On Doubt and Tolerance: The Dangers of Fleeing-Forward

Recently, I’ve been reading a little bit about QAnon and the impact it is having in people, elections and communities all around the world. It’s a little bit scary that a conspiracy theory that is so wild can resonate with so many people in so many places. QAnon, if you don’t know, is a massive cult-like community that believes the US and the world are dominated by a cabal of pedophiles run by American Democrats and liberals, supported by ‘deep state’ corrupt officials, and from which only the cryptic ‘Q’ and Donald Trump himself can save our children from. This conspiracy theory is completely bonkers and has been disavowed by most reasonable and/or responsible people (except the President of the United States). I’ve noticed that many other strange, crazy and absurd conspiracy theories have proliferated out of late. It used to be just those outliers defending that the Lunar Landing had never happened. Now we have people that defend the Earth is flat (more pathetic and less successful than the 15th Century Inquisition that argued the same), or others that say Covid-19 is an artificial pandemic (which again, waves-off the facts), or that Climate Change is a hoax.

On another level entirely but still on the same spectrum, we have a lot of people who are offended by the smallest political incorrect slight – judging everything as racist, sexist, unscientific or abusive, immediately taking action on any offence, many times missing much of the facts or the concrete situational context, and making it very difficult to go on and run our lives without feeling we are actually being abusive or negligent towards our fellow Human Beings. Snowflaking, for lack of a better word, is basic intolerance. Curiously enough, I think both these phenomena are two faces of the same coin.

Anxiety is a quite common dysfunction affecting millions of people around the world. The WHO estimates that almost 5% of the world’s population has severe anxiety disorders. Anxiety is a feeling of inadequacy or fear as we face the challenges in our future. It is actually a normal response and stems from the same mechanisms animals use to go into fight-flight mode as they face a threat. The thing is, we Humans have a complex symbolic system and we can generate all kinds of links and ideas that connect basic threats to what may seem innocent ideas. Birds or horses or tight places or bridges may spring anxiety or panic attacks, just because in some deep place in our minds they mean something else entirely.

There’s a particular response to anxiety which the French call ‘fuite en avant’ or, in Portuguese, ‘fuga para a frente’. It means that you make a rushed decision not because it’s the best decision you can make but because it helps you escape from anxiety. For instance, a bride who is marrying someone she doesn’t love just because it allows her to exit her parent’s house. Or when we preventively break-up an engagement just because we suspect our partner is about to end it. In many cases it’s really like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. It will relieve us for a moment, but lead us to a worse-off situation. And anxiety problems seem to be increasing all over the world. It seems our resistance to its effects is diminishing all around. In many cases, we prefer to jump into conclusions or flee-forward, ‘fuir en avant’, instead of waiting until we have the right information to make the best decision.

That translates, in many cases, into a sudden need to never doubt or never to be without an opinion. Just saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’ is interpreted as an offence or a sign of ignorance. It can actually be a sign of intelligence and maturity. Especially in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, and even more uncorrelated data, I would argue it is prudent and clever to wait until we have enough information and enough time to process it before we jump into a conclusion. We should also be wary of unsubstantiated or vague information. What we sometimes mistake as ‘following our principles’ is actually in many cases a sign of rigidity of mind and fleeing-forward into a ‘safe’ social position of being ‘for’ or ‘against’. Doing this we not only narrow our options, but we also foreclose our sense of tolerance and compassion. We need to be open to others – others’ feelings and positions – if we want to be tolerant. Karl Popper’s principle of ‘intolerance towards the intolerant’ can sometimes be self-defeating if we become overall intolerant to all – not allowing for mistakes, misinterpretations or even humour.  Please don’t be mistaken: I’m not saying that people who suffer of anxiety are intolerant; but I do believe all intolerance comes from fear and anxiety.

Thousands of years ago, Buddah went into the world and discovered a few things. He formulated the ‘Four Noble Truths’ after finding out that suffering was everywhere and that our primary goal should be overcoming this suffering in the world. Whatever religion you follow, it should be interesting to think about these concepts. Compassion, as Tibetan monks would argue, is our understanding that everything we do originates from one of two reasons: to reach for happiness or avoid pain – in other words, to overcome suffering. I would argue that Freud’s Eros and Tanatos follow the same reasoning. If we understand that everything people do is an attempt to achieve happiness or avoid pain we might feel more tolerant and compassionate, however mistaken we might think those people are. What we should not do is rush into judgement, force our opinions or jump into conclusions. Because we can be the ones who are mistaken. And we should also be compassionate and tolerant to ourselves – allow ourselves to doubt, to not have an opinion, to delay our decisions as much as we feel necessary.

If you follow this blog or read any of my previous posts, you probably have this idea that I have a very cohesive set of principles and assurances. I think I do. I still have a lot of doubts about a lot of things and there are many things I don’t have an opinion on – of course, I probably won’t be writing about those soon. But I believe people should be free, that we should be able to worship freely and express ourselves and love one another and be honest with our feelings as much as we can. When we embark in wild conspiracy theories we are looking for assurances – whatever they may be. We are ‘fleeing-forward’, leaving the facts and reality behind. But in this crazy world there aren’t many ‘safe havens’. Things are changing fast and faster still. And we should have better ways to deal with this discomfort we feel.

In a way, conspiracy theories are the opposite of snowflaking: people embark in conspiracy theories to avoid admitting the confusion and discomfort they experience when other people assure them their feelings and beliefs are wrong. A conspiracy will legitimize the fears behind this anxiety and dissolve the previous confusion by creating an overwhelming feeling of certainty. If we fail to address these fears and this confusion we are doomed to fail in our path to righteousness.

On the other hand, continuously criticizing and correcting other people is another way to flee-forward, to make sure that we are guaranteeing what is right, what is proper and what is just, but ignoring the inevitability of all the grey areas, the mists, the imprecisions, indecisions and flaws that make us Human. Even the humour that turns the spotlight on these flaws will feel intolerable to those who absolutely need to be right.

We should be tolerant of our doubts. We should be compassionate to others. We should reserve our judgments a little bit more. Maybe then we can see what unites us instead of being fixed on what divides us. And that, in the long run, seems to be a better path and lead to a better place.

At least that’s what I think. Hope it makes sense. See you around the next campfire, my friends.

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