Lacking mindfulness: a common vulnerability in the collective psyche of humans

Just yesterday, I was reading the news that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf will soon be published in a new edition with almost as much text in historical annotations and comments by a German institute, on which the authors spent three years of research. This inspired me again to think however not so much about what made Adolf Hitler into such a “monster”, but instead my thoughts turned to the question of what exactly is it that turns people showing no prior signs of extremist or violent views into supporters of some of the most extreme measures one could think of when an entire class of supposed enemies is concerned?

One of my initial hypotheses—which I admit remains untested—is that it seems related to a form of vulnerability, something that if triggered leads down a path of irrational (mainly emotionally driven) fear and anger, towards hatred and acceptance of violence in the name of protection. What then are the ingredients and how could such a vulnerability be best characterized, maybe in a way that unites inexplicable displays of violence on a group level?

Given that fear of an imminent threat seems to be a necessary part of such a scenario, the question then kind of becomes how is it that (some) people are so incredibly susceptible to a message of fear? And after some thought my intuition more and more solidifies around the lack of acceptance (or mindfulness) of the fact that many things in life “happen to us” outside of our control, things we typically don’t like. And where the combination of experiencing this lack of agency is paired with the imagined outcome becoming so unbearable that a person is willing to throw any moral standards, including the most important tenet of “do no harm”, over board, then violence can take its course.

In short, if people have been conditioned to perceive a threat, and the threat is further characterized in such a way that individual action (agency) is lacking towards averting the threat—something certainly true for a constant message of terrorists undermining our way of life—then all it takes is for someone else to jump into the fray and promise to deliver the people from this threat. And clearly a penchant for simplification and an attitude of “not-taking-no-for-an-answer” would be very helpful to get those people’s support who feel the lack of control the most. It worked, for instance, with a former U.S. administration embracing torture to gain control over a situation perceived as threatening without much else to be done.

If one were to accept such a (combined) hypothesis, one thing becomes almost immediately clear: in the current situation, where a sizable part of the American People is willing to accept a list of political positions and measures, which to many others in the same nation seem abhorrent and incredibly immoral, two sides that may otherwise be perceived as opponents are in fact (even if unconsciously so) working as two parts of the same machinery:

The media and Donald Trump are, as much as both sides are insisting they don’t like each other—something I believe to be true—working jointly towards a state of mass frenzy, panic, and finally the acceptance of a violent resolution to a conflict that may, largely, be happening inside the minds of those who have become so committed to a perception of continuously being threatened that nothing else could explain their suffering. And unfortunately, having a panic-inducing page one headline is a selling argument…

It’s important to state that the threat that is being felt by many is not without a base in reality: as a nation, the U.S. have been threatened and attacked in the past. What I am proposing is not that people are delusional about the threat itself, but possibly about its magnitude—how many people have actually been affected personally, for instance?—and most certainly about whether or not the proposed counter measures are really addressing the perceived threat in a way consistent with our moral standards. If a threat, real or imagined, is able to so easily make us forget who we are as moral beings, then maybe we aren’t moral beings after all…

I sincerely hope that this time there will be a considerable portion of “We, The People” that will take both the constantly repeated (and thus likely over-attended-to) threat of foreign terrorism as well as the idea that some of our fellow Americans would be willing to turn to a demagogue with enough grains of salt to not themselves be whipped into a frenzy of their own—that the world is becoming “unsafe” and more “dramatic actions” are required. It would be the same game, only played by “the other side”…

A measured response, if following this logic, must contain the element of keeping a cool head, by first accepting the fact that indeed many things in life happen that one simply cannot control. What remains to be done is to take charge of those things that can be controlled: one’s own actions, including how one treats those fellow humans showing signs of having issues with exactly this dilemma. Engaging one another in dialogue, possibly coming to a position of sharing the fears, and not denying their existence, and a sharing of the burden of the fact that while the threat cannot be denied, it must not be given the power to control our own fates either! Otherwise, we most certainly have lost control already, without even noticing it.