Of all the things I fear -- and given a chance, it seems I am capable of being afraid of damned near anything -- one of the most fearsome is my own capacity for group-think. As a human being, I too would like to be welcomed in, to be part of the human warp and woof, but the capacity to bid for belongingness by agreeing without much thought to a much-praised and widely-held sentiment ... well, yes, I am capable of that and it scares the crap out of me.
I'm talking about experience here. LaRochefoucauld's witty maxim is more than a witty maxim: "The intelligence of the mass is inversely proportionate to its number." In one sense, the more people who get behind one notion or another, the stupider they get. Yes, it's witty. But it also speaks to a comforting laziness and irresponsibility that excludes and harms others. I fear it in myself.
In Paris, a black man is pushed out of a subway car by a group chanting "we're racist, we're racist and that's the way we like it." In Washington, President Barack Obama tried to take the high road by praising American willingness to embrace its immigrants and not fall prey to the kind of violent extremism that has marred the peaceful nature of Islam. In the Middle East, the Islamic State -- an organization much beloved by American exceptionalists and neo-conservatives -- beheaded 21 Coptic Christian men four days ago. This was followed by the unconfirmed report that 45 men were rounded up by Islamic State participants and burned alive in Anbar Province in Iraq.
My younger son, a member of the National Guard, wrestles with the warm invitation of his friends to excoriate "terrorists" who are almost invariably brown and live somewhere else but could conceivably do damage at home -- a popular notion sold wholesale by those whose jobs depend of defining and repelling one enemy or another.
And of course it's not that much of this rising tide of bomb-'em-back-into-the-Stone-Age doesn't have some basis in fact. There are some seriously egotistical and dangerous situations and people. But I fear the comfort of a rising social tide. I fear the agreement that is too lazy to investigate these evil acts, the herd mentality that is so invitingly cozy.
And I sympathize with the Tibetan Buddhist monk who, after the Chinese had reclaimed Tibet as its own though force of arms, named the thing he had most feared during the invasion: "I was afraid I might lose my compassion."
"Compassion" has a slightly squishy feel to it, liguistically. But I think fearing the loss of a willingness to think and investigate and reach a conclusion that does not rely on the beliefs of others -- no matter how beloved -- is more my ballpark.
I guess there is something to be said for my fear. But close upon its heels comes the realization that there is a diminishing chance I will have the energy to overcome it. My energy only reaches so far.