Saturday, September 11, 2010

Post No. 148: Sorry Mr. Thoreau, but that Hermit Crap is for the Birds

© 2010, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

We recently contacted the Logistician (an Institute Fellow), still on sabbatical in Brazil, just to check up on him. We asked him what he considered to be the most significant difference between Brazil and the United States.

“There is almost a total lack of fear here in Brazil," he said. "The folks will do virtually anything and engage virtually anyone.”

Interestingly, we have been thinking a lot about the concept of fear over the past few months, with all of the yelling and screaming going on about where this country is headed. We’ve come to recognize it as a very powerful and potentially destructive force.

Prior to moving to the East Coast, the Institute was based in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from UCLA. During the late 1980’s, a dramatic shift, in the ethnic make-up of the student body at UCLA, began to take place.

The number of first generation immigrant students, whose education was financed by parents in another part of the world, began to grow. It was not unusual to see them walking down the streets of Westwood wearing facial masks to deal with the air pollution and whatever other airborne “diseases.”

They walked in groups of 4, 5, or 6. On occasion, upon encountering a native-born American, the group members would shift 3 or 4 feet off the sidewalk, and turn their heads 90° as if to avoid being contaminated by the approaching figure.

When we first encountered this, we were puzzled, particularly since many cities in their native countries were far more densely populated, with lots of pushing and shoving and bodies touching. Thus, we wondered about the basis for the reaction.

We also knew plenty of native born American citizens of the same ethnic origin, who did not behave similarly, and who were truly integrated and engaged members of California society.

We entertained the possibility that it was fear of strangers and the unknown, and we became concerned, since a fear of any group of people, concept, or person results in a lack of engagement.

Many are familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins. According to Wikipedia, they constitute “…a classification of the most objectionable vices that has been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct followers concerning (immoral) fallen humanity’s tendency to sin." The final version of the list consists of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

Although we here at the Institute do not claim to be learned theologians, or duly appointed disciples of Jesus, there is an argument to be made that fear, particularly the fear of engagement, should be added as the eighth deadly sin.

(Arguably, if one really has faith in God, follows the dictates of his or her religion, and legitimately considers oneself a child of God, then one should not fear anything or anyone but God.)

Tangentially, a failure to engage stemming from fear, can also lead to a failure to understand, which can lead to anger – one of the more unproductive activities in which one can engage, about which we previously expressed our thoughts.

In the view of the Logistician, there is a pragmatic, socio-technological reason to eliminate fear of others, leading to engagement – a society efficiently and effectively gets the best out of the highest proportion of its people.

The Roman Empire contributed significantly to the development of western civilization, which some consider to be the greatest contributor to humankind thus far. Through its assembly (admittedly by force in many instances) and assimilation of divergent cultures, the cross-cultural benefits were exponential in nature.

When those using a particular type of plow used in Country X, engaged those from Country Y, and then those from Country Z, the resultant plow was better at performing the task of tilling the soil, than any of the previous individual plows.

When the Institute moved to the southeast region of the country, the influences of the traditional Caucasian and African-American cultures were observable and palpable. However, the people in the region almost seemed to be in denial about the rapidly increasing Hispanic and Asian communities.

To constructively deny the existence, through lack of engagement, of a significant segment of your community, is a waste of human resources, and a missed opportunity.

And what does this have to do with Personal Responsibility about which we harp so frequently?

It seems to us that if one considers oneself to be a positive, upstanding, responsible contributor to the community, and a citizen of God’s Universe, (regardless of what Stephen Hawking might say), then part of Personal Responsibility requires us to affirmatively engage those who we do not know, do not understand, and those with whom we have philosophical, cultural, ethnic, social, and other differences.

It just seems like the responsible thing to do….

[Editorial Note: We obviously used some "artistic license" in referring to Henry David Thoreau.]


  1. There is no question that we have a responsibility to affirmatively engage others in our community and our country. Fulfilling that responsibility seems easier said than done. Many of our citizens live in fear due to the loss of income, homes and family stability. In such an upheaval there are those who are ready to exploit those fears and encourage negative action against other individuals, groups or political parties to further their own interests. This kind of behavior diminishes us personally and as a country. Be the person who seeks to positively engage others in debate, seek to understand others, especially those whose ethnicity and cultural foundation differ from your own. In pursuing this course of engagement each of us and our society as a whole will benefit.
    For more on this subject see:

  2. Dan:

    Very nicely said.

    While our thoughts about fear were very general, you very aptly described some of the more specific concerns which we have. Thanks for weighing in.

    To our other readers: We encourage you to visit Dan's site. Dan is one of those people who we view as constantly seeking the more positive attributes of others.

