When I Have Fears … *

Recently, a young man was disturbed enough by what he saw as illegal government surveillance that he risked his career, family, and even his life for the chance to warn the world. At roughly the same time, a young man published unspecified threats in Texas, threats that were read and reported to the police by a woman in Canada, resulting in his arrest. Finally, again about the same time, a young woman and her two friends were violently confronted by agents investigating drugs and alcohol abuse, and her reward for acting responsibly was jail time, an apology to them, and the privilege of not being prosecuted further. The agents have not been reprimanded as of this writing. [ 1, 2, 3 ]

How is it that these things happened in the land of liberty and freedom?

There is a growing feeling that the USA is becoming more like George Orwell’s 1984. There is increased security at all the airports and public events. A protective bubble has grown and hardened around our President and the District of Columbia. There is greater sensitivity to what happens near our schools. And there appears to be a tacit acceptance of constant government surveillance, increased budgets for surveillance, and almost anything being redacted in the name of national security. All in all, and by any measure, a general erosion of individual rights is taking place.

The superficial forces taking us ‘back’ to 1984’s dystopian terrain are the risks posed by terrorists, both at home and abroad. They are superficial because these are the reasons put forth by the politicians and bureaucrats. However, I prefer to look at the problem more deeply because I find the words of politicians and bureaucrats specious at best. I also believe that the highest priority of any politician is to first, and foremost, justify their own job. Certainly there must be more to our eroding rights than the simplistic reason of “we’re watching out for the bad guys.” For instance, why are the terrorists out to hurt us? What have we done to them that could cause such efforts on their part? If their job is to incite terror, have they won? And, for those of them that are the poorest and isolated, where do they receive their training and resources, and why don’t we go after those instead?

The truth of the matter is that we lack the ability and perhaps even the fortitude to answer these simple questions. Yes, simple. As questions regarding behavior, considering the immediate implication of the erosion of basic rights is something that is relatively easy to ponder. Yesterday I had this right, and today I don’t. This is rather straight-forward.

The more difficult questions are these: Is more security today better for tomorrow’s generations? Does our implicit policy of letting our agricultural and manufacturing sectors shrink increase our society’s risk of collapse? Does the increasing concentration of wealth and power also increase our chances of colonizing the moon? Does our fascination with wealth and entertainment over intellect and perseverance portend greater or lesser things to come?

It’s the big questions that I seek to answer. As scientists, we need to achieve a basic understanding of behavior so that we CAN know if these trends, both great and small, are good or bad. It’s one thing to feel that a trend is bad, but it’s another to be able to prove it logically using the tools of science. Until we reach such an understanding, we must advance our knowledge incrementally, in small steps. Therefore, my goal in this essay is to advance that understanding by focusing on that element of behavior that the first set of questions address.

Listening to the pundits and experts, it would seem that hate is the underlying feeling to all these stories. The NSA specialist hates his country and is accused of treason. The young Texan hates the world and plots mass murder in order to make his mark. And the young woman, mistaken as an drug-abusing criminal, must hate the agents who attacked her because she was charged with attacking them, and she admitted fault. Yet hate is not the answer, neither as an excuse for their behavior within society despite what the pundits would have us believe, and certainly not as a basis for a logical explanation. This is particularly true for the young woman who acted quite reasonably given the situation. She was attacked and tried to escape, calling the local police for assistance. The fact that the state was able to recast her in the wrong by charging her with attacking them is only a credit to their use of the law to protect their own.

Unfortunately for us, hate is the preferred explanation. Hate is used by many groups today, mostly political, as a way to influence their followers. For instance, who can’t hate a terrorist? Who doesn’t hate a tax-and-spend bleeding-heart liberal? Or a gun-toting bible-thumping creationist Christian?

And therein lies the problem. Any serious thought about hate soon becomes mired in conflicting emotions and outcomes that are biased by who is doing the hating, who is being hated, and who is doing the talking. We love to talk about trying to get the terrorist, or the terrible things they’ve done, but we spend no time on their motives, their resources, or trying to understand their lives.

