My wife and I were watching news coverage of recent Presidential talks and "town hall meetings" on health care reform.  I started off finding all the hysteria over this issue pretty, well, hysterical.  It reminded me of exploding cell phones or Manbearpig, all topics that are pretty darn absurd, and - at least from the outside - amazingly bizarre things to get so worked up over.

Then the guns started showing up.  People are bringing loaded guns to Presidential appearances!  And we're at an Orange level of terrorism alert! (I'm not really sure what that means, but we've been at an Orange level of risk for all of my children's lives).  Remember the kid who got suspended because he wore a Coke shirt to Pepsi day?  He should have shown up with bazooka I guess.  It seems insane that a country with a history of presidential assassinations would allow this sort of thing, but health care insurance plans are apparently menacing enough to allow it.

Two days ago, our local newspaper featured an opinion column by a local man who claimed to have been the one to break President Obama's true identity as a committed Marxist (Harvard Law School must be so proud!).  Yesterday, it featured a column by a local woman entitled - and I am not making this up - "We all have reasons to be afraid."  Like many others, it portends a vague but imminent doom threatening the very fabric of our great nation.  I don't get it.

There is such a bewildering storm of enraged invective, phantasmogorical phrases, and dire predictions being hollered into the airspace that I'm not sure whether it's 1880 and we should be fearing the galloping of Jesse James' bandidos, 1902 and we should be on the lookout for anarchists, or 1919 and we should nervously await the rat-a-tat-tat of Dillinger's Tommy gun!  I guess I could have said I can't tell if it's 1957 and we're supposed to quiver in fear over "the Red Menace," but that seemed too obvious.  But this isn't a raving band of murderers, deranged assassins, or gangsters threatening the fate of our great nation, it's a bunch of people trying to figure out how to get health care expenses under control.

Why can't we actually talk about this?  Why are people so livid about even the mention of a Medicare-style governmental system?  Would it be OK to require everyone who wants to trot around with their loaded assault rifles or assert the threat of "death panels" to decline any and all governmental assistance with their health? 

Maybe a better question would be to ask, does death make every word scary?  I mean, "panels" are not particularly menacing are they?  What about Death Tape Dispensers?  Hello Death Kitty?

We know that people get very worked up around the topic of death.  There's a fascinating theory of motivation that focuses on how the awareness of death instigates people to work to bolster their worldviews (see a great interview with Sheldon Solomon on this topic here).  In a previous post, I talked about some of the ways in which our desire to protect our worldviews may intersect with some of the strong feelings on display in our political situation since the 2008 election.  Research evidence continues to accumulate showing that most people seem to engage in politics on an emotional level, and it's obvious that the debate on health care stirs people's emotions. 

But, people were bezerk about this stuff back when the word "Hillarycare" was coined in the early 1990's, and we weren't subjected to deranged, spittle-filled proclamations about 'death panels' back then.  What if it doesn't take an explicit focus on death to trigger our desperate adherence to our worldview?  What if it only took some reminder that we are, after all, mortal animals, filled with yucky fluids, yucky desires, and the regrettable need to make smacking sounds when we chew? 

Believe it or not, there's a word for this: "Creatureliness."  I know, it's about as elegant as passing gas, but it gets to the point.  The researcher I most closely associate with creatureliness is Jamie Goldenberg.  For a decade, she's looked at how all manner of creaturely prompts (sex, attraction, pregnancy, breast exams) conform to the predictions at the heart of terror management theory.  Recently, she published a paper proposing that these ideas hold important implications for health promotion (you can read the abstract here).  It's interesting stuff, and perhaps the reason we struggle as a nation to debate health care in a productive way is that there's something in our worldview that resists it. 

Assuming we can't change our implicit national worldview, maybe we can go back to the days when talking about health care was a mind-numbing recitation of numbers, charts, acronyms, and actuarial tables.  I'm willing to risk the boredom. This too important a topic to allow hysteria to derail it, and regardless of which side of the issue we're on, we need to promote more reasonable discourse on this most critical issue.

In the meantime, I've got to load up my machine gun, I heard that Manbearpig is trying to force everyone over the age of 3 to use exploding cell phones.


© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

About the Author

Michael Steger

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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