Does America need therapy? I don’t know about you, but I am perplexed by the millions of Americans who each and every day, continue to disregard facts, reject scientific proof, obstruct progress and deny the truth about a lot of things. This massive group also includes many of our supposedly best educated and well-informed politicians. What’s going on here?
The popular wave of anti-intellectualism rolling through Washington is no longer merely pervasive — it’s aggressive. And lately it has overtaken the usual rhetoric we’ve come to expect from the conservative side of the chamber. Especially in the last few years we have seen open-mindedness and critical thinking be replaced by a fanatical embrace of ignorance.
Trading reason for dogma and irrational emotion for learned facts threatens to unravel not only who we are as a society, but the fate of our entire nation and our planet. Am I exaggerating? No, I am not.
How is it that we are headed in this direction? Is it anxiety? Is it something more serious?
Let’s take a closer look: People who suffer from anxiety worry excessively; they are emotionally reactive and have a low threshold for distress tolerance. As a result, anxiety compels sufferers to resist change and avoid imagined threats. The reason? It’s because the underlying component of anxiety is: FEAR.
Fear is the strongest emotion we as human beings experience. Left unchecked, it can control us and bring us to our knees. Accordingly, fear of the unknown often completely freaks us out. It doesn’t matter what your IQ is or what Ivy League school you attended. Fear does not discriminate. So, it’s not necessarily facts that scare people into denying reason, it’s their emotional reactivity.
Let’s take the head-scratching position that climate change is a hoax, and that fact-based science is just plain wrong. Why the denial in the face of proof? Perhaps it’s fear of depleting the economy? Fear of losing jobs? Or is it a subversive liberal plot intended to overthrow our government? Regardless of motivation, science, facts, and rational thought provoke, not only anxiety, but hostility as well. This results in an angry and illogical reflex to stay closed-minded and stop learning.
In anxiety treatment we call these reactions cognitive distortions. They’re maladaptive thinking patterns that are baseless and unreasonable. They are knee-jerk responses that are automatic and often unconscious.
For example, denying the science of climate change is called mental filtering. When the mind focuses exclusively on a self-chosen reality, it filters out all other frames of reference, even one’s that are proven and true. In this instance, forward-thinking about the future and the kind of world we will leave our children is easily disregarded and completely overlooked. Perhaps people aren’t ignorant after all? Maybe it’s just a case of the heebie-jeebies.
Granted, since 9/11 the world as most Americans knew it turned completely upside down, and it has remained an unsteady time for all of us. Some Americans have become so desensitized to fear they don’t realize their lives are tightly wound in a chronic state of panic.
Another example of how we turn a blind eye to reason is the gun violence that has literally riddled our society, not just with bullets, but with terror.
Consider this: In the United States, every time a plane goes down or a train derails and crashes and American lives are lost, our transportation and safety authority’s act very quickly. They launch full investigations and do everything in their power to prevent the accident from happening again. They leave no stone unturned, and the search for answers often goes on for months, or even years.
But when yet another mass shooting occurs — at a school, a theater, a concert, a synagogue — rather than taking action, we freeze and remain paralyzed in shock. Instead of applying concrete solutions, we send our thoughts and prayers. Of course condolences are kind, but they are also too easy to accomplish than applying intelligence and data to systematically minimize the chances of similar tragedies occurring in the future.
We also make the choice — another easy out — to place responsibility of these tragedies on the mentally ill, including the recent mass shootings in Thousand Oaks, California, and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. We conveniently scapegoat the mentally ill, further stigmatizing an entire population who are already at a societal disadvantage. We put a Band-Aid over the problem for a few days until the wound disappears, and time and time again, we refuse to recognize the obvious: That this is no surface wound. It’s an open, oozing infection that remains and grows. But, at least it appears that we have taken some action to solve the problem.
It’s also ironic that we, as a nation that largely ignores, delegitimizes and under-funds mental illness, conveniently draw it into the national spotlight when it’s time to find someone or something to blame other than ourselves and our outdated laws.
Let’s look at how fear makes us respond in this case: Obviously, the fear of losing our 2nd Amendment rights is problematic and palpable to many. But the real reason we are so terrified to face facts is that if we let our guard down just a bit, other rights will be taken from us. This cognitive distortion is called catastrophic thinking — jumping to conclusions and assuming you know the outcome of something without relevant and solid facts to support it. It’s another standard, habitual human defense mechanism motivated by panic, and it’s the reason why the rational pleas for gun reform are consistently ignored.
But despite the numbers, fear continues to win and nothing changes. Maybe America needs therapy! Think about it.