Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Become a Hero

Or: An Excellent Way to Make the World a Much Worse Place

This post is much different from my usual posts and it took me much longer to write. It's not about a personal experience. Rather, I’m writing about an interesting way we humans use to pursue our own agendas. Plus, I’m not trying to be funny or entertaining this time, and I don’t even have any photos to include, dang it. And please don’t take this post as me trying to be partisan. This is about humans, not about politics.

The maxim I want to present is this—and others have probably put this much more eloquently:
“If you create an enemy, then vilify that enemy, you’ll become the hero.”
This is an idea I’ve thought about for a long time as I see the way people interact with one another. And I think pretty much everyone does this to some extent, from young kids in a schoolyard to coworkers in an office to political figures with a global audience.

I’m not going to list references and include footnotes and all that, but I’ll give some examples of what I’m talking about. Think for a minute of what you might have learned in Sunday School or history class about the life of Jesus Christ. Whether you believe in His life and teachings or not, you know the story: He taught love, tolerance, and charity, and even performed miracles, but He was still persecuted and eventually murdered. Why? Because He was a threat to the livelihood of the politicians and attorneys of His day (among other reasons). And how did those public figures accomplish their goal? They turned Him into an enemy, then vilified Him as an evil usurper of their way of life, then those public figures became the heroes.

Many have used that same pattern throughout history. Anyone remember a young Nazi named Adolf Hitler? He created enemies—the Jews, the gypsies, the homosexuals (the vernacular of the time), and any non-Aryans. He convinced people that these enemies were evil usurpers of their way of life. Then he became the hero and leader of Germany, and millions of people lost their lives.

Mussolini did something similar through his fascist ideas of biological racism. He created a class of inferior people—the Slavs—and vilified them as barbaric, thus making himself the hero. And of course, the history of that period shows how many people were murdered, imprisoned, or killed during the war as a result.

I live in the state of Utah and our history here shows this very thing. The early members of the Mormon church lived in the eastern part of our country where they were persecuted by politicians and mobs that just wanted to pursue their own agendas. Those early members were peaceful, quiet people who had different religious views than other Christians. But mobs and politicians painted them as evil enemies and drove them from town to town and murdered their leader. Finally, the Mormons left the United States and trekked across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. Fifty years later, when the U.S. was more civilized, their territory joined the union as the state of Utah.

In the U.S, in the 1950s, senator Joseph McCarthy used this maxim to great effect with the political philosophy that became known as mccarthyism. In his case, he created a list of enemies that he claimed were communists. He vilified them as traitors disloyal to the American way of life. As a result, he became the hero and won the next senatorial election. But another result was the many people whose lives and careers were destroyed with no real evidence of them having ever done anything wrong.

Let’s not forget Mao Zedong and his Cultural Revolution in China. In this case the enemies were capitalists and traditional Chinese values and culture. He was so effective in creating a hero cult centered around himself, that children even accused their parents of being anti-revolutionaries and they were sent off to re-education camps. It was a very sad time in Chinese history where many people lost their lives and countless cultural treasures were lost.

I’m sure anyone can come up with more examples, such as the Ku Klux Klan, religious extremists, the subjugation of Native Americans, imperialism during colonial times, racial cleansing during modern times, and the list goes on.

Everyday people, business leaders, and political figures all fall back on this maxim to promote their own agendas. Hate the other party; hate the immigrants; hate anyone that doesn’t speak your language; hate the poor; hate the rich; hate other religions; hate other ethnic groups. As long as people are hating someone else, they’ll ignore your weaknesses and love you.

It’s probably just a simple facet of human nature that we think of those whose opinions we agree with as telling the truth while others are lying hate mongers. It’s also interesting that this is especially noticeable in religion and politics—two areas that potentially touch our lives in very personal ways. The “other guys” are telling lies and spreading acrimony; “my guys” are simply telling the truth.

