We’ve had a rough year and a half. We’ve endured the sporadic terror attacks in major cities at home and abroad, videos of lethal confrontations between police officers and unarmed black men going viral, ambush attacks on law enforcement officials, the rise of the murder rate in major U.S. cities, and dozens of mass shootings in our streets, schools, and workplaces. News channels and social media have been saturated with either images of violence, or threats of it. So it’s not entirely surprising that the number of Americans worrying “a great deal” about crime is at a 15-year high.
Thankfully, there’s relief to be found once we examine our reality with a more objective lens.
Faced with such overwhelming ugliness, it’s very natural to recoil and feel that the world is falling apart, that we should atavistically embrace the traditions of our ancestors. Every generation has consistently criticized the drivers of modernity, such as science and humanism, as the erosion of things like family values, community in religion, and local customs. Thanks to the work done by people like Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, and economist Max Roser’s Our World in Data, we know that we have continued to push through and improve the human condition. Despite all these achings for the past, more people lead longer and healthier lives, IQ levels are increasing at a rate of three points per decade, global poverty levels have decreased significantly, democracy continues to edge out autocracy as the choice system of governance, and violent death has been on a steady decline.
Yet, we never seem to get this big picture from the media, and why should we? If the majority of schools had mass shootings, then we wouldn’t feature mass shootings on the front pages. Peace and tolerance have become commonplace, and headlines are meant to report events which are considered out of the ordinary. As it happens, uneventful peace is both boring… and ordinary.
It’s worth noting here that some leaders have a vested interest in creating this atmosphere of bedlam, despite what the data have to say. Fear and anger in an electorate sends more people to the polls than does a quiescence for the status quo, or a pining for progress. There are, of course, many components to this anxiety and worry, but much of it is simply an illusion; a vestige of our evolution.
Our lower brain (aka ‘reptilian brain’) is about 200+ million years old, and it’s mainly concerned with survival. When it takes control, and it does, rationality takes a back seat.
We’re prone to dozens of well-documented cognitive biases which regularly drive us to act in an irrational manner. We’re inclined to overestimate the significance of information simply because it’s immediately available to us which, when coupled with millions of citizen journalists, can lead to an overblown appraisal of the state of the world. We also have a natural propensity to listen to arguments that confirm our preconceptions, giving rise to an increasingly polarized society. Then there’s our innate tendency to pay more attention to bad news than good news (which we regularly discount). This negativity bias has a good evolutionary explanation; that is, our survival in the savanna depended heavily on our reactions to negative stimuli. Assuming a rustle in the bushes is a lion can save your life, even if it ends up being no more than a gust of wind.
What Donald Trump has managed to do, perhaps unknowingly, is to capitalize on these cognitive prejudices by continuously misquoting statistics and making up or overstating threats. After painting America as a dark and violent nightmare, he tell his supporters that only he alone can fix it.
Trump has consistently fed us a carefully crafted cocktail of illogic, blatant lies, and his remarkable distaste for words composed of three or more syllables.
Argumentum ad passiones et populum, or arguments which appeal to emotion and to the masses, are classical logical fallacies that have always been used by leaders in order to sway their constituents. In Aristophanes’ satirical play, The Knights, a man is convincing a sausage seller that his lack of education and poor manners make him fit to lead. Unsure of himself, the sausage seller asks how he could possibly be able to govern. The man responds:
“Nothing simpler. Continue your trade. Mix and knead together all the state business as you do for your sausages. To win the people, always cook them some savory that pleases them. Besides, you possess all the attributes of a demagogue; a screeching, horrible voice, a perverse, cross-grained nature and the language of the marketplace. In you all is united which is needful for governing.”
What is meant here by “language of the marketplace” is the capability of relating to the life of the common man. Along with crassness and vulgarity, this is what helps seduce the people into a distrust of political establishments, the media, and unfortunately along with them, experts. For many of his supporters, it doesn’t matter how many lies Trump is called out on. Their candidate will always be the plainspoken one who ‘tells it like it is’.
Falling for the trap of demagogic seduction will likely cost the British after Brexit, and if we’re not careful, we will likely make the same mistakes.
Let’s dispense with the hyperbole and twisted narcissism of thinking that we happen to live in the most dangerous of times. Let’s acknowledge the biases we have, and the mental shortcuts we take, so we can subtract them and better appreciate our objective reality. If we’re serious about the issues facing our country, the prudence of an evidence-based approach, rather than one based on what people are feeling at the time, will yield more informed and calibrated responses. Yes, bad things are happening and there certainly is plenty more work which needs to be done. However, there’s justification and value in looking to the future with optimism, and cherishing the progress we’ve made in creating a safer society; a society that considers positive the principles of religious and ethnic pluralism, civil rights, and social justice. Our ancestors weren’t as lucky.