- - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

What does it mean for a country to have a presidential adviser say, as Steve Bannon is reported to have said last summer, that he aims to “blow everything up” and “destroy the existing social and political order?” It means uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the enemy of liberty. When people are uncertain and surrounded with chaos – when citizens feel they cannot predict what will happen next – they become anxious.

And a great deal follows from that. Here’s what psychology has found:

When sufficiently threatened with uncertainty, the “fight, flight, freeze” response kicks into body and mind, with predictable defensive and aggressive consequences. Liberty is left far behind.

Uncertainty first affects people with strong beliefs who have a need for closure. When challenged, those beliefs can become hardened into dogma, “protected” with increasing prejudice against outsiders or threatening groups. This is a human phenomenon. It happens equally to liberals and conservatives, to religious fundamentalists and atheists.

Emotional reactions are exaggerated by uncertainty. Uncertainty heightens the experience of negative feelings. Unpleasant events feel dreadful, unnerving events feel catastrophic … extreme reactions become increasingly commonplace. We see them every day now in street demonstrations, hate-filled online rants, and even in the raised decibel levels of stressful dinner-table conversation among friends. Polarization increases.

Today’s attacks on liberty come from both the left and the right. They can be insidious, and subtle, or brash and confrontational. On the political left, enemies of liberty hide behind slogans favoring rights for some and demonization of others. On the political right the enemies of liberty sow distrust throughout the culture, by undermining the pillars of liberty – the media, the independent judiciary, the national security establishment, and other politicians. President Trump is an enemy of liberty when he tweets “so-called judge” as he is when he names the media “the opposition party.” There is an unspoken authoritarian message, “Trust no one but me.”

The University of California is an enemy of liberty when it allows left-wing demonstrators – professors, students or outsiders – to shut down speakers whose message they do not like. Universities, once a bastion of liberty, have become its enemies by tolerating intolerance on campus. Students of diverse identities and beliefs are feeling increasingly threatened. On the University of California campuses, as on too many others, one group’s freedom of expression has been used to denigrate, harass, intimidate and shut down the expression of another group. Debate is careening into hate.

Liberty thrives in a society that trusts and has confidence in the integrity of its institutions. Whatever erodes public trust in our institutions diminishes our liberty.

We’ve been willingly exchanging freedom for security ever since 9/11. Fearful of terror, we extended government’s reach into privacy and liberty for our own protection. We have become accustomed to metal detectors, Jersey barriers and other security measures that restrict freedom of movement. Commercial airline travel is an exercise in social control. Although it doesn’t make us any safer, civilian airline passengers obediently remove shoes and belts and submit to physical pat-downs with the docility of prison inmates.

Nevertheless, we revere liberty. Regardless of our political differences, that is one of the values Americans share in common. And liberty needs stability in order to survive.

That is why the attacks on American liberty – whether from California campuses, Washington chaos-manufacturers, or defenders of “alternative facts” – must be countered with strength and firm reason.

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