The recent spate of, radical Islam-inspired, acts of terrorism around the world has left many people in a state of shock and sadness. The brazen murder of innocents roils the conscience of all who consider ourselves members of an advanced civilization. But in our confusion, justifiable indignation, and frustration over the shocking tragedies that have recently beset us, we must nonetheless strive to uphold the foundational values that have made Western Civilization the world’s leading voice for peace and prosperity.
Probably the hardest thing to do in a situation in which one has been viciously attacked without warning or provocation, is to maintain a sense of proportion. The lizard brain – or the limbic cortex as it is formally known – controls the instinct to fight or flee in the face of threats. The lizard brain tends to make snap judgements that produce autonomic responses to environmental threats. This is a good thing in terms of self-preservation. “Fear,” as best-selling author Gavin De Becker’s book title suggests, can be a “gift.”
But we are not mere beasts ruled by our fears and passions. Snap judgements have a downside in that they lead to overgeneralizations that impede our ability to accurately discern the finer details of reality. Moreover, living in a generalized state of fear and paranoia actually reduces the value of fear as a lifesaving instinct, because what is supposed to be a bright signal alerting us to imminent danger becomes indistinguishable from the surrounding noise.
Fortunately we also possess a deliberative faculty that can help us to more accurately and effectively deal with environmental stimuli. Daniel Kahnemen, in his seminal work entitled, Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes various lingering biases that arise from our lizard brain but leak over to our deliberative brain. One of the chief culprits is “loss bias” - in which the fear of loss overwhelms any rational analysis of the potential for gain. Over-fearing cuts us off from opportunities which may lead to immense personal and societal benefits.
We are undoubtedly at such a crossroads in our civilization. People have blamed inflammatory rhetoric and restrictive policies endorsed by politicians, both in the U.S. and abroad, for fomenting a sort of blanket fear of Islam and Muslims. But those politicians and policies are merely voicing a widespread sentiment among people who feel that they have no rational way of separating friend from foe. It leads to all sorts of overly broad reactions, such as those recently voiced by presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for a total and complete ban on all Muslims entering the country. In the next breath, however, Trump says he has Muslim friends who are “phenomenal people.” How, one wonders, can both sentiments exist within the same brain?
The fact is, they can and do all the time. One of the most interesting tests of this phenomena is as a black man getting into an elevator with a liberal white person who doesn’t know me. These are people who publicly insist that they have no racial bias, that they are champions of equality. And yet even they often recoil perceptibly when they see someone who has no intention whatsoever of doing them any harm. The reason we call certain things ideals – liberty, equality and brotherhood, for example - is not because it is easy to exemplify them, but because it is challenging to do so when confronted by fear and uncertainty. But the ability to strive towards these ideals in the face of difficulties is what separates a civilization founded upon enlightenment era philosophy and Judeo-Christian values from almost every other culture on earth.
We should not seek to suppress the instincts of fear that Donald Trump and so many others feel when seeing a person who appears to be a Muslim. As we know, fear can often be a gift. But we have to acknowledge our biases and create safe spaces to speak about them openly. That is what is so dangerous about political correctness – it prevents us from having open and frank discussions. At the same time, once everything is out on the table, we have to sit back with our deliberative brains and sort out the real risks and opportunities before us.
Right now we have a real opportunity to confront the Muslim world like never before – on the level of civilization. The Holy Land Foundation trial a few years ago led to the exposure of an explanatory memorandum indicating the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood in America, which included “civilization jihad.” The Muslims in America who have embraced American values and culture and who despise the objectives of radical Islam must become visibly engaged in eradicating the threats of terrorism and societal transformation away from the traditional values and principles of America.
As Americans we are in a unique position to advance a vision of civilization that respects the rights of human beings, that is tolerant of religious beliefs, and that is capable of harnessing diversity to create strong, robust societies. But we can’t do that if we just shut down and refuse to engage. That is to say, the brave and terrifying new world in which we find ourselves is not necessarily an enemy. It could very well be an oyster.
• Dr. Ben Carson is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president.