In an article in the LA Times, psychologist Daniel Gilbert offers some insight into how people tend to evaluate the extent to which something like terrorism or global warming is a threat. According to him:
NO ONE seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.
The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.
Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.
What, in Gilbert's estimation, are the four features of perceived threats?
- they are the product of human intention;
- they violate our moral sensibilities;
- they represent an immediate problem; and
- they appear suddenly or grow rapidly.
Not to quibble, but when reading Gilbert's descriptions of the third and fourth features, I couldn't help noticing how similar they were to one another, and how much less differentiated they were than the first two features. I think they can be easily combined into a single threat feature that we might just as easily call clear and present danger. When we clearly perceive a suddenly appearing or rapidly mounting phenomenon that represents a present or easily foreseeable impediment to our way of life, we may regard it as a significant threat.
Thus, with all due respect to Gilbert, I think we can tighten up the list just a bit and work with three primary threat-perception criteria. A phenomenon is most readily recognized as a threat if it is:
- intentionally created by someone else;
- morally offensive to me and others who share my values; and
- a clear and present danger to me and mine.
There is a certain face validity to these threat-perception criteria, isn't there? They seem applicable to many different issues, from terrorism and global warming to the debt trap and the military-industrial complex, helping us understand why an issue can appear to be a threat to some of us and not to others. In fact, they are remarkably similar to the basic logic most of us use when we are responding to a threatening situation: we attempt to verify an objective problem, denounce it on moral grounds, and look for someone to blame for creating, or not yet solving, the problem. Sound familiar?
Having perceived a threat, we then look for a way to respond, often following the same three-step pattern in reverse. If we cannot prevail upon the people who created the problem to voluntarily change their offensive and destructive behavior, we elect politicians who promise to use the power of the government to force them to stop doing whatever they've been doing to create the problem and reward the rest of us for doing whatever it is we should be doing to make sure the problem never happens again. For really significant threats, we find a leader who can inspire us to work together to respond to the threat (e.g., Churchill/FDR and Fascism). In mythological terms, we search for a superhero whose objective powers and moral rectitude can defeat our villain (e.g., Odysseus and the many villains of the Odyssey, Superman and Lex Luthor). Such is the universal structure of threat perception and response. But there is something else to be seen in these threat criteria. Notice the pattern?
This is the same pattern of validity claims in the domains of what is true, what is right, and what is sincere that we find in the universal pragmatics of Jurgen Habermas--the deep structure of reason and communication that underlies all our worldly action, including our efforts to evaluate and respond to threats. To claim that something is a clear and present danger is to make a positive truth claim that must be validated by facts verifiable by others in a relatively objective manner. To claim furthermore that these unfortunate facts are also morally offensive is to make a normative claim that they are wrong or inappropriate in light of values that have been interpersonally validated. When something is widely regarded as painfully true and just plain wrong, it tends to rise rather high on the list of problems to be solved or threats to be addressed. But so much the better in terms of threat-perception and threat-response if we can convince ourselves that this threat was the brainchild of human intention, the consequence of somebody else's insincere, deceptive, and manipulative strategies to gain power or profit at the expense of truth and justice. This is the same universal structure I described in my essay on An Inconvenient Truth, a movie that strikes a resonant three-note chord with many people who regard global warming as an enormous threat to our way of life. But there is just one major rub in all this resonance.
How do we tend to deal with a threatening situation when we are the people who have created the very situation? In one word: defensively. Sure, we find some comfort in blaming others for the larger roles we feel certain they have played in creating the problem--there's always someone who fits the profile. But this defensive reasoning only puts other people on the defensive and all this conflict does little to resolve the actual problem.
How do we know if we are engaging in defensive reasoning? Simple answer: we feel threatened. Of course, I'm not saying that there is no good reason to feel threatened. There may in fact be. What I am suggesting is that when we feel threatened we tend to see, think, judge, act, and learn in defensive ways, in ways that protect us from the embarrassing acknowledgment of our own roles in creating the problematic situation and the costly challenge of changing our own problematic behavior.
How do we do this? By employing partially sub-conscious strategies designed to covertly gain unilateral control over the behavior of others, so as to accomplish our desired goals, avoid discussing threatening issues, and disguise from ourselves and others the ways in which we are doing this. This is the general finding of Chris Argyris and his colleagues, who developed what I regard as one of the best applications of Habermas's early work on universal pragmatics: action science.
How do we short-circuit our defensive routines and engage in more productive reasoning about threatening situations? Through the mutual pursuit of transparency, choice, and accountability, differentiating and integrating the three domains of impersonal truth, interpersonal rightness, and personal sincerity, focused on the issues that threaten us. I think the critical point of intervention arises in the midst of our normal threat-perception process, when we catch ourselves looking at others as the source of what threatens us. At this moment, we can turn our attention back upon ourselves and examine our own role in creating the threatening situation and consider how we might turn it into an opportunity... for insight, for shared understanding, for innovation, and ultimately for redemption.
Originally published through Catallaxis