Fear-based thinking leads to tyranny. Decision-making that holds fear of the other to be the most reliable logic for ordering human affairs implicitly rules out humanity’s most powerful resource: our ability to learn more than we previously knew we could about the universe, to counter threats, solve problems, and improve quality of life, together.
It is this ruling out of learning and discovery that makes fear-based thinking so violently dangerous to overall human wellbeing.
Once we emerged from the proverbial cave of Plato’s reckoning, we discovered not only that the world is more vast and complex than presumption could have told us, and that we are stronger when we work together, establish rules for nonviolent cooperation, and ensure decision-makers do not misrepresent the needs, will, and free moral minds of the people that have asked them to lead.
That we can explore and discover is fundamental to understanding what is right and good among human beings. That problems have both causes and solutions, including those which may still escape our understanding, is a basic reality we all learn in our earliest years, with varying degrees of clarity.
So, there comes a point in the evolution of human societies when the authority of those who wish to have it can be legitimate only if they work to serve, in a genuine way, all those who are expected to recognize that authority. This is the root of all 18th and 19th century democratic revolutions. It is why the Constitution of the United States could not be fully agreed without a Bill of Rights, and why it was designed to be amended by a multiphase process of general consultation and consensus-building.
The Know-Nothing terrorist movement of the 1830s was a small-minded war against the governing principles of democracy. It put violence before engagement and cooperative civics, because it was driven by a tyrannical obsession with fear of the other.
It emerged from the moral rot of the slave trade and the slave-owning plantation system. That inhuman system was itself an ongoing war against humanity that would eventually lead to a bloody five-year insurrection whose explicit aim was to secure a place in the world for that fear-based culture, laced throughout with cruelty, terror, and dehumanization.
President Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, described the war to end that insurrection as a struggle to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.” He also sought to honor those who lost their lives in that struggle by reminding us that “It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”
The beating heart of any democratic society is the universal mission assigned to all of its inhabitants to play a role in honoring, empowering, liberating, and protecting, the humanity of every other. A republican democracy can survive only if all of its citizens are sovereign. It is all of our duty to act in the world in a way that respects this fact about all others. That is what makes us free.
Tyranny lives inside your fear. It forcefully demands that you reject the pursuit of knowledge and instead honor the whim of the dictator, or fundamentalist ideology, because your empowerment through knowledge and free cooperative moral self-organizing would erode the leverage of the tyrant. And the tyrant, we must remember, is always a petty deviant — small in thinking, lacking in courage, scarcely able to conceive of the qualities that make for an honorable leader.
The problems that face human societies now are complex, interacting, and threatening on a scale that was, at other times in our history, inconceivable. Fear-based thinking drives some to seek what they perceive as safety behind the wanton disdain of tyrants for the safety of the other. The degradation of the other does not equate to any new security for oneself. Those who seek comfort in autocrats are empowering petty deviants to steal their own future. And yet among the threats we now face is a rising tendency toward autocracy across the world.
We are living now at the moment when the universal moral imperative to welcome and honor the humanity of the other — through transparent, participatory, accountable democratic institutions — is more existentially necessary than ever before. We cannot afford to let darkness creep over our freedom to explore and discover.
We must liberate and secure our humanity, by committing to the dignity and ingenuity of all others. This is the age of planet-wide collaborative problem-solving. Only universal human empowerment, and the ruling out of tyranny at all levels, will guarantee the freedom or security of anyone.
[ The Note for February 2018 ]