow passengers in a post 9/11 world. Yet, these Muslims (leaders in their community even) performed their act anyway, in complete disregard for the feelings of their fellow passengers! (One can only wonder where the PC police are?)

Several options were open to the fellow passengers. First, they could have completely ignored their fear and pretended that it is perfectly normal to have religious observations and chanting to Allah on airplanes. Or, alternatively they could have begun screaming and acting out in an histrionic manner (up to and including physically assaulting the imams because they felt so threatened), in which case, the passengers' normal fear would have been replaced by hysteria--an emotional overreaction to the unusual activity.

Finally, the passengers could have done exactly what they did. Made the flight crew aware of their anxiety about the behavior and asked the crew to intervene. It is this latter scenario that occurred.

Thus, the imams' fellow passengers showed a great deal of sensitivity and reasonableness to the insensitive and provocative behavior of these self-absorbed (dare I say narcissistic?) imams, who apparently believe that their particular religious beliefs trump every other consideration and that everyone must concur with their particular...prejudice...on that issue.

We all feel the emotion of fear. And it is good that we do so. Fear and all our other emotions are the software "shortcuts" that encourage our mind and body to act. An emotionally mature individual tries to understand his or her fear--i.e., he or she uses the rational faculty and reason-- because in doing so, one may determine the appropriate course of action for countering a perceived threat to youself or your loved ones.

Pretending that you aren't afraid; displacing or minimizing your fear; ignoring the slow-moving rhino heading in your direction or other dangerous realities; are hardly effective strategies to deal with the many threatening things in the world today.

In an earlier post, I discussed the defense mechanism of denial:

Denial can be thought of as a complex psychological process where there may be some conscious knowledge or awareness of events in the world, but somehow one fails to feel their emotional impact or see their logical consequences.

Denial is an attempt to reject unacceptable feelings, needs, thoughts, wishes--or even a painful external reality that alters the perception of ourselves. This psychological defense mechanism protects us temporarily from:

-Knowledge (things we don’t want to know)
-Insight or awareness that threatens our self-esteem; or our mental or physical health; or our security (things we don't want to think about)
-Unacceptable feelings (things we don’t want to feel)

Think of it this way. Every one of us has at one point or another in our lives had to face an unpleasant reality or painful truth and at the very least probably desperately wished it would go away.

This is psychotic denial; completely out of touch with reality. A similar defense mechanism of dissociation -- or, neurotic denial as it is sometimes called-- allows us to replace painful ideas and affects with more pleasant ones that are not disturbing. (e.g., "Oh, isn't it nice that those people are chanting Allah Ackbar in the cabin of my flight?" or Ahmadinejad is a reasonable person. Surely he does not want to destroy Israel!")

With this defense, our consciousness is dissociated from our self. This defense is notable because it is one of the only psychological defenses that can be voluntarily and consciously deployed.

There are many ways to alter our consciousness and to separate it from reality--through drugs, alcohol, meditation, self-hypnosis, lying to ourselves; acting etc. etc. We can pretend to be happy, when we are not. We can pretend to not be afraid, when we really are. The opportunities are endless.

So are the potential destructive consequences.

Both psychotic and neurotic denial are methods of eliminating unwanted feelings, thoughts or knowledge. In the case of the normal fear that the provocative Muslim imams would prefer we not feel; these defenses represent some of the methods being used to deny the current reality of the world. It is remarkably sane and rational to be afraid of the many insane and irrational psychopaths who are out there and who are planning to indiscriminantly kill as many Americans as possible. Being afraid of them is the first step. Logically deciding what to do with that fear is the second.

The passengers and crew of this Minneapolis-St.Paul flight behaved rationally according to the appropriate fear the behavior of their Muslim fellow-passengers deliberated incited. They would have been foolish NOT to have acted on such fears, considering other, recent activity on airlines that was more than just suspicious.

Let me be clear. If you pretend that the many and daily Islamofascist threats-- from Muslims inappropriately doing their religious thing in the middle of a crowded airplane (imagine if a Catholic priest had decided to mass for the dead in the plane's aisle) up to and including Iran's goals obtaining nuclear weapons and of wiping the US and Israel off the map-- are nothing to be afraid of, then it is doubtful that you will be able to take evasive action from the charging rhino--no matter how slowly it narrows the gap between you and its horns.

The proper role of emotion is to be an "early warning system" that alerts us that something good or something bad is on the way. We ignore our feelings at our peril; and alternately, if we rely only on them as a method of determining reality, we are equally screwed.

But, when emotions are used in concert with reason, we are able to optimally deal with the real world.

Contrary to what CAIR repeatedly suggests as it tries to brand all such incidents as "Islamophobic", the emotion of fear is not synonymous with prejudice or stereotyping (see here for examples of people of other religions behaving inappropriately and being tossed off of flights); nor does "succumbing" to it necessarily involve irrational, histrionic, or some sort of overreaction to reality. Rather, fear is always an essential emotion that must be appropriately listened to by a rational mind because it is absolutely necessary for survival.

Only the very foolish and the very dead do not experience fear.

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