In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, some people took to the streets to demonstrate against stay-at-home restrictions. A major contribution to everyone’s stress resulted from the either/or manner in which choices were delivered to the people: Close or reopen society; follow the President or your Governor; be guided by the medical or financial arguments; choose your needs or your neighbor’s. Unfortunately, presenting a simplistic either/or choice encouraged everyone to take emotional sides, and overlook the complexities of the problem. The result was emotional upheaval – anxiety, frustration, and anger – that made coping difficult. Decisions were approached from an emotion-based context, when they needed to be approached from a problem-based context. There were problems that needed solutions, but everyone worried about how much they were worrying.
When you selfishly focus on your emotions, you quickly descend into the deep hole of extreme, either/or thinking. Time and again in this blog, we note the dangers of extreme “me vs. you” thinking. It produces inflexible and hostile attitudes; it precludes constructive actions like consultation, negotiation, compromise, respect for others, and empathy for those in distress. Psychologically, holding extreme attitudes and thinking is destructive – both for yourself and for your family, friends, and acquaintances. Extremism damages everything you touch.
Although there is variation from person to person, here is the general destruct sequence: (a) It begins with having long-unresolved emotional conflicts and harboring anxious self-doubts. Self-esteem, confidence, and ability to act independently are weak and unstable; you can’t cope well with stress because you’re filled with fear and anxiety. (b) Rather than face yourself and your emotions realistically, you find it easier to attack others, such as empowered women, those of a different race, those who subscribe to a different sexual orientation, or those of a different religion. You drift into extremism: “It’s good-me against the evil-them.” (c) You long for the “good old days,”— the comfortable past of clear definitions of who is in charge, and of clear morality, which means, “What my group believes is righteous.” (d) You construct a world of lies, alternative facts, conspiracies, and false narratives to justify to yourself your extremism. (e) You turn to domination and violence to eliminate the enemy; your extreme emotions incite you to destroy the new and frightening world that has grown around you and threatens to leave you behind. (f) You turn against your own group, and aggression eventually implodes bringing both yourself and others down. Thus, a dysfunctional member of a family can wreak destruction on the whole family; a small-group leader can destroy the cohesion of the group; a national leader can lead millions to their deaths and destroy other countries.
Whether at an individual, family, small group, or national level, the causal dynamics of extremism are the same, and result in the same consequence – destruction. How do you prevent this destruction? Whether you are dealing with personal stressors, or conflict at a group level, the strategies would be the same: (a) accept the fact that your comfort and needs cannot be the only standards that guide your actions; (b) recognize at least the partial validity of both sides of an issue; (c) do not limit your options to choosing “either this or that,” and find a middle ground; (d) choose problem-solving actions that take into account both sides of an issue; (e) guide your actions with critical and logical thinking, not emotions.
Brendan is 17 and in the 11th grade. Charlotte, a good friend and classmate, decided to run for junior class president, and she asked Brendan help her with the campaign. Brendan agreed and believed she would be a great class president. During the ballot counting, some irregularities appeared, and Charlotte’s opponent made accusations that several of Charlotte’s supporters had “stuffed” the ballot box with fraudulent ballots. A student/teacher committee conducted an investigation, and – on the basis of surveillance camera footage and confessions taken independently from the accused students – ruled that Charlotte’s supporters had indeed cheated, and that they had been asked to do so by Charlotte. Her opponent was declared the winner; Charlotte and her supporters were suspended.
Brendan refused to accept Charlotte’s guilt. He said, “Charlotte never told them to cheat. They did it without her knowledge. They lied in their confessions that she told them to cheat. I believe they really don’t like Charlotte, and they stuffed the ballots to get at her. I don’t care what they said.” The committee, on the other hand, took note of Charlotte’s stellar academic and personal record at the school, but said the visual and spoken evidence could not be ignored.
Brendan took a subjective, emotion-based position based on his friendship with Charlotte; the committee reached a more problem-based conclusion based on objective evidence. From a coping perspective, Brendan’s choice will likely have some negative long-term consequences, notably strains in his relationships with peers that will be stressful and damaging both for him and his peers, and eventual hostility toward Charlotte as the cause of his difficulties.