Are We All Victims of Emotional Terrorism?

06/01/2011 07:21 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2011
  • Judith Acosta Author, 'The Next Osama'; Co-author, 'Verbal First Aid'

Just as I'd predicted, as soon as Osama bin Laden was dead, it didn't take a millisecond for the question to show up on every newswire and blog: Who's the next one? Where is he?

This is how our culture works. As soon as one terror is wiped up, another one is splattered across the screens. There are actually rumors that he's an American, possibly from New Mexico, and that's he's a smart, savvy recruit with an intimate knowledge of the American psyche.

This begs a more important question: If he's American (or Western) and as clever as we're hearing, what does he know about us? What is the American psyche at this point? How are we collectively motivated?

Unconscious Fear-Mongering

Well, I can tell you this much: He knows that he can reach us with fear and without much effort.
There is a slow, steady drip of terrorism in the United States. I am using it in the strictest sense of the word: the inducement of fear or terror via threats or intimations of violence, destruction or disease. But it is not just where we think it is, ensconced somewhere in the Middle East. It is all around us, all the time.

Perhaps, as my friend said, it doesn't make a difference what the precise fear is. Perhaps what is important for our purposes is the way fear manipulates and motivates us not only without our conscious consent, but without our knowledge.

Once again, to illuminate the point, I raise the specter of advertising. What do we see and hear? What chord are they plucking?

"You've got just a few hours left, gentlemen. It's panic time. But you can get the gift you want at..."

"It's beginning a lot to look like weight gain... Get our product and head those pounds off at the pass..."

"What's happening with those allergies? Stay tuned to see where the pollen's been, where it's going, and if you and your loved ones are at risk. Also, we'll have Dr. X to help you prepare your medicine closet for those more dangerous symptoms like asthma."

"If you don't have high-definition, you don't have what it takes..."

"We deal with the serious diseases. Together we can prevail..."

Advertising has become even more intrusive and quietly manipulative in that it is now embedded into entertainment programming. No longer do we hear, "Buy our new, improved..." No longer are commercials announced for what they are, sales pitches. Products are introduced into the fabric of television shows such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." They are shown in "Sex and the City" in ways that weave into our psyches without our knowing so that we unconsciously associate Absolut vodka with incredible sex appeal, and who doesn't want or need that?

The medium is more sophisticated, but if we're smart and aware, we can see the same old messages over and over. We are told we are too fat, so we'd better resolve to lose weight or we'll be alone forever. We are told we are unattractive to the opposite sex if we're over 25, so we'd better get a credit card with a low APR for that facelift we have to have.

If the next Osama knows this about us, he surely knows the shortest route to the American heart.

The American Club

We may not be conscious of it, but there is a "club" in America. We are very socially motivated. We need to be thin, to be hip, to be up on the latest "thang." We need to be perfect mothers, perfect friends, perfect bosses and perfect employees. We need to wear the right clothes, have the right date, watch the right shows so that we can join in on the water cooler gossip. We are very easily shamed by exclusion and, as a result, very motivated by the current of popular opinion. This last one is evident in children as young as 5 or 6 years old.

In yet another life, I worked as a clinical social worker in a small school system along the Hudson River in New York. I can recall clearly this small boy with red hair playing with wood blocks and babbling about a cartoon character. I think it was one of the Ninja Turtles. Three other children were playing with him, building something that looked like the beginning of a castle. One of them, a little girl who was clearly Hispanic, looked at him sideways and said in a thick accent, "Who's that?" He turned to her and, with a tone he could have only learned from an adult, said, "You don't know? You're stupid." She hung her head and walked away, tears filling her eyes, shame filling her heart.

Over the last 30 years, shame has been berated as "toxic" and banned from a parent's tool chest of consequences. Psychology shamans have even tried to get us to ban it from our emotional repertoire, to lead "shameless" lives. But, in my opinion, it is not possible for three reasons: 1) It is one of the oldest human emotions; 2) shame is thoroughly necessary if we are to live with one another in any form of structured society; and 3) shame is hugely motivational because it is so closely related to fear.

Belonging, conformism, is partially built on this need to avoid shame, to be included, to be an integral part of the pack. Its foundation is a practically limbic fear that if we do the wrong thing, we will be excluded. I believe this is traceable to the limbic system primarily because exclusion in our earliest history would have been tantamount to a death sentence. No one could survive alone. And in many ways, psychologically and emotionally, we still can't. Like dogs, horses, primates, meerkats and beavers (among many others), we work, love, play and thrive in groups. Loners become ready prey to the elements or the local predators.

A Collective Whatever And Later...

We traditionally put off for later what we can or should do right now. Our tendency to make "resolutions" is a perfect example of this cultural tendency. This is a vital piece of information about us. We tend to procrastinate. While fear motivates, it also paralyzes. People ordinarily associate fear with the "fight or flight" state. But it actually has another side to it: "freeze." This happens when we are overwhelmed and instead of running or engaging in battle, we become paralyzed.

Denial is a variant of this state. And we see it when a disaster hits us. Some people panic at the last minute and run through Home Depot with their credit cards. But most are woefully unprepared when the real problem is upon them.

A woman I know used to have a roommate who had a colorful little compulsion. She was addicted to M&Ms and she would pop them one at a time into her mouth while no one was looking. She also would only go grocery shopping late at night when no one was there because she believed (inaccurately so) that she was "fat" and didn't want other people at the checkout line looking at her and judging her purchases in the context of her obesity (as she perceived it). Every year she would make a resolution to break free from those little chocolate beasties and to lose the weight she didn't really need to lose. And every year she would white-knuckle her way through a week or two or a month and then cave in. Who was she making that resolution for? Was it for herself? Or was it because she so feared the opinion of others?

I know someone who resolves every year to lose 50 pounds. And it would be good if she did. She would be healthier and have more energy. But it's not critical, and she never makes it past the five pound mark -- ever -- because the truth is that she doesn't really want to lose weight or change her diet. But she wants everyone to think she does because that's what she's told to do. Maybe she should resolve to not care what other people thought one way or the other. That would at least have a chance of making her truly happy.