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How to Choose Hope in Love and Politics

The ways we cope with fear and shame can lead to hope or to hate.

Key points

  • Fear and shame are necessary for survival, social order, and morality.
  • Our entrenched habits of avoiding fear and shame put them out of sight but never out of mind.
  • Bitter conflicts in love and politics are less about basic human values than they are habits of avoiding fear and shame.
  • The ultimate guide for behavior in love, politics, and society is the question: Do I want to increase hope or hate?

Hope and hate don’t just happen to us. To a large extent, they result from how we cope with fear and shame.

The experience of unadulterated fear or shame is so dreadful that most adults have developed entrenched habits of avoiding both. Yet, due to their survival significance and their importance to social order and morality, our automatic avoidance tactics can put them out of sight but never out of mind.

Methods of avoiding fear and shame include blame, denial, distraction, compulsive behavior, alcohol, drugs, resentment, anger, aggression, hate, compassion, kindness, connection, spirituality, and hope.

Love, Hope, Hate

In successful love relationships, fear- and shame-avoidance tactics stimulate compassion, kindness, emotional connection, and hope, any of which diminishes threats of harm and failure.

The cliché about the fine line between love and hate is less about the deterioration of love than a clash of tactics to avoid fear and shame. Avoiding fear and shame via blame, denial, or distraction produces resentment and anger, which eventually make an enemy of the beloved.

Emotional bonds are formed with an implicit promise that the beloved will care how you feel, especially when you feel bad. Resentment and anger feel like betrayal in love. Betrayal leads to hate.

In boot camps for people stuck in chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse, my team and I train resentful and angry clients to look at what they resent about their partners more compassionately. When they do so, they like themselves better and are able to negotiate with each other more fairly and productively.

Fear, Shame, Hate, and Hope in Politics

The acute polarization in the current body politic is less about basic human values than habits to avoid fear and shame.

When I was young, a popular joke among pundits held that a conservative is a liberal who was mugged, and a liberal is a conservative who was indicted. Today, a conservative is a liberal trying to avoid fear and a liberal is a conservative trying to avoid shame. Surveys (for example, those done by the research group More in Common) indicate that conservatives see the world as dangerous, and liberals see it as shamefully unfair.

Beneath the rhetoric of negative campaigning, politicians try to win elections by evoking fear and shame. The most notable instance was the infamous "daisy" ad in 1964, which showed a little girl picking daisies interrupted by a nuclear explosion. The ad implied that a vote for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater would bring nuclear holocaust.

Today's political ads put their exploitation of fear and shame in the subtext of messages. Perhaps burned by the criticism of the daisy ad, liberals are more likely to evoke shame. Victimized by the same ad, conservatives are more likely to evoke fear.

Pay attention to the subtext of political ads for conservatives:

“If you vote for my opponent, crime will rise, the economy will tank, our porous borders will let in traffickers and terrorists, international threats will certainly worsen."

And the subtext of liberals:

"If you vote for my opponent, you should be—and will be—ashamed of yourself.”

Exploitation of fear and shame produces hate, as Hitler and countless others demonstrated so ruthlessly.

Compare the politicians who won with messages of relative hope— arguably FDR, JFK, Obama—to the many who won by exploiting fear and shame.

Hate, Hope, and Advocacy

The definition of “hate”:

Intense hostility and aversion, usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury; extreme dislike or disgust: antipathy, loathing. —Miriam Webster

A hostile emotion combining intense feelings of detestation, anger, and often a desire to do harm. —APA Dictionary of Psychology

There are two ways to increase perceptions of a phenomenon. The first is to make people aware of it—show how it was always there and we chose not to notice. The second way is to expand the definition. The first way benefits everyone. The second benefits no one.

For example, you can observe an increase in regional snowfall by defining “snow” as “cold precipitation.” And you can increase hate by expanding the definition to include prejudice, insensitivity, disagreement, disparate preferences, microaggressions. Redefining “snow” doesn’t increase the actual amount of snowfall. But redefining hate breeds hate, both in those who expand the definition and those targeted by the expansion.

Overt and unconscious prejudice are personal and societal flaws that require education and more functional coping mechanisms. Hate is a moral evil we must eradicate. We would not send Hitler to a sensitivity seminar or to psychotherapy. We hate haters. We want to punish and humiliate them. Hate breeds aggression. A war on hate is like a war on war.

According to the principle of negative reactivity (for example, accusations evoke counter-accusations, name-calling breeds name-calling), a sure way to turn prejudice into hate is to accuse the prejudiced of hate. You haven’t uncovered hidden threats to humanity, you’ve turned one form of harm into a worse one. “Harm-reduction” is a common term in clinical psychology; “harm-accretion” results from our current political discourse.

How to Convert Hate to Hope

First, accept that we’ll never do it by evoking fear or shame. We can do it by appealing to humane values, the better angels of our nature. My therapy group, CompassionPower, has enjoyed success changing abusers (about 79%) by developing their humane values and empowering them with functional coping mechanisms. Compare this to the dismal success rate (30-40%) of approaches that try to make abusers ashamed or fearful of legal consequences.

In love, politics, and social advocacy, converting fear and shame to hope is a matter of highlighting what you’re for, rather than what you’re against. If you want to feel more connected to your love partner, focus on behaviors likely to increase connection, which will never be resentful, demanding, critical, entitled, shaming, or frightening. If you want a cooperative rather than violent body politic, value the people you want to persuade. If you want social change, focus on the fundamental values of the change you want to see.

For instance, if you’re for justice, you’ll envision a world where all people are treated fairly (“I have a dream”). Your fantasies will center on building or reforming. Passion will motivate you.

If you’re against injustice, you'll fantasize about tearing down something and humiliating—if not harming—those who disagree with you. You’ll be motivated by anger and revenge, which are energy-depleting and certain to increase antagonism and hate.

The ultimate guide for behavior in love, politics, and society is the question:

Do I want to increase hope or hate?

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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