  3. I think your example of the foreign students proves that communication is essential for understanding.

    You might not be aware that many Asians have a habit of wearing masks when they are sick to avoid spreading the germs to others. Some do wear one when in traffic to avoid pollution, too. They were probably just following what they would do at home. Also, some cultures avoid eye contact out of politeness; i.e. it's impolite to look into people's eyes, especially if they are strangers or of higher status. And in some societies people think, act, and move in groups -- they are far more cooperative than we have grown to be in North America.

    As someone who has lived in another culture for quite awhile, I know that some fear is involved. When you're unsure of how to act, what rules or people you might offend, or what government regulatons you might unwittingly fall afoul of, the stress of living in a culture you don't know the social rules of, you are going to be afraid.

    It's a great idea for young people, and everyone, to start taking responsibility to make the changes, both in the environment and society, that will move us all in a better direction. Good luck with your project for doing that!


  4. Well said, vegetablej, knowledge eases fear.

    I am wondering, is fear solely a negative emotion? Is there not some positivity to it? That is, fear is a cautionary emotion. It helps to prevent rash behavior (while, ironically, also allowing/encouraging rash behavior to occur). A little fear may be a good thing. Like all emotions, however, it should not be a determining factor in behavior. Fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar, the differentness of others, is a useful survival trait.

  5. vegetablej: Welcome to our forum, and thanks for your very comments which added more meat to the bone of our discussion.

    Thanks for demonstrating, through your explanations and perhaps more importantly your tone, the value of taking the time to communicate in a civil fashion so that all might learn and benefit from engagement.

    Some of the statements which we made in our article were purely factual (hopefully objective), but depending on one's experience and point of view, might take on a subjective meaning.

    In our view, it's ALWAYS better to talk to/communicate with people and try to better understand them. Even if they do not respond, we believe it is time well spent, and that the probabilities are on our side that the experience will be positive, constructive, and instructive in nature.

    Thanks again.

  6. Douglas:

    You make some very good points regarding the positive aspects of what we might characterize as "heightened awareness" or being "alert" regarding your environment.

    Fear is definitely needed in the animal kingdom, particularly in survival situations, and there are definitely situations where we as humans have to function like uncivilized animals.

    We realize that we may be splitting hairs here, but we think that there is a qualitative difference between "heightened awareness / being on alert" and "fear," which in our view has a somewhat more emotional and potentially more dangerous component.

    Imagine a crowd storming out of an athletic facility, perhaps a soccer stadium during an earthquake, or patrons in a club where smoke is detected. At some early point, people are concerned and may try to assist others in excavating the location; however, things can later turn nasty, and people will run over others just to get out themselves.

    What we were trying to say is that on a day to day basis in ordinary, civilized America, we have the luxury to take the time to observe, analyze, engage, and work with our fellow humans to make positive contributions to the society.

    Holing up in our homes in our neighborhood, sticking with our own kind and those who share our culture, and being afraid to venture out and extend ourselves to strangers, does not create an environment where we maximize our human resources.

  7. Inspector, I agree with you (Now, pick yourself up off the floor). But "on a day to day basis in ordinary, civilized America" we have little to actually fear anyway. It is the random act of violence, the unexpected, the truck flying through the red light as you enter the intersection when fear can paralyze.

    I use my fear of the unexpected to goad me into preparation. I drive defensively, I stay aware of my surroundings, I am cautious but not afraid.

    We are conditioned to "let others do it" in dangerous situations which is why we tend to expect the firefighters to be there when the fire breaks out and so we panic when they haven't shown by the time we run into problems getting out. I guess what I am saying is panic is the problem, not fear. And panic comes from not being prepared and not having enough self-confidence.

    As in everything, moderation is the key. Fear keeps you alert but succumbing to it fosters panic and panic all too often results in disaster.

  8. Instilling Fear and ignoring the root cause of a nation's problems is much easier than trying to effectively solve the problems. Why be responsible if you can blame someone else? In times of economic difficulty all it takes is someone overly patriotic to use the right verbiage e.g.( "take our country back" ) and place blame on others. That's what you see with the Tea Party movement, Mosque protests and Pastor Jones. It's the same with our perspective elected government officials. It's always the other parties fault even though over the last 30 years all have messed up in some way or another. To blame only the corporations and the leaders of both parties does not sound fair to me, lobbyists and other members of congress should be included as well. It should be a no brain-er that something needs to be done, as this will not simply die down because of economic growth. Fear can turn very easily into hate.

    Wish I could say it was different over here, but it's not much different. Over here (Germany) we have seen inaction turn into a weapon of mass destruction once before and I do hope that it does not happen again.

  9. Douglas:

    It was not necessary for us to pick ourselves off the floor. We agree with you on far more issues that you realize; but that's not our function here.

    Our goal is to encourage folks to look at things from as many different perspectives as possible, with requires forcing ourselves to do so. We'll entertain any position.