In addition, there’s a shortage of serious thought related to hate, in and of itself. Even as loosely as the term is used in the media, it still gets little time. We have hate crimes, hate speech, and hate mongers, yet all of these are fairly meaningless. For the purpose of understanding behavior, we have to define it more rigorously.

When in doubt, start with the dictionary. [4] Hate is defined as feeling an extreme enmity towards something, or having a strong aversion. There is nothing about having to commit a crime or even show any outward signs. For further insight then into hate we can literally take a page from Darwin’s book, Expression, and further refine hate so that it refers to those feelings that we can measure. [5] In other words, you hate something when your strong feelings cause you to exhibit a facial expression commensurate with what our society knows as hate. Or, using today’s technology, we can also say you hate something when we can measure some physiological response that strongly correlates with increasing anxiety and the possibility of danger.

And where does this hate come from? Is it possible to say that hate arises from nothing? Or can we admit that hate comes from some underlying cause that gives rise to hate? I prefer to think that all things have a cause, until we reach back to the beginning of time. So, without going back too far, where does hate come from?

Fear. All hate must start with fear, somewhere. Perhaps the person who hates was not the original person to hold this fear, as many hatreds are passed from parent to child without reason. But somewhere in the dim mist of time there must have been a fear. In our dictionary, fear is an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger. Fear may not be as easily observed as hate, and in many cases may only be inferred negatively; for instance, I never take a cruise because I fear large pale people getting sunburns. But now we have a hierarchy that makes sense. Hate can be arbitrary, being expressed in small ways as dislikes, or in violent ways as rage. But all hate must originate in fear, and fear is something that we can understand in all creatures, because all creatures know that there is danger in the world. Only the dysfunctional creature who knows no danger also knows no fear, but that creature is usually not long for this world.

And it is here, Gentle Reader, that I may cease to be. This has turned into a much too long essay that, if you have persevered, you realize comes to its conclusion all too suddenly. This is indeed a huge topic, but one that I have decided to tackle in book form. Fundamentally, fear is the driving force behind much of the social change we see. Hate is only an excuse our leaders have been using to manipulate us into following them without too many questions. Other leaders throughout history have done the same thing, and the outcomes are rarely positive. The situation is even more dire for those of us that wish to follow scientific methods; we can’t allow popular characterizations of any behavior, or any actor, color our observations and resultant conclusions.

With that, I thank you for your patience, and promise that the next entry will be far more entertaining, useful, and short!


* With all due respect to John Keats, this is from his sonnet, written shortly before his death:

     When I have fears that I may cease to be, Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, Before high-piled books, in charactery, Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain; When I behold, upon the night’s starred face, Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, And think that I may never live to trace Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the faery power Of unreflecting love; then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/opinion/global/the-service-of-snowden.html?_r=0 This is an opinion piece that does a decent job of giving an overview of the many perspectives on what Snowden has done. There are many other news articles about Snowden.

[2] http://www.khou.com/news/texas-news/Texas-teen-charged-with-making-terroristic-threat-after-online-joke-212931111.html

[3] http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/06/uva-student-elizabeth-daly-cleared-of-charges-from-water-buying-incident–90722.html

[4] Langenscheidt’s Merriam-Webster Dictionary 1996 edition. Old but still good.

[5] Charles Darwin, Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, this edition published in 1979. Text based on the 1872 edition. In all fairness to Darwin, hate was barely mentioned in favor of rage. However, he also says, on page 239, that injury becomes dislike becomes hatred becomes rage, almost as if it’s a foregone conclusion. I taking the liberty to assume that he, as we all must, was making a generalization based on what he knew at the time. I’m also assuming that he realized that all these feelings were closely related and primarily differed on the basis of degree. Therefore, for the purposes of our discussion, rage and hate are considered interchangeable.



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