No, Liberals, You’re Wrong: Conservatism Isn’t About Fear

By Tom Gilson Published on March 22, 2018

Liberals don’t get conservatives. New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, formerly a liberal himself, showed how much more liberals misunderstand conservatives than vice versa. And when they get conservatives wrong, often it’s by saying we’re “afraid.” Irrationally afraid, even; in fact, we’re “driven by fear.” They’re wrong: conservatism isn’t about fear. But they keep repeating it anyway.

Take the Psychology Today article, “Fear and Anxiety Drive Conservatives’ Political Attitudes.” (I just love it when they portray us in such a healthy light, don’t you?)

Biased Interpretations (Part 1)

The author, Bobby Azarian, tells us conservatives have a problem. People on the right “fear new experiences,” says. Based on what evidence, you ask? It’s the stuff college students keep in their dorm rooms. Researchers at Berkeley found that liberal students have more travel-related items, while conservatives have more planning- and cleaning-related items.

“This tells us that liberals more often seek adventure and novel experiences,” says Azarian. “Conservatives, on the other hand, seem to prefer a more ordered, disciplined lifestyle.” Okay, I get that there’s a difference there. I’ve got several questions, though. (First rule of reading science journalism: Ask lots of questions.)

First, why weren’t fear or anxiety even mentioned in the original research report? (They’re brought up briefly in the literature review section, but not where the current research was discussed.)

Second, what about the thousands upon thousands of conservative Christians who take mission trips to less-developed, often deadly parts of the world every year? How is Azarian going to explain this “fear” to them?

How on earth do planning, orderliness and discipline equate to fear?

And third, based strictly on Azarian’s article alone, how on earth do planning, orderliness and discipline equate to fear?

Conservatives’ dorm rooms only reflect fear if fear is what you’re looking for.

Biased Interpretation (Part 2)

Azarian goes on to report on a brain study; he has to, actually. Everything in psychology takes a brain study these days. (Everything.)

He tells us that MRIs show that the amygdala, a fear-related brain region, is larger on average in conservatives than in liberals. “It is possible,” says Azarian, “that an oversized amygdala could create a heightened sensitivity that may cause one to habitually overreact to anything that appears to be a potential threat, whether it actually is one or not.”

Note carefully how he hedges his words. “It is possible that… could create … may cause.” That’s good. It’s the right, responsible way to report on science of this sort.

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But hang on! Watch what happens next: “This disproportionate fear response could explain how, for example, Bush’s administration was able to gather wide public support amongst conservatives for invading Iraq.”

He’s gone straight from a list of maybes to a firm statement that conservatives have a “disproportionate fear response.” Applying our first rule, I have to ask why. The most likely answer? Bias. Not science.

Biased Interpretation (Part 2)

Azarian also tells us conservatives are way too aware of potential threats. How do we know this? Because in controlled experimental settings, they tend to focus more attention on pictures of “car wrecks, spiders on faces, and open wounds crawling with maggots.” Liberals, in contrast, tend to look more at “a happy child or a cute bunny rabbit.”

But I’ve got another question: Why not think instead that liberals avoid negative images because they can’t handle them? Who knows — maybe they’re that much more fearful than conservatives!

So I read the original research report to see if it said anything about that, one way or another. Turns out there’s not much there, if anything, to contradict that suggestion. (In fairness, other studies suggest that it’s at least very complicated, if not totally unlikely.)

What I did find there, though, is very interesting. It’s in the closing “Discussion” section, meaning that it’s one of the researchers’ own conclusions:

It appears individuals on the political right are not so much ‘fearful’ and ‘vulnerable’ as attuned and attentive to the aversive in life. 

The researchers go on to connect that awareness to conservatives’ interest in social stability — one of the chief things Jonathan Haidt showed that liberals don’t get about conservatives!

How could Azarian have missed that? How could he think this study showed fear on the right, when its authors said it didn’t mean that at all? Was this an intentional error? Or was it his own bias misleading him? After all, the first duty of those who would explain what’s wrong with conservatives is to find something wrong with conservatives.

The first duty of those who would explain what’s wrong with conservatives is to find something wrong with conservatives.

“Stoking Fear”? No!

Azarian isn’t the only one latching on to conservative “fear.” Slate writer Christina Cauterucci says in regard to Down Syndrome and abortion,

Women’s rights and disability rights are not mutually exclusive movements; they intersect and inform one another in important ways. Anti-abortion activists are stoking fear in advocates of the latter in hopes that they’ll join an assault on the former.

Actually, the pro-life arguments I typically see for letting Down syndrome babies live — like our own Nancy Flory’s recent article — have everything to do with love, joy and laughter, and nothing at all to do with “stoking fear.”

Driven By Fear? No!

Then there’s Harvard professor R. Marie Griffith. Her book Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians & Fractured American Politics takes the fear theme to impressive new heights. (Or depths.)

She writes in the introduction, “For those who worked to sustain the old sexual order and resisted models for sexual relationships and behavior outside traditional marriage, a driving force has been fear.”

Or, in case you don’t catch it there, you’ll find this a few pages later.

Those fearing change have instilled that dread in others through warnings of moral ruin and the wholesale failure of American civilization if sexual rules are relaxed, while those welcoming it have offered visions of a healthier society freed from archaic restraints.

But maybe you still don’t get it. Not to worry: Griffith repeats the fear theme fully a dozen times in the introduction alone.

Seeing Both Good and Bad

She would do well to read conservatives’ actual writings on marriage and morality. Naturally, we don’t shrink back from noting what can go wrong if people do wrong. Why should we? Life isn’t all just happy children frolicking in the meadow.

Still, in all that I’ve read and written on marriage and morality — and I’ve done a lot of both — the dominant conservative tone has been positive, not negative. A healthy marriage between a man and a woman is very, very good. The reason to keep sexual relationships within marriage is because it supports the health of marriage itself, it’s better for the couple, better for their children and better for communities.

Don’t let them make you feel smaller than you are. Keep on pressing forward in the confidence and the hope that fit who we really are.

Now does sound our “driving force” is fear? Only if you don’t know how to read. Or, as Haidt found, if you don’t know how to consider viewpoints other than your own. Or if you think there’s something wrong with people whose view of reality encompasses more than cute little bunnies.

The Point

The point of all this for liberals is, don’t believe everything you read about conservatives. We’re not as motivated by fear as some people want you to think we are.

As for conservatives, come to think of it, the point is exactly the same! This “fear” language is intended to shame us, belittle us, even dehumanize us. It’s mostly false rhetoric, though.

Of course it still never hurts to examine ourselves. Are we motivated by faith, hope and love? Are we seeking to recover and preserve that which is really good — while keeping a realistic eye open to what threatens to harm it?

If not, then it’s time to recover a proper focus. But if so, then ignore the shaming attempts. Don’t let them make you feel smaller than you are. Keep on pressing forward in the confidence and the hope that fit who we really are.

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