    As we've often said, there are more than 2 or 3 ways to view any issue; there are at least 27.

  10. Thanks wsteffie for your comment. We're pretty much in agreement with your observation.

    However, what amazes us is that so many lay folks BUY INTO the emotional sound bites. In fact, we plan to generate a blog post shortly about "The Ridiculousness of It All."

    Are the masses being manipulated by our political leaders and media personalities?

    Is this really about us (the lay people) or really about them? Some may not have noticed that during that craziness involving the Florida pastor and the Muslim leader in New York, regarding the burning of the holy book, Pakistan's ambassador, either to the United States or the United Nations, suggested that Glenn Beck intervene to straighten out the situation. Interesting, eh?

  11. Human beings are emotional and quiet often do we act according to our emotions. We fear the unknown more than the known. Even though that might not be logical at all. Some people are taught/conditioned at a young age to hate (by parents,relatives) and some might have had a negative experience involving strangers in the past. While some of them might be poorly educated, not all are ignorant. I suspect that a lot of those people have been ethnocentric in one way or another but were somewhat tolerant towards one another. Their leaders on the other hand (the more educated ones) might have some narcissistic tendencies. They gain support by playing on the fears of the people. The economy is declining, some might have lost their jobs and fear homelessness, fear losing their jobs or even fear Islam taking over the US. Painting Muslims as the enemy must be like an affirmation of their moral superiority. Creating this enemy does preserve or create in group solidarity. Fear drives a lot of people to think that they are better than "others". The false feeling of superiority makes people feel better. In order to feel better they have to dominate someone else. They minimize their own fear by inflicting greater fear on others. Obviously Muslims living in the US must experience fear right now.
    There is great diversity among humans and there is diversity even within each group, but since tolerance and acceptance require effort we take the easy route and that is fear. If some people were better at risk assessment they would try to think logical and see the real enemy.
    Pakistan's ambassador to the US was the one that suggested that Glenn Beck intervenes to straighten out the situation. In my view not a bad suggestion at all. However at that time Mr.Beck had already blogged about it and wrote that burning the Quran is like burning the Flag or Bible - something people can do in the US, but should not.
    Oh,I have no doubt that all the "Fat Cats" are laughing all the way to the bank.:-)

  12. wsteffie: You have very succinctly made a number of points which we tried to make in a much longer post a couple of years ago, although the subject matter of our post was race. However, as we tried to state in that piece, we believe that much which is characterized as racial in nature is really more about differences and discomfort associated with the unfamiliar.

    To avoid "demonizing" an entire group, it arguably takes some thinking. On the other hand, to demonize an entire group arguably requires some motivation or desire to pursue a particular objective.

  13. I agree Inspector, the meaning of the term Racism has changed. While it used to be about supposed separate races it has evolved to be about a whole bunch of other "isms". I still have to post my thoughts to that particular piece, thanks for the reminder. To avoid "demonizing" an entire group it takes more than thinking though. You have to educate or reeducate people in order to get them to think. That should not be to hard with the ignorant however, I do think it's a waste of time when it comes to the "willful ignorant".

    Getting back to the Seven Deadly Sins though, I think it's about time to change them altogether. Looks to me what was once considered sin has turned into virtue for a whole lot of people on this planet. On Twitter I came across the real seven deadly sins: Apathy, Cruelty, Duplicity, Hypocrisy, False Morality, Abuse of Power, Cultivated Ignorance.

  14. Inspector, your survey is missing an option in my view. I was about to answer "No" but then realized, that it could be interpreted as me thinking that it's okay to distrust all of Islam. I would cast my vote if there was an option like: "No,it's not okay to distrust an entire group".

  15. Whoa wsteffie!

    You said a whole lot of stuff in just a few sentences there, and it will take us some time to address it.

    In the mean time, ask some of your friends or followers to check out the poll in the upper right hand corner of our blog in the light green column. The answers will not really tell us much of anything, but we thought that it would generate some further thought or discussion.

    Back to you later on your comment.

  16. wsteffie:

    Just changed the poll to add two additional answers. See if it helps. Thanks for the suggestion.

  17. Yes, it helped, thanks a lot.:-)

    Getting back to the "willful Ignorant", I do think that a lot of them have been conditioned to think the way they do over generations and simple education is not going to work. Reconditioning (long-term therapy) would be the only thing that could work in my view. However, Racism is not included in the DSM...

  18. wsteffie: You're actually beginning to reveal a humorous side of your personality that we did not see in some of your earlier comments. DSM....

    Thanks for weighing in.

  19. Later today at 11:45 am EDST, C-Span2 Book TV will feature the author of the book, The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear." You will recall the story of this bureaucrat who was forced from office when a blogger edited a video of a presentation she had made, which made her out to be a racist. The Obama Administration later had to apologize for reacting to quickly to the blogger's post.


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