eliblis on Mon, 25 Nov 2019 11:36:44 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Morales Longa, Vita Brevis

Memento Mori, existential dread, in the not so long run, you are gonna be dead!
Salam, El Iblis Shah.



The secret to Trump?s success? It?s sheer existential dread

Authoritarian populist leaders thrive on the fear of death ? as we?ve been able
to show in carefully controlled experiments

Sat 23 Nov 2019 06.00 GMT

In a recent experiment, American participants were asked: ?Please describe the
emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you? and ?Write down as
specifically as you can what you think will happen to you physically as you die
and once you are dead.? Moments later, those who had been asked to contemplate
their mortality reported more negative attitudes towards immigrants, greater
opposition to a mosque being built in their neighbourhood, and a greater
likelihood of voting for Donald Trump for president.

What could possibly explain these findings?

In The Denial of Death (1973), cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that
while humans share a basic biological predisposition towards self-preservation
with all life forms, we are unique in our capacity for symbolic thought,
including self-awareness. This gives rise to the unsettling realisation that
death is inevitable, can occur at any time, and that we are ultimately no more
significant or enduring than turtles or turnips.

The unvarnished awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating
existential terror, which humans manage by embracing cultural worldviews ? for
example, a religious identity such as Christianity, or a national identity such
as ?Englishness?. These worldviews confer a sense that one is a person of value
in a world of meaning, and hence eligible for immortality (either literally,
through the heavens, afterlives and souls central to most religions; or
symbolically, by being a member of a great and enduring tribe or nation, having
children, amassing great fortunes or producing noteworthy works of art or
science). People are therefore highly motivated to maintain faith in their
cultural worldviews as a psychological bulwark against existential dread.

Becker then argued that because cultural worldviews are essentially symbolic,
they can never completely overcome the terror of death. There is always
residual death anxiety, a ?rumble of panic? underneath everything. This
free-floating panic settles on to those we regard as different to ourselves, as
possible threats. Having assumed material form, this fear can at least be
managed: in our minds these people become repositories of evil. They are then
denigrated, demonised, dehumanised and, in some cases, destroyed.

Immigrants, including those who practise different religions, such as Muslims
and Jews, have historically served as these scapegoats, as living embodiments
of our existential dread.

Experiments carried out under the rubric of ?terror management theory? ? the
framework I and my fellow researchers used for understanding these behaviours ?
corroborate Becker?s account. They illuminate the existential underpinnings of
hostility and disdain toward designated outgroups. After being reminded of
their mortality (by answering the questions above, being interviewed in front
of a funeral parlour, or subliminally exposed to the word ?death?), Christians
had more favourable impressions of other Christians and more negative
impressions of Jews; Germans sat closer to Germans and further away from
Turkish immigrants; Iranians were more supportive of suicide bombings; and
Americans advocated using nuclear, chemical and biological weapons against
countries that posed no direct threat to the US.

After being reminded of their mortality Christians had more favourable
impressions of other Christians and more negative impressions of Jews 

But how can these ideas help explain why death reminders increase support for
Trump? The German sociologist Max Weber theorised that in times of historical
upheaval, when existential anxieties are salient, people embrace charismatic
political leaders. In 1951, moral philosopher Eric Hoffer, in The True
Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, added that the primary
impetus for populist movements is economic and psychological insecurity,
leaving people ?in desperate need of something ? to live for?.

Authoritarian populist leaders, Hoffer argued, need not be intelligent or
original. Rather, the primary qualifications ?seem to be: audacity and a joy in
defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the
one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate
hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight
in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials) ? the arrogant gesture, the complete
disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world ?
[and] some deliberate misrepresentation of facts?.

They transform followers? fears into rage and righteous indignation directed
toward designated outgroups for political purposes. For example, Trump
campaigned for president by inflaming animosity towards Mexicans and Muslims.
After the 2016 election, Trump admitted in calls to then Mexican president
Enrique Peña Nieto that Mexico needed to pay for the wall to fulfil his
campaign promise, and to Malcolm Turnbull, then prime minister of Australia,
that he would ?look foolish? if he honoured a previous agreement to allow
refugees to come to the US.

Studies confirm that mortal terror amplifies support for Trump. Prior to the
election, participants reminded of being in pain had more favourable
impressions of Hillary Clinton than Trump. However, impressions of Trump
improved significantly if participants were reminded of their mortality.
Moreover, Americans asked to think about the construction of a mosque in their
neighbourhoods, or immigrants moving nearby, showed higher levels of
nonconscious death thoughts ? thus demonstrating that persistent efforts to
demonise Muslims and immigrants had been quite successful. Americans also rated
Trump more favourably after being asked to imagine a mosque or immigrants in
their neighbourhoods.

People do not respond monolithically when existential concerns are aroused. For
example, in response to a death reminder, French and US participants who scored
high in rightwing authoritarianism ? characterised by submission to authority,
moral absolutism, and punitive intolerance ? made more pejorative assessments
of immigrants. However, participants who scored low on rightwing
authoritarianism had more favourable impressions of immigrants after pondering
their demise. Additionally, negative reactions to immigrants following death
reminders were reduced when participants were also encouraged to think of
universal human experiences shared by people from diverse cultures.

These findings suggest the hopeful possibility that we can encourage the
development and maintenance of cultural worldviews that emphasise commonalities
rather than differences between individuals and foster tolerance of such

It is also important to acknowledge that support for Trump in the US, and
similarly rightwing, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim populist movements in Europe,
is not solely a defensive reaction to mortal terror. A host of complex
political, economic, psychological and cultural considerations contribute to
one?s political predilections. However, the fact that fleeting death reminders
have a potent effect on political preferences conflicts with the democratic
ideal that electoral outcomes result from rational deliberation.

Perhaps the best approach to fortifying those democratic ideals is to monitor,
expose and oppose efforts by all candidates to exploit existential anxieties
for personal and political gain.

When politicians claim we should vote for them because they are uniquely
qualified or divinely ordained to eradicate evil, we should actively combat the
inclination to allow mortal terror, rather than cogent assessments of
candidates? qualifications and positions on issues of importance, to determine
our choices. Fearmongering mendacity would then become an electoral liability,
rather than a potent political advantage.

? Sheldon Solomon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga
Springs, New York. He is co-author, with Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski, of
The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

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