This latest tome from one of my favorite writers gives some incredible insight on the topic of fear. Namely, how it is generated, transmitted, and how it can impact your behavior without you knowing. Dr Stout has over thirty years of practice working with survivors of trauma, and treating them, helping them along the road to recovery. She's pretty much seen it all; children, adults, memory loss, missing time, child abuse, incest, multiple-personalities, and her experience shows in her writing.
The Paranoia Switch deals exclusively with the politics of fear, and how fear-brokers use our own limbic systems against us. The limbic system is a part of the brain that deals with reading and transmitting human emotions. It allows us to comprehend, in a matter of microseconds, the feelings of another human being through body language, expressions, tone of voice and other subtle yet present markers. Stout writes:
Our limbic systems receive and transmit emotional information in wordless neurological "conversations," and within these exchanges, work hard to bring different brains together into similar emotional states.
The neurological process that enables us to sense the emotions of other people is called limbic resonance
It gives us our fundamental ability to empathize, sympathize, and thus share in one another's emotional experience. This is not without it's downside however, without careful self-observation we can easily succumb to powerful emotions of others, such as fear, anger, and hate and allow those emotions to dominate our psyche even though they are coming from an outside source.
This is a powerful phenomenon in mother-child relationships, and very important for parents to be aware of since they can unknowingly transmit negative emotions, such as anxiety, to their children. Stout gives a very good example of this exact phenomenon.
She continues, demonstrating how this phenomenon can effect entire societies, and has effected ours in the recent past. Using Pearl Harbor and the Cold War, as well as 9-11 as examples, she gives point by point analysis of how each event traumatized us as a nation, and thus triggered an internal 'paranoia switch' which temporarily disables rational, critical thought and instead engages our more primitive survival instincts.
For example - how many of you knew Cat Stevens was deported from the United States on Sept 22nd, 2004? I missed it at the time. But was shocked when I discovered his chosen name, Yusuf Islam was listed on a government watch list. They diverted the plane, removed Yusuf, and put him on another back to London on the grounds of 'national security'. Yeah, you read that right: Cat Stevens was deported because he was a threat to national security.
She goes into a brilliant discussion of how our memories are formed, how they are given emotional context, and how we can understand future/present events given our stored history. She also explains how, during trauma, this system short-circuits due to an overload of emotional input and the event doesn't get properly stored. This allows future events that merely resemble the original trauma to suddenly bring back the intense emotional experience that overloaded the brain in the past. A common example she employs is the Vietnam Vet ducking for cover if he hears a firecracker or car backfiring.
She shows us our this 'paranoia switch' can be blamed for the internment of around 120,000 Japanese-Americans during WWII. McCarthyism is also a phenomenon directly related to our fear of 'commies in our midst', and even though McCarthy himself was exposed as an alcoholic with obvious issues with his sexuality, much damage was wrought from 1950-54 by people who actually believed the nonsense he spouted. People lost their jobs, their reputations, and their dignity because society at large was afraid of commies under the bed and willing to listen to a strong authority in order to protect themselves. Amazing how triggering survival instincts can cause a group of otherwise rational people to listen to a power-craving nut-job.
A Limbic War occurs when a group is traumatized and then individuals seek to use that trauma to push their own agendas. Stout lists the Six Stages of a Limbic War as guidelines for us to keep in mind. They're very enlightening so I'll include them here in brief.
1.)Group Trauma - A limbic war occurs after some form of national catastrophe. Most typically, this event is a war, or a single attack that is abrupt and brutal enough to generate nationwide fear. The disaster can conceivably be a natural one, but natural disasters are less apt to be starting points, since paranoia is less often induced by "acts of God" than by traumatic events brought on by our fellow human beings. Because traumatic memories remain in the brain as incoherent bits of image and sensation that together constitute a neurological trigger - a paranoia switch - the nation that has been traumatized is dangerously reactive to reminders or suggestions of ongoing threat, whether these cues by real, imagined, or contrived.
