Nov. 1, 2020

Passionate about Politics? Beware of Emotional Hijackings.

Life is a comedy for those who think, and a tragedy for those who feel.

Horace Walpole

September 2019 seems like a lifetime ago. Large crowds gathering at the steps of governments around the world demanded action on climate change. Thousands marched, from toddlers to the elderly to demonstrate the need for governments to act now on the imminent threat of our warming atmosphere. There was no time to waste. The lexicon was no longer ‘climate change action’. It was now a climate emergency.

 
As I cycled past the crowds on my way to work, I could hear banter about the government not doing enough, mixed in with calls for the end of capitalism as we know it. My eyes rested on large posters of Greta Thunberg and epithets to Donald Trump and other Conservative politicians.

What could spark throngs of people to leave their jobs for the day, bring their families and support protests for climate change?

Passion.

At that very moment, I recalled the case of the Career Girls Murders. A strange parallel I know, but it came to the front of my brain with alarming speed.

Richard Robles had committed multiple break-and-enters and had his eyes set on an upscale apartment in an exclusive area of New York City. This robbery, Robles thought to himself, would be his last. The career thief was worried about his drug addiction and the lengths he had to go to sustain it.

Robles assumed the apartment to be empty. Most residents worked the 9–5 in various industries across the Big Apple. Upon entering, Robles found both girls in the apartment. Scared, the thief tied up both and proceeded to burglarize the apartment. Robles knew he was only there to satisfy his drug addiction and did not want the girls to get in the way. One of the girls, Janice Wylie, told Robles his face would be remembered very well and as soon as possible, Janice would provide the police with a detailed description of Robles’ appearance. He would go to jail forever.

At that very moment, Robles’ ability to think rationally was lost. The murderer envisioned years of his life behind bars and never seeing daylight again.

Robles proceeded to murder both women. The action was unlike Robles. Richard was known to police for illegal drug use and break-and-enters. But murder came as a shock to those that knew him. After being convicted, Robles recounted that very moment. The thief stated, “my mind went bananas. My head exploded.”

Protesting.

Comparing the murder of two young women to climate change protesters seems far-fetched and non-sensical. Yet, I was seeing parallels between what Robles experienced and what I was hearing on the streets. Many were so overcome with the idea that the earth and life as we knew it was under threat. In both instances it seemed, people were allowing the emotional portion of their brains to override their abilities to be rational. Surely, the vast majority did not agree to the overthrow of capitalism as we know it. One couple claimed that the idea of having children was lost amongst them. The carbon footprint of raising children was too big.

I’d like to believe these voices to be few and far between. We would want governments to balance making calculated investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with protecting and sustaining economic growth. But as I cycled through the crowd, the cries for sweeping government reform and action became louder.

Were people willing to sit down with scientists, governments and industry to develop solutions? What were the pros and cons of various ideas (e.g., carbon taxes, cap and trade, carbon offsets)? Could we give up our Saturdays to brainstorm a pathway forward?

I was reminded of Robles every time I saw and heard more commentary on urgent climate action. Robles’ amygdala went into overdrive, bypassing our brain’s prefrontal neocortex. This prefrontal neocortex would brainstorm solutions if pushed hard enough. Yet, there was an emotional hijacking that was occurring. And this was perhaps the greatest tragedy.

The Tragedy of Emotion.

In Daniel Goleman’s Emotinal Intelligence, I learned about the Neural Trap, which is the amygdala. When our brain believes we are in conflict or danger, the amygdala goes into high gear. A leftover from our early evolution days, the amygdala was our lifeline. This part of the brain warned us bipedal animals with terrible night sight, exposed skin and no tail from oncoming danger. It made sense: perceived danger is how we were able to outsmart others in the quest for survival.

But the amygdala can actively become our greatest internal barrier today as we grapple with the complex issues facing our world. The amygdala can confuse our emotions with what sets us apart as a species: learning from our environments and making the necessary adaptations to sustain civilizations and overall livelihood.

Once signals communicate to our brain that imminent danger is at hand, the amygdala urges action. Giving up a Saturday and taking the kids to a protest suddenly makes sense. Don’t get me wrong: I am all for citizens protesting and exercising their civic duty. But, we want our governments to react to the issues of our time with a balanced approach. Not with the amygdala.

The Greatest Challenge of our Time.

Unlike any other generation before, we are faced with an ever-present danger: a pervasive media that engages your amygdala, not your prefrontal cortex. In this environment, it is easy to see why so many of us are angry, upset and demanding action. What that action is, we’re not quite sure. In fact, we may have no idea.

That’s why we as a society, have to fight against this emotional hijacking. The perils are that we may be compelled to act and say things we truly do not mean. These words and actions can isolate ourselves from others and ruin strong relationships with family and friends. Examine with extreme caution what is being presented to you and ask yourself: is this purposely making me upset? Have the presenters provided enough time to examine an issue from different perspectives?

The more we are conscious of these emotional hijackings, the more we will apply rigour, analysis and establish a concrete way forward.

The future’s most pressing challenges will test humanity’s resilience. Our biggest threat does not come from the outside, but from within.