I recently volunteered with the Fair Anchorage campaign. It helped defeat Prop 1, a “bathroom bill” in the Anchorage municipal election that was designed to repeal part of Anchorage’s nondiscrimination law. While you may or may not agree with me on this issue, please read on to see what it has to do with critical thinking.
Many campaigns rely on fear and anxiety to drive people to action. Neil Strauss explains the science behind this technique and why it works so well in the October 20, 2016 Rolling Stone (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/why-were-living-in-the-age-of-fear-w443554). I recommend you read his entire “The Age of Fear” article to learn more about how it happens, how fear is the fight-flight response we’ve often heard about, and anxiety is a more complex response to things that might happen in the future.But for our purposes here I’ll focus on the effect of inflicting anxiety on people through media and political campaigns.
Strauss writes, “There are two particular ways, among many, in which living with these anxieties month after month can change your brain.
The first: ‘If you look at the cellular level of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus’- the thinking and memory-forming parts of the brain – ‘when you’re living under constant states of fear and anxiety, you can actually see them shutting down,’ says Justin Moscarello, who works in LeDoux’s lab. ‘They shrink. They wither. And the amygdala actually gets bigger.’
In the process, attributes such as conscious decision-making, risk-taking, exploratory activity and social thinking are adversely affected.
The second way: Anxiety can turn to fear. Part of threat detection is learning, and the brain can create a false correlation when a stimulus that’s not actually a threat activates the body’s threat-response system.”
So that’s why negative campaigning and playing on our fears can be so powerful. The get into our brains and our bodies.
Thank goodness Strauss also has some good news: “But if our anxieties and fears can be stoked by certain techniques, why can’t they also be quieted by other techniques?”
He lists several in his article. One way to counteract this is to interact with a diverse group of people. Another is to believe you have a voice and can influence your environment. A third is to accept ambiguity and change. The last is to remind people of compassion and shared values, instead of differences. (See Strauss’ article for more explanation.)
Back to our election, the supporters of Prop 1 used arguments to induce fear and anxiety. They said that men would come into women’s bathrooms and assault women and girls, for example. The Fair Anchorage campaign used more of the other techniques to help voters regain their critical thinking skills.
Fair Anchorage gave transgender men and women opportunities to tell their stories and show they were people just like their neighbors. They explained the facts, that sexual assault would still be against the law and there hadn’t been any incidences of transgender people assaulting women since the initial nondiscrimination law was passed. They reminded voters that Anchorage is welcoming and we don’t want discrimination here.
And in the end, Anchorage voters agreed and defeated Prop 1. It gave me confidence in our current residents, but also that we can re-connect our critical thinking. We can listen to reason even when we’re surrounded by cues to do otherwise. We can still have compassion for our neighbors.
Let’s do this for all our communities, and not just in political situations. Regain your critical thinking skills by taking some steps on your own life journey. Unplug from negative news and commentators. Be open to change and a life drawn in shades of gray instead of black and white. Take action for yourself, your neighborhood or your community.Mix it up with people of different backgrounds and groups. Live with love and share it with others. You’ll be happier and healthier—and we will be, too.