How is it, though, that people are conned into believing someone is an enemy when they’re really not? Oftentimes the perpetrator uses lies. Other times, they just distort the information for their benefit. But mostly they pander to peoples’ baser emotions of anger, fear, hatred, distrust, paranoia, and similar negative feelings. These emotions are very easy to evoke whereas positive emotions like love and charity are much more difficult.

Using emotion is very effective in many areas. Think of TV advertisements you’ve seen. The frantic car salesman: “Three days only! Hurry! Inventory going fast! You’ll never see prices like this again!” He’s invoking fear of missing out on something, worry, and lost opportunities. Or the opposite with a loving mom lovingly making a lovely casserole out of processed foods for her beloved little loving kids. In this case it’s a positive emotion, but it’s the same idea.

A perfect example of how this works in our modern era is commercial talk shows on radio and television. The purpose of these shows is of course to make money. Many of these hosts make millions of dollars a year and the industry itself makes billions a year. That’s wonderful—I don’t begrudge them the money and I wish I had that kind of income.

But the method they use is not so wonderful. They’ve figured out a great formula, though: portray the other guys as evil—they’re destroying our country and way of life, they’re taking your money, they stole the election—and you evoke those baser feelings of hatred and anger. If someone gets all worked up listening to this today, they’ll be more likely to tune in again tomorrow. And the show continues to bring in millions of dollars. Remember, create an enemy (the other guys), vilify that enemy (They’re Evil! They’re Ruining the Country!), then you become the hero, or in this case, you become rich.

Certainly not all talk shows are like that. Some, including many on nonprofit or community stations, tend to foster more academic discussion and give fair time to all sides of each issue. And even some of the commercial shows invoke one’s intellect and promote the free flow of unbiased information. But most are in existence to make money, and promoting hatred and anger is the easiest way to do that.

How many times in the last decade have you heard someone claim they hate a particular politician? I often wonder, do they really hate that person or just dislike that person’s views? In many cases, it seems they legitimately hate the person, even though they’ve never met before.

Last fall, I read a short essay (written by a talk show host, no less) where the author talked about all the reasons she hated a prominent politician. About half the reasons were lies, many of the rest were gross distortions of the truth, and others were just her opinion. But none of them seemed to be a good reason to hate the person. However, by convincing others to also hate that politician, she was growing her audience and her pocketbook. And we wonder why there is so much divisiveness and anger in politics today. Again, my posting isn’t about politics; I’m just using this as one example.

I’m sure there’s no global solution to stop all the hatred and anger in our world today. I wish I had an answer. I wish I could say I don’t do the very things I’m talking about in this post. The fact is, I find it hard in my own life to avoid these same negative feelings.

But maybe if each person resolved to try to build bridges rather than acrimony, the world would slowly become a better place. Maybe when we sit around the dinner table and discuss the events of the day, we can go out of our way to point out all sides of the issue, not just those we agree with. Maybe first we need to spend time getting to know all sides of the issue. Maybe when we talk with our children and friends about something important to us, we can use less hateful language. Maybe we can make friends with people whose lifestyles are different from our own.

I’ll end this with a quote that reminds us of this very thing. This is from former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking at the Utah Women’s Conference in Salt Lake City on October 11, 2013. The following is from an article in the Salt Lake Tribune.* (Oops, it looks like I did include a reference and a footnote after all, sorry.)

“She said it is easy in today’s world to receive news and blogs only from people who share the same views. If you find yourself with company where everyone ‘says amen to everything you say, you need to find new company,’ Rice said. Sticking only with like-minded people will cause you either to lose your ability to defend your views or the ability to see when you are wrong.

“She added that if people never encounter others with whom they disagree, they ‘start to think of them as stupid or venal because you don’t have the chance to exchange views.’”

Amen to that (ha ha).

* Davidson, Lee. “Condoleezza Rice: World needs U.S. to solve shutdown, partisanship.” The Salt Lake Tribune. The Salt Lake Tribune (Media News Group), 11 October, 2013. Accessed 14 October, 2013.

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