Of Mice and Men: My Conservative Epiphany June 16, 2012Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Christianity, Environment, Philosophy, Saving the World, Serendipity, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
Tags: amygdala, brain, chris mooney, conservatism, conservative brain, fight or flight response, hantavirus, mice
It happened on Wednesday night and began, appropriately enough, with a Skype chat with my sister. She had just made a reference to the Tommy Douglas “Mouseland” political fable. “Was it white cats and black mice?” she mused. “Or vice versa?” Just then, I heard a scrabbling noise and saw a small furry shape dart across the room, Rumi barreling after it in hot pursuit.
The Universe, quite evidently, has a sense of humour.
I wish I could say I handled the situation with great presence of mind. That I (a lifelong vegetarian) empathized with this poor, terrified, furry creature running for its life. That I handily devised an on-the-spot plan to catch the mouse, gracefully transporting it downstairs and back outside into its natural environment. But, sadly, that wouldn’t just be stretching the truth; it would be lying through my teeth. The truth is, I stood frozen in near-immobile panic, mute except for the occasional strangled scream (intermingled with a few words that I won’t repeat here).
Now, allow me to point out that I’m not normally a squeamish person. I pick up garter snakes. I’ve played with pet mice before. I trap and release bugs, even spiders and wasps, that get trapped in my apartment. But then, I’ve been rescuing insects for years and know how to do it without getting bitten or stung. This mouse was an unknown quantity. Could it have hantavirus? Could it have rabies? Was it scattering germs over my floor as it ran? Would it bite me if I got too close and it felt cornered? If it got away, would it hunker down somewhere and have babies? All these questions spun through my mind as I stood paralyzed, unsure of how to act.
And in that shocked and frozen moment, my thoughts narrowed down to two words only:
Rumi had caught the mouse, and for a while it seemed that (good kitty!) he was doing his utmost to comply. But when he dropped the limp body, it soon was up and running again. It seemed – and who could blame him? – that Rumi had decided this was a new toy, in fact the best toy ever, and he didn’t want to administer the death blow until he’d gotten a good evening’s entertainment first. Or perhaps, soft, spoiled and sheltered like his city-bred owner, he simply didn’t have the slightest inkling how to kill anything larger than a bug.
My roommate, dragged out of a sound sleep, suggested temporarily trapping the rodent under a bucket. This, weighted down with my largest dictionary, did the trick and I went to go get the superintendent, who wasn’t too keen on the whole thing either. I won’t delve into what happened next. Suffice it to say that there was, to quote my father, much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. At last the apartment manager heroically caught the mouse by the tail and transported it out of my room to meet, I assume, an untimely demise shortly thereafter. I didn’t ask.
But, you may ask, what does all this about mice have to do with conservatism?
There’ve been several rather fascinating studies released lately, each claiming to pinpoint the differences between liberal and conservative mindsets (or the causes thereof), and two of these have to do with fear. A study released last year found that the amygdala (a section of the brain connected to fear and anxiety) was larger in people who self-identified as conservatives, than liberals. And a second study found that conservatives exhibit a greater reaction to visual stimuli that caused “fear and disgust” (pictures of a spider crawling on a person’s face, maggots in a wound, etc) than to “pleasant” stimuli (a bunny rabbit, a child.) (Liberals exhibited exactly the opposite result.) The researchers concluded – in commentator Chris Mooney’s words – that “conservatism is largely a defensive ideology — and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments.”
If you’ve ever read my blog in the past, you probably know that I tend to identify as liberal. In fact I’m about as left-wing as one can get without running off and joining the Marxist-Leninist Party. 😉 I think that it’s a good idea to take care of the weak, poor and elderly. That excessive military spending is generally not a positive thing. That it’s our job to protect our environment rather than pumping it full of toxins and greenhouse gases. My reaction in the past to reading these studies has been something like: “Who could possibly see the world that way?” followed shortly by “How terrifying and depressing it must be, to have that kind of worldview.”
But when I saw that mouse, my worldview suddenly did a U-turn. That mouse was no cute, cuddly pet. That mouse, if it was diseased, was a threat to my life and the life of my cat. Threats have to be eliminated. End of story. To quote Holland, “when your amygdala is activated, it takes over and utterly dominates the brain structures dedicated to reason. Then the “fight-or-flight” response takes precedence over critical thinking.” I was so unable to think objectively that it didn’t even occur to me to trap the mouse under a plastic container, as my roommate proposed, or then slip a sheet of cardboard underneath to transport it outside (which my mom suggested when she heard about the incident later). Somehow it didn’t occur to me that one could use the same procedure to trap and release mice as for insects – and I am not normally an uncreative person. Such is the power of the amygdala.
For those twenty minutes, I understood what it was like to be conservative. To have one’s sheer terror of the Other – not only because it’s objectively threatening, but just because you don’t know what it could do – strip away any ability one has to empathize with it. Of course the consequences are limited, though still unpleasant, when it’s a mouse. When the Other is human (people of a different ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation or political affiliation) to think this way becomes very, very dangerous. “They’ll take all our jobs. They’ll threaten our religion. They’ll lure our children away to a gay lifestyle. Maybe they’ll have babies and then there’ll be even more of them!” It is all too easy for one’s thoughts to move to: “KILL IT!”
…And then wars and apartheid and hate crimes begin, and any sort of rational dialogue becomes impossible. Because rationality is swept away like a twig in a flood when the almighty amygdala is activated.
Several weeks ago I was at my local church potluck and a visitor from another church was also there. He and I happened to strike up a conversation and I quickly discovered he was a right-wing conspiracy theorist (he wouldn’t dispute this label; he spent nearly the whole time discussing conspiracies!) of the sort I’d only ever met online before now. In his worldview, climate change was an insidious lie designed to allow a one-world government to enslave us, and the scientific community was involved in a massive cover-up. The UN and most elected officials were tools of Satan. Satan, in fact, was trying to control us and he’d corrupted all human institutions, which he was using to lure us away from God. We argued for a while but rational argument, as one might expect, went nowhere; he trusted his own worldview and distrusted science.
I was listening to him rant and opened my mouth to reply, then something made me close it again and I went on listening. He talked for about five minutes and I just let him talk. And when he finished I opened my mouth and, rather to my surprise, something totally different from all my rational argument drifted out. “You know,” I said, “I understand where you’re coming from. I get it. If I believed all of that…I would be terrified too.”
We went on talking for a while, probably 30 minutes. But our conversation had become less like a debate and more like – well, a calm, reasonable discussion, in which we tried to find points of common ground more than attack one another’s positions. Because in my own way I has been just as dogmatic, and just as motivated by terror (a future Earth destroyed by the forces of greed and overconsumption) as he had been. And he had been the Other, which I viewed with anger and loathing: the crazy, extremist nutcase bent on seeing our Earth destroyed so that Jesus would come back.
I’m not saying both positions are equal. I still believe that my worldview is well supported by empirical, scientific evidence, and his is not (actually even he pretty well admitted this, saying he didn’t put his trust in science). But allowing ourselves to be driven into mindless conflict by anger and fear accomplishes nothing. What is the solution for “winning over” people driven by an extreme right-wing mindset? I’m not sure. But maybe the best way to begin is just to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand where you’re coming from. We both know what it’s like to be motivated by fear, after all.”
“…We’re both human.”
– The Contrapuntal Platypus