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Rush Limbaugh: Proof That Fear Makes You Stupid

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Rush Limbaugh recently compared the murder of Native Americans by European settlers with the deaths of European settlers who learned about tobacco smoking from the natives. Which is pretty stupid. Not ideological or right wing or politically incorrect. Just third-grade dumb. It's like comparing the victims of mass murder -- people purposefully selected for death -- with the murderous soldiers who subsequently died from drinking too much of the booze they found in the victims homes.

But impugning Rush Limbaugh's intelligence is not the point. The point is that dumb works when people are worried. Reason matters less, and the instincts of self-protection have more influence, when we're afraid. What is most telling in Limbaugh's remarks is what he went on to say: "How many Americans have died thanks to an Indian invention versus how many Indians have died because we got here. Now, you run the numbers on this. Where are our reparations?" He emphasized the "our."

"Our", Rush? "Our" as in people of European descent? "Our" as in white people? "Our", as in "not them"? That's it, isn't it? Us, and Them. That's Rush's world, a world of division, of people defined not by the totality and complexity of who we are but simplistically by the labels of politics, or ethnicity, or race or religion or sexual preference. It's a world of stereotyped tribes that are either people like us, or "them", people in other tribes who are not just others, but others to be attacked or denigrated or opposed, because they are a threat, just by being other. It's an Us-against-Them worldview, which is how we tend to see things when we are worried and afraid.

There are mountains of evidence from a wide variety of fields about how important our social identities are to us, how much we shape our views and behaviors to conform to the group so our group becomes more dominant and so the group accepts us, and protects us, as members in good standing. Small wonder. We are social animals, and as our tribe's chances go, so go ours. This association-with-tribe is especially intense when we feel threatened, no mater how ignorant the remarks of its leaders. A study of subjects who watched either a horror film or a romantic film found that the people who watched the scary movie were subsequently much more persuaded by advertising that used a conformity pitch ("over a million sold") than a uniqueness appeal ("stand out from the crowd"). Frightened people turned to the safety of the pack. (Those who watched the romantic film and were in the mood to mate were more persuaded by the stand-out-from-the crowd pitch.)

It doesn't matter if the threat is unemployment and general economic uncertainty, or terrorism, or environmental degradation, or just that feeling that the world is a threatening place that we get from the 24/7 "If It Scares It Airs" scream-a-thon of the news media. There are plenty of real reasons to be worried these days, and to make ourselves feel safer when we're worried we always circle the wagons to defend ourselves and our tribe (the way Rush's white ancestors did to protect themselves from attacking Native Americans) against them, the others -- i.e. immigrants, Muslims/atheists/fundamentalist Christians, liberals/conservatives, gays/homophobic straights -- who would take our jobs and deny our rights and impose their way of living on U.S.

So as a result of the inherent nature of risk perception, our desire for the safety of the tribe when we are threatened is cleaving us into camps, polarized and mistrustful and defensive tribes, ready to follow divisive "We're Under Attack" voices like Limbaugh's (among many others), no matter how stupid what they say may be, as long as it is consistent with the protective tribal view. The more worried we are the more our reason is subsumed by the instinctive response to danger. The perception of risk is not about conscious reason and facts. It's about subconscious gut reaction and feelings. (Which is making Rush Limbaugh, and a lot of other polarizing "Be Afraid of them" yap-meisters on all sides, very wealthy.)

The problem is, an Us-against-Them world doesn't allow for middle ground, for the flexibility and compromise and give as well as take that we need in order to help solve the big problems we face. This sort of risk perception is actually a pretty dumb way to actually try and protect ourselves. (Even dumber than Limbaugh's comparison of genocide and tobacco.) We need to recognize the danger. The danger from the instinctive tribal way we're behaving. And recognize that we all belong to a larger tribe, and the big threats threatens us all -- and perhaps that tribal identification can bring us a little closer together and allow solutions that will make us a little safer. Us-against-Them may feel safe in the short term, but in the long run it's a far more dangerous path.