January of 2009 is an historic watershed in our nation’s long fight against its own worst instincts, the need of some of us to hate others for who they are. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, a persistent cadre of political conservatives continued to insist that the first African-American president was a closet Muslim with terrorist leanings, determined to overturn democracy and capitalism.
The psychology of conservatives suggests that these bigots are unable to deal with uncertainty in their environment. People who accept, embrace, or symbolize complexity therefore represent a threat because their actions may not be predictable or controllable, and thus uncertain, with potentially negative as well as positive consequences. Uncertainty tends to result in stress, which can be managed or alleviated, in extreme cases involving fight, flight, or death.
One way that societies cope with this is through universally accepted laws that have the effect of reducing uncertainty by providing a means of behavior control. The amount of laws must be carefully managed; too few will allow too much variability, while too many will add too much complexity to life. This is the solution that representative democracies like ours have chosen.
Another way societies arrange to minimize uncertainty is to appoint leaders who can be trusted to properly control the population. In practice, this system tends to break down, because no human is capable (even if willing) to manage the details of many people’s lives effectively. Simplistic methods are often employed with disastrous consequences, such as killing or incarcerating people who are perceived as “too different” to control. Unfortunately for proponents of these methods, the human gene pool has a habit of injecting complexity into future generations (not to mention other societies).
Religion has long been a way to control behavior, and may represent the last, best hope for people who crave predictability: Instilling a fear of divine vengeance and a promise of eternal happiness in the hearts of the populace along with easily memorized stories that help identify the behaviors associated with each. If everyone shares the same religion, regardless of other conditions, they can trust each other more than if they come from different traditions.
Where does this leave us? Despite the new president’s adherence to mainstream Christianity and values, his shared American experience, and his demonstrated commitment to serving every citizen, there will always be some doubt about his motives that is based totally on his multi-ethnic heritage and acceptance of the value of all people. Speculation will fill the gap of uncertainty, as gossip always has, focusing on the worst-case explanations in order to prepare people for potential threats. Hopefully his actions will dull the fear as experience provides a guide to future behavior. In the mean time, we must all hope that the fearful among us will give him a chance to prove himself.