Chances are, you’ve heard about multiple recent studies based on MRI scans detailing the differences in structure and electrical activity in the brains of conservatives versus liberals. Adding credence to the smug but veracious observation that fans of authoritarianism and forced order are motivated by deep-seated fears, the amygdala is markedly larger among those who harbor very conservative views.
The amygdala is the small, walnut-shaped region of the brain that generates the fight or flight response. It is thought to be among the first parts of the primate brain structure to have fully developed in our ancestors who had to contend daily with predators and other very real threats to their lives. But let’s face it: no matter how precarious events on the world stage become, the fact is that human beings are far safer now than ever before – especially when contrasted with our prehistoric forebears. So what’s with all the trepidation on the part of conservatives? Many seem to perceive threats everywhere they look. Along with the ironically coined “religious freedom” issue, the right to bear arms seems to be the most sacred of all “rights” to such people. This makes perfect sense when you consider that so many of them feel that the following things are somehow threats to our culture, morality and even life itself: gay people, Muslims, atheists, socialism, communism, black people, Arab people, Asian people, feminism, agnosticism, transgender people, criminal justice reform, marijuana, women in power, minorities in power, Mexicans, Planned Parenthood, etc., etc., ad infinitum. These same people tend to uncritically embrace people, things and ideas that purport to offer increased security: police, organized religion, the “traditional family”, authoritarian political candidates, money, border walls, and at the farthest end of this spectrum, militias and survival bunkers.
All of this is neatly summarized in a 2011 Psychology Today article: “Most societies are divided into a party that wants change (the more liberal party) and one that is afraid of change (the conservatives). The liberal party is generally more intellectual and the conservative party is more anti-intellectual. The conservative party is big on national defense and magnifies our perception of threat, whether of foreign aggressors, immigrants, terrorists, or invading ideologies like Communism. To a conservative, the world really is a frightening place.”
Last month, my parents drove out from New Jersey to pay me an almost 3 week long visit. Their views, of course, are nothing new and are not subject to evolution. Taken together, they are a perfect microcosm of rigid religious conservatism. Perhaps this is not their fault. Maybe it’s just a matter of brain chemistry. But I must admit that I found it harder and harder to give them that benefit of the doubt every minute I was subjected to their frequently hateful, always judgmental (and fascinatingly boring) conversation. Another smug liberal witticism is that “truth has a liberal bias”. While I don’t feel that what we’re discussing here is necessarily fact-based, I think this sentiment would become more accurate if it was changed to “empathy has a liberal bias”. The less fear of one’s fellow humans one has, the more room for empathy, understanding and motivation for compassionate acts one has. On one level, Mom and Dad have a great propensity for compassionate acts, but it is conditional upon whom those acts are performed for. This is religiously mandated compassion mixed with tribalism and as such, leaves no room for understanding or acceptance of those they deem “dangerous”. If they knew anything at all about their own son (like, if they read even a single post on this blog page, for instance), their compassionate acts for me would cease immediately. And here’s the precious irony of that: I am a short, skinny, unarmed, unconnected, power and influence-free, lower middle-class underachiever. Yet there are many who would consider me a sterling example of one who embodies everything that currently threatens “Western culture”. That’s kind of flattering, really. It’s like telling your uncoordinated, awkward waif of a child that he’s “a big man”. Or telling Donald Trump that he’s a visionary.