Fear is the most powerful primitive emotion in humans. It has enabled our species to both survive and evolve over millenia. This primal emotion is automatically elicited by threats or perceived dangerous events, involving little by way of higher order reasoning. But, it exponentially increases our chance of survival in the face of peril.
In fact, fear of strangers has been an advantageous trait in our evolutionary history; those who minimised their exposure to threats or dangerous “others” increased their likelihood of surviving and could subsequently pass their “fearing” genes onto the next generation.
However, one fallout of this evolved mechanism is the persistence of prejudice against “strangers” in our modern world today, even when our survival is no longer contingent on making such polarising in-group versus out-group distinctions. Our mind will still divide the world into the safe “us” and the suspicious “other”.
Ethnocentrism, tribalism and nationalism hinge on the tendency to regard one’s own group and culture as intrinsically less threatening, more familiar, more safe and therefore superior to all others. One corollary of this is the unconscious stereotyping of “inferior” (i.e. unknown or unfamiliar) groups. Fear appears to be intimately connected with xenophobia, a complex matrix of primitive, non-cognitive emotions including fear, distrust and revulsion toward strangers.
Understanding this primitive evolutionary hangover is one way to (begin to) ((or try to begin to)) explain the rise and rise of Donald J. Trump, the soon-to-be 45th President of the United States of America.
Trump tapped into the fear felt by millions of Americans: the palpable fear of immigrants arriving in torrents to steal the finite number of low-skill jobs available in the country, the fear of jobs moving to China or Vietnam, the fear of being left behind as the “liberal” Government élite assists minorities to overtake the “true American” populations on the road to achieving the American Dream, the fear among white Americans that they will soon be a minority in their country, the fear of cultural instability and a loss of traditional Anglo-Saxon, Christian heritage.
Fear: we can thank this “reptilian” primitive instinct, because without it, we would not have survived throughout our long evolutionary process.
But this reflexive coping mechanism can go faulty through its over-extension. It can go far in explaining why Americans voted in their millions to elect a man that promised to make the dangerous “other” disappear (either through the construction of walls, the banning of Muslims to the country or via the insulation of the country from the fluctuation of globalisation’s forces). He assured them he will make it better, he will “Make America Great Again”.
It is futile to dismiss the American electorate as “dumb” or “idiotic”. Rather, more should be done to address and allay the real fears that grip the minds and hearts of the Americans, not dismiss them. These are the same fears that led to the rise of populist parties we are seeing across Europe, that led to the Brexit vote and that will continue to inculcate fear of immigrants, outsiders and the unfamiliar.
In short, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. But fear of the “other” can only be mitigated through exposure, communication and collaboration. Here is hoping that President Trump will not erect insurmountable barriers between America and the rest of the world, or else this cycle will self-perpetuate . The only way to eradicate fear is to show that we are essentially all the same.