2.)Fear Brokers - One person or a handful of people use the public's fear to pursue a private agenda. These fear brokers are variously motivated. ...by far the most common motivators are ambition and a desire for power. Usually, regardless of their political affiliation or initial place in society, such individuals can be described as authoritarian, in the straightforward dictionary meaning of that word: "favoring blind submission to authority," or "favoring a concentration of power in a leader or an elite not constitutionally responsible to the people." Authoritarian fear brokers remind us, frequently and dramatically, of how much danger we are in, whether or not the remaining threat is significant or real.
3.) Scapegoatism - The fear-promoting leader can further heighten the population's anxiety and paranoia by contending that another group or race or people is to be blamed for the crisis.
4.) Cultural Regression - When there is a definite idea of whom to blame, the primitive lust for revenge can crystallize around it. And the idea of a self-righteous vendetta, once it is even whispered of, is a difficult thought for human beings to put away. With all the energy that great fear can generate, the designated out-group is persecuted, or interned, or attacked, and for a time, there is the gratifying sentiment that vengeance is being served.
Typically, encouraging an us-versus-them atmosphere impels a tidal wave of patriotism across the traumatized nation. The new fear-inspired emphasis on national fealty enables the authoritarian leader to divide the population psychologically into two groups: the patriots, who support his authority and his agenda, and the nonpatriots - the traitors, the conspiracy members, the subversives, the cowards - who do not.
Civil Rights are threatened. Humanitarian endeavors atrophy. The arts and literature lose their funding - and their daring. Protected now, intolerance comes out of its hiding places. The limbic war, the emotional manipulation of the people by their own leaders, is in full throttle.
5.) Recognition and Backlash - Of the McCarthy era, the playwright and accused subversive Arthur Miller has reflected, "Few of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and is punishing so many innocent people is intolerable. And so the evidence has to be internally denied."
Fortunately, the evidence is not denied forever. Limbic wars come to an end, and their instigators are eventually deposed. In this stage, protests begin, small and uneasy at the beginning, growing larger and bolder as time goes on.
6.) Regret and Forgetting - As the original trauma-engendered fear begins to ease, often years later one, we have difficulty recalling why we allowed ourselves to be so easily co-opted into an authoritarian agenda. Many of us are left in a state of dissonance and guilt, and this uncomfortable condition promotes forgetting, a return to the internal denial noted by Arthur Miller. Thus, an experience that might have inoculated us against future problems is effectively lost to us, instead.
Her summary above is excellent and can be seen in virtually every trauma we as a society as suffered. Most appropriately, it can be used to describe the current national scene with the Neo-cons at the helm after the tragedy that was 9-11.
Stout continues, and demonstrates how a nation traumatized is similar to a battered-wife. She feels she needs protection (from the original trauma, perhaps child abuse) and so she seeks our a powerful defender (her husband/boyfriend) who will shield her from the evil world. The irony is that she only seeks out a new tormentor and he uses her paranoia switch, installed in childhood, to control her. Eventually, with help, these women can learn to protect themselves, and leave their abusers - however that is not always the case. Stout cites many incidents where women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends, and encourages us to take the message seriously and apply it to the national level.
The book continues with several anecdotes which are highly useful, but I cannot reproduce them here for lack of space. Given that the reader has already indulged me by reading this far, I'd like to wrap up this review with the Ten Traits of Fear Brokers left to us by Stout, briefly:
1.) Fear brokers speak to us of fear, dangerous people, and frightening situations. When addressing the public, he will raise subjects other than fear. These are often flattering topics, intended to showcase the people's superior bravery and nobility (that is to say, superior to those other groups of people). He may even use humor. But somewhere within virtually every address, there will be several references to danger, and to just how frightened people must not forget to be.
2.) Fear brokers are not limited by the facts; they use alarming "unfacts". Where terrorism is concerned, out-and-out lying may not be required. It is easy enough to fan public fears by giving alarming renditions of terrorist events that might happen in the future, and by speaking in imaginative detail about terrorist events that would have happened had they not been thwarted. When such "unfacts" are delivered dramatically, there is seldom any prosocial motive involved, only the intent to capture an audience and amplify fear.
