Fear of Uncertainty

“You are either with me, or you are my enemy” – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

“Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” -Obi Wan Kenobi
(From Revenge of the Sith)

Humans let arrogance into their psyche and behaviors all the time, often without knowing or recognizing it.   I know I’ve fallen into that trap many times, but arrogance is the most powerful form of delusion out there.  When one is trapped by arrogance, one sees it as ones’ right or duty to fight forcefully for that which causes the arrogance, believing those who have a different perspective are wrong, even evil and dangerous.

I think a key cause of arrogance is fear.   In politics one of the most dangerous fears is the fear of uncertainty.  People want to be right, they want to believe their cause is right, their ideology is right, and their candidates are right.   Yet most people recognize that the “other side” has good points too, and that even the ideals they hold dear may be based on false information.  That yields humility, which of course is the opposite of arrogance.

Those who fear uncertainty are likely to build fortresses around their belief system, defending it so forcefully, with opponents seen as weak minded, dumb, or disingenuous.    They become believers in absolutes.  You either believe their point, or you are labeled as something negative.   A nihilist, a socialist, anti-human, or simply an idiot.

Another tactic to bolster ones’ belief  is to belittle the other side.   When those supporting the war in Iraq countered anti-war arguments, it often was to say something like “the opponents believe we can talk with Saddam and say ‘you really shouldn’t be so mean,’ and he’ll realize we’re not so bad and become our friend.”   Not those exact words, but the upshot was that those who disagree with war are naive types who don’t understand the ruthless depravity of a Saddam Hussein.   Such a tactic allows them to dismiss the real complexities, and keep the issue simple and absolute.

Of course, the anti-war side had similar tactics.  To say “war is murder and George Bush is a fascist terrorist” is the same sort of response.  Saddam is Hitler, Bush is Hitler, well, you get the point.  If the other side is Hitler, then you know your side is undeniably right.

Those who fear uncertainty also tend towards absolutes in their ideological perspective.  If you accept uncertainty, you realize that most of the time principles are unclear, and subject to contextual change.    Strict and uncompromising religious belief, such as Bin Laden’s or those of the most intense Christian fundamentalists probably reflect a fear of uncertainty.   Nationalists, animal rights extremists, militant environmentalists, and others who take their cause to an uncompromising extreme reflect that fear.   Accepting contextual variation or partial implementation of the principle to them feels like an infection that destroys the ideal.   It opens up the possibility that their belief may be wrong or imprecise, and if they cannot stand uncertainty, that becomes unbearable.  A crack in the edifice of a belief can bring the whole thing down.

That’s why “true believers” as Eric Hoffer called them can bounce from one extreme to another.   David Horowitz went from being a sixties radical to an over the top conservative extremist.  There is comfort in defining principles in absolute terms and then refusing to budge from them, deriding and ridiculing all who think differently.   It creates an illusion of certainty and “correct belief.”   It shields them from confronting their true fear: that they not only may not be right in how they think, but they might never know if they are right or wrong.

I think the key for avoiding this way of thinking is to not only accept and acknowledge uncertainty, but accept as a part of life the possibility that many of our core beliefs may be wrong.   Moreover, that in no way should inhibit us from acting on those beliefs and living our lives based on what we hold true.   One does not need certainty to believe, one does not need certainty to have faith, one does not need certainty to fight for a cause.

Yet those with humility will know how to compromise, know how to accept contextual ambiguity, and learn not to judge those with different perspectives.

Those who fear uncertainty and tend towards absolutes will have absolutist responses to what I just wrote:  “If  you might be wrong in what you know, why don’t you jump off a cliff, you might live!”  Or “if you might be wrong, then maybe Hitler was right, so how can you judge the Nazis?”   But that kind of objection is itself rooted in fear of uncertainty.  I may acknowledge uncertainty, but if I am repulsed by Nazism and experience tells me not to jump off cliffs, I can make that call very easily.   I don’t need to claim absolute certainty in order to make moral judgments or try to convince others to condemn or stop that which I hold to be evil behavior.

Fear is probably the biggest cause of violence, abuse and suffering in the world.  Fear produces hate, anger, and self-loathing.   Fear causes people to put up edifices of rationalization to protect their world view, and justifies violence and repression against others.   Fear’s purpose is to help us survive, we are to fear large animals and dangerous situations.  But in the complex social systems we’ve created, totally divorced from the evolutionary reality that shaped our psyches, it gets warped and twisted.   Overcoming that means accepting uncertainty, as well as the temporal nature of all that we hold dear.   Here Yoda may provide the secret to happiness and contentment:

“Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.” – Yoda (also in Revenge of the Sith)

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on January 11, 2011 - 16:59

    Albert Ellis, the famous psychotherapists, always said that ability to handle uncertainty in life was a cornerstone of mental health.

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