The Terror of Suspicion

The other day, I watched Jordan Peterson having a conversation with Michael Malice, the author of “Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il“. I really recommend watching the video. One core aspect that Michael talks about is people eliminating their own freedom through self-censorship. They choose conformity, become small and unobtrusive, and hide completely, all out of fear of being subjected to exclusion and violent treatment.

I think for instance of how Jews in Nazi Germany had to become invisible, quite literally, out of fear of being sent to their death in the concentration camps. Jews were probably the largest and hardest hit group in that particular situation. Other groups of people shared their fate, such as homosexuals or people with mental disabilities. It has taken Western societies a good half century since the end of World War II to no longer consider these identities as a reason to persecute others.

Unfortunately, some groups still struggle with this issue. Frequently enough, I read about blacks’ experience in America. They much more likely fall under suspicion in certain situations, like being followed by security staff in grocery stores, or by cops while driving. And if I then vividly imagine myself in such a situation, with the full embodied sense of how that feels, I do experience—even if just momentarily—the resulting oppressiveness: not knowing whether I will be safe. And for what? Just for being in an environment where people who look or act like me are regarded with suspicion.

More recently, the same tactics seem to be employed against academics who are seen as not wanting to go along with some of the more progressive political positions on college campuses. I have had several conservations with people who have felt the need to not share their thoughts honestly. At the very least, they felt pressured into adopting positions to which they may relate empathically, but which they do not share intellectually, or have strong reservations about.

In fiction, the final book of the Harry Potter series—in which death eaters terrorize the magical community into paying lip service to the system—provides a good example. The pattern always seems to be this: someone (or a group of people) with the power to enforce certain rules creates an environment in which people feel they only have two options. They can play along or rebel, and risk being hurt or killed.

In each of these cases, this central aspect is present: people who fear coming under suspicion of not fitting in experience a sense of terror. What if the people in my environment think of me as a bad person, let alone a threat? They then will likely show hostility toward me. And once I have been labeled an enemy, how much of a chance do I have to get out of that position? So, as a self-protective measure, I pretend. I adopt an attitude of equanimity. I make sure to duck, to lay low, to not stick my neck out, lest it be chopped off.

That is a terrible experience. Being gay myself, I certainly remember growing up how it feels not wanting others to suspect something about me that I predict will lead them to target me with aggression. And while I appreciate that the consequences differ vastly between the historical situations—in which for instance the Jews faced imminent death—and contemporary conflicts, I recognize that sometimes I contribute to the atmosphere of suspicion.

Whenever I am willing to put a label on someone for the purpose of saying, “this person is a member of a group that does not deserve as much compassion as those I consider to be in my in-group; it is someone who needs to be distrusted, and whom I can, no whom I must, dehumanize”, then I am contributing to the terror that comes from suspicion.

It is a real challenge not to do that. Sometimes I am being afraid of others. And that fear is equally real as the experience of being under suspicion is. If, for instance, I am walking alone through the city after sunset, and I see a group of rambunctious teenagers walking toward me, it is easy for my mind to jump to all sorts of scenarios in which I fear for my wellbeing, if not my life. And my mind then equally easily latches onto whatever characteristics making these people different from myself. And it allows me to think, “those people are dangerous.”

I cannot offer a perfect solution. Self-protection is something I never want to consider a bad motive. It is baked into my evolutionary make-up as a human being. At times I feel the need to protect myself in situations I consider dangerous. However, when I am no longer in imminent danger, especially when I am in a large group—if not the majority—and then still apply labels to others for the purpose of eliminating them as a threat, can I really claim a moral justification?

In short, I believe that it is natural to regard other people with suspicion in situations in which my physical well-being is under imminent threat. Unfortunately, we do not seem to differentiate this extreme situation from many everyday occurrences, in which we persecute others. And maybe in our evolutionary past, this strategy “worked”, and we are the descendants of the survivors: by kicking people when we have the upper hand, we can efficiently eliminate them as a future threat. This does, however, come at a terrible cost: we ourselves become the persecutors. We become the threat.

To get out of that spiral of violence, I want to always be mindful that—so long as I do not find myself in any direct danger—I want to remember this: openness and a willingness to treat others with respect and compassion is a much better strategy to find common ground. And if I can seek connection with people I see as a potential threat, especially if that threat stems from a disagreement, the best I can do is to reach out with sufficient vulnerability and signal, “I am not a threat to you. Can we please talk?”

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