3.) Fear brokers tend to accuse those who disagree with them of being unpatriotic and/or naive.
4.) Fear brokers look good. ...a scaremonger cannot afford to have shifty eyes or scary teeth, or any other seriously repellent feature... a broker of fear must be attractive. This is because, other factors being equal, and attractive person is perceived as smarter, more honest, and more trustworthy than an unattractive person.
Because we love the familiar, a fear broker who is not a natural head-turner can make himself attractive by looking as much like the people in his constituency as possible.
5.) Fear brokers behave like archetypal parents. They can make us feel the attitudinal equivalent of being patted on the back by a kind authority who tells us that he knows what we have been through, and that he is proud of us for being brave. The scaremonger can act comfortably omnipotent ... and that we must always rely on him. He demands we trust him. If he is a sociopath or, if he is delusional, he may even imply that he is in direct communication with God, who approves of his ambitions and plans.
6.) Fear brokers shame us over sex. A fear politician wishes to be viewed as the moral and literal rule maker where sexuality in concerned. Unlike a good parent, he shames us, and then tries to use that shame to exert control.
Of course, issues pertaining in some way to sexuality - sexual preference, same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion, certain types of medical research - are often discussed politically. The fear politician uses them manipulatively, as a distraction tactic. Matters of sexual morality are inherently divisive and highly emotional, and tend to divert us completely from whatever we had been thinking or discussing before.
7.)In a seeming contradiction, fear brokers praise us for being moral and heroic. In various ways, she or he tells us over and again that we, and only we, can take on anything, succeed at anything, and endure anything, in the service of what we know to be right.
Flattery always involves an intent to manipulate. Straight-forward, moral leaders almost never use extreme flattery. Listen for what are essentially come-on lines, and know that a person with no hidden agenda would not be speaking them.
8.) Fear brokers project personal infallibility. When you are evaluating a fear politician, look for moments when that individual is asked the direct question Do you feel you made a mistake? Invariably, the fear politician's answer will be reducible to one word: No.
9.) Fear brokers are secretive, and certain that other people, too, are keeping dangerous secrets. In general, paranoia is all about secrecy, one's own secrecy and that suspected of other people. The leader who advances cultural paranoia - who, as history demonstrates, may be moderately to seriously paranoid himself - is typically driven to collect information about other people, while at the same time withholding information about himself and his activities.
10.) Fear brokers use language that pulls for primitive affect. For centuries, the word evil, in all the various languages of the world, has been on the lips of fear brokers and also war makers. It is an overwhelmingly powerful tool. In addition to conjuring fear, the concept of good vs evil has the advantages of
reassuring the people that they are on the side of good;
creating a division between "us" and "them" that has no gray areas;
and casting as evil all doubters and dissenters.
Another concept with ancient links to fear is that of revenge. Whether or not the word itself is used, a typical fear broker will communicate the primitively appealing notion that the people should have revenge, and also that they will have revenge, provided they are loyal to him. He may induce still more primitive emotionality by introducing the notion of cowardice. Via a series of nonrational twists, the enemies are cowards, and therefore being cowardly is not just shameful - being cowardly means a person is one of the enemies.
To conclude, Stout gives us several useful facts. Most importantly, is that the odds of us being harmed by terrorists are virtually nill. Much less then our odds of getting cancer, heart disease, or dieing in a car accident. Comparatively it seems almost silly to worry about terrorism, and in point of fact, doing so lets the terrorists accomplish their goal.
She also gives us a few short, poignant clues as to how we can recover our lost sense of safety. One of these includes writing out our 'worst case scenario' in as much detail as we can. Then, we symbolically tear it up and toss it in the garbage, or burn it, allowing us to discard those notions and reclaim our courage.
Overall her book is stunning. It allowed one, such as myself, to understand in scientific terms, why and how our nation has become the caricature it is today. How a noble, and idealistic race of people became paralyzed and twisted by their own biology, and thus it helped alleviate much of my frustration and anti-American angst. It's also a tome of healing, and can help pretty much anyone, who's on the question for knowledge, gain insight and understanding about our world, and why it is the way it is.