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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Don't Be Afraid of The Other

Peter Worthington writes a heart-felt piece, heart-breaking in its simple honesty.  We don't let people buy and uses bombs or landmines because they serve one purpose - to kill people in quantity.  Gun rights activists aren't crying foul over this fact.  Well, assault rifles are just that - rifles designed to assault multiple parties.  By the same token, we don't allow people to walk around streets with swords strapped to their hips - again, because those swords would serve one purpose - duels, revenge, combat.  Handguns serve the same purpose - they are designed to kill people.

Make the argument that more people with guns will lead to less violence due to a leveling of the playing field.  But then provide one example in history that backs that assertion up.  You can't; the history of weapons is the history of increasingly powerful violence.  As weapons have broadened their scope from killing one to killing millions, we use them less because the risks are less.  The more firepower you have, the more powerful you feel - and the more strongly you feel the need to defend that power.  It's psychological; if you walk around with a gun, the temptation to use it either assertively or defensively multiplies.  The same rule applies to office politics or political attack ads; if you go looking for a fight, you're sure to find one.  It's that simple.

But there's a much deeper message in Worthington's piece, one of understanding.  We fear the unknown - we're programmed to.  It's a genetic fail safe that protects us from threats that emerge from the darkness faster than we can consciously process them.  Truly, that's all that instinct is; the triggering of pre-programmed or learned experiential biases that kick in an immediate, reactive response.  With aggression comes threat and with threat, the need for rapid response.  You will get anxious about public displays of gay behaviour for the same reason a you would be suspicious of a man in a turban or a woman wearing a veil - a hormone called cortisol.  This is the same hormone that will make you feel uncomfortable in the presence of a leper or burn victim; your limbic brain is perceiving something it registers as a threat and preparing your body for a fight-or-flight response.  It's no different from being afraid of the dark.

As we learn to populate the dark with knowledge rather than confabulation, it loses its terror.  The exact same truth applies to people.  I've been around the world, literally, exploring the ways in which people are similar and different.  Like many others, I've studied language, culture, history, geography, even neurochemistry to figure out where the commonalities lie.  I've spent nights with street people in Lima, Peru, watching them exhibit the most basic tenet of society - altruism.  I've laughed at the way in which an Arab Moroccan university professor stigmatized Italians in the same way an Italian grape grower stigmatized Moroccans.  Kids in small town Korea or post-war Sarajevo or downtown Toronto all want the same things from life; to have opportunity, to be happy, to be loved, to leave something behind.  We all feel the same way - what changes is the Way in which we express those feelings.  To me, there are no monsters in society; just behaviour, what causes it and how that behaviour can be influenced.

If I could have one wish, it would be for every person on earth to have the opportunity to be a stranger in a strange land and experience first-hand the kinship that connects all of us.  Homo sapiens are one species; there is far more that binds us together than there is separating us and where the differences lie, so to does opportunity.  Back to guns - where did gunpowder come from?  Thinking of China - where did pasta noodles come from?  What does the First Nations medicine wheel have to contribute to Western approaches to medicine?  Why is it that cultural groups from around the world land on the same metaphors, symbols like the tree of life, fire, the snake, the pyramid?  These aren't externally imposed things - they're internally derived.

JFK hit the nail on the head: "For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

We can continue to focus on killing or dominating each other over personal fears, or we can learn to move forward together in understanding.  If we limit ourselves to looking through the lens of one political or cultural tribe, or even as one nation pitted against others, we are blinding ourselves to our shared birthright as human beings.  The true enemy we share is not external troubles, but internal fears.

When understanding is achieved, violence becomes unnecessary; threats cease to hold power over you and instead become opportunities to be seized

Fear can be overcome, but only by doing so consciously.

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