Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Apocalypse Now.

The Power Of Habit.

I was surprised to discover that the recent anxiety-fest whipped up by mischievous media disseminators over the supposed Mayan prediction of a December 21st Doomsday, was actually a global phenomenon, and not limited to scare-buzz-thirsty America. Chinese authorities arrested Doomsdayers for who knows what reason, but even here in Muslim Istanbul I was surprised to discover that there was some degree of anxiety amongst the locals (at least the ones I know). As it turned out, the 21st did prove to be somewhat calamitous, albeit not quite the Doomsday that was predicted.

Unfortunately for myself and my neighbours our building did, in fact, make an attempt to destroy us on the one day where any event out of the ordinary might be received with greater anxiety than it might otherwise deserve. As Doomsday became Dooms-evening the building lost power accompanied by a loud explosion-sounding noise. Since the city experiences regular rolling black-outs, and transformers tend to blow-up occasionally (because the grid was designed to provide power for five, not seventeen million who actually live here), I didn't pay much attention - the transformer is three streets away, after all. It was only when I heard a second and third "explosiony" noise - accompanied by some terrified yelps - that I decided to step onto the balcony and look out, which was when I noticed several neighbours from the lower floors had evacuated to the street.

I also noticed that the hub where all of the electricity wires of the building connect was sparkling like a firework. In short, what had happened was that a broken pipe was leaking water into the electrical works causing the arcing and mini-explosions. This was my cue to get out of the building. It so happened that their were around eleven other neighbours - all women, all wearing headscarves - who had the same idea, yet, instead of going down from my top floor apartment, they were coming up. What I didn't realize was that they were trying to escape via access from an adjacent building - I confusedly presumed that they were simply going up to give themselves as much time as possible for emergency crews to rescue them, so I indicated for them to enter my home for respite. This is where it became interesting.

Fully panicked - and some even hyperventilating with hysteria - this group of women simply followed my instructions even though they knew that wasn't the way of escape; one by one, following custom, they removed their shoes and politely entered my home. Finally we sorted out the actual plan of escape, and everyone got out from the adjacent building. Meanwhile, those neighbours who had already escaped downstairs were standing around bewildered and dazed, huddled together in a group that moved in herd-like unison in response to the instructions of the recently arrived fire department. Absurdly, in those moments I had the profound (for me!) realization that I had just witnessed the process by which fear becomes foundational for those seeking to manipulate a group or society, and it clarified why fear-mongering plays is such an important strategy for those propagating anti-Asian prejudice.

There are three aspects of fear that render societies vulnerable to manipulation: the first is a desire to maintain the comfort and familiarity of habit; the second is the tendency to look to a higher authority for direction - people want to believe that someone, somewhere, knows what is going on and has the experience and power to make it right. Thus, scared people will abdicate personal responsibility and agency because they feel safer believing that they are being taken care of by some external entity whose ability to resolve the situation exceeds their own. The women who entered my apartment clung to habit and familiarity by, absurdly, removing their shoes in the middle of an emergency. Unquestioningly, they followed my instructions to enter my apartment, just like the bewildered crowd below blankly followed the instructions of the emergency crews - highlighting how the fearful will follow anyone who merely seems to have a plan or who has the air of authority (real or imagined).

It puts election-time Asian-targeted fear-mongering into perspective. If a politician can scare the electorate enough with insinuations that Asian economies are deliberately harming Americans' economic prosperity with the goal of "taking over", then, as the authoritative antidote, he (or she) can easily manipulate them into following directions. And this is the third aspect of fear that makes a group easy to manipulate; the anger which always follows fear. People get angry, in part, as a means to process whatever trauma they have experienced. After a couple of hours of standing outside in the cold, unable to be around things of comfort, the dazed neighbours (and myself) started to get angry as heated discussions arose about who was at fault, or simply why such a thing could happen - tellingly, those who shouted the loudest got heard, even though some of what was said didn't make too much sense.

When people are angry, reason and rationality fly out the window, and when coupled with a fear-enabled tendency to follow anyone with seeming authority, the results are often ugly. And this is one of the major obstacles facing the Asian minority of America; political and cultural fear-mongering that trickles down to influence the lives of Americans of Asian descent. It requires a remarkable feat of self-delusion to not notice the similarities between political outrage at the economic success of Japan or China, and the ongoing resentful outrage towards Asians who economically outpace urban black communities, or the occasionally shrill cries of alarm at the ubiquity of Asian students in higher (and secondary) education.

In all these cases, the underlying insinuation is that the things familiar to Americans are being taken away - unfairly, of course - and that something (of an Oriental nature) is to blame. Furthermore, not only is familiarity disappearing, what is left is being overrun, or "taken over". The results are often a violent backlash or, in the case of Asians in education, calls for action that would fundamentally exempt Asian-Americans from equality and permit the re-institutionalization of exclusion in education. It could even be said that Jeremy Lin experienced some of this in action. Although, he was embraced by many, his presence caused a backlash in which some members of the media sought to contextualize Lin through the more habitually familiar framework of racial mockery.

This is why anti-Asian racism remains so openly pervasive - it is politically expedient to have an established scapegoat against whom anger and resentment can be directed, and fear-mongering promotes social cohesion and identity by providing society with a common enemy, and the illusion of common goals to overcome it. Thus, worst of all, thinking of Asians negatively is so ingrained in America's identity that it has become a cultural habit as opposed to being an ideology. Ideologically, Asians can represent positive things (and often do), but this is significantly undermined by the habits of xenophobia which are emotional and irrational and thus more difficult to identify let alone address. In some ways, Asians have come to represent an apocalypse; the unwanted and cataclysmic obliteration of the familiar and beloved, and so maintaining the habit and familiarity of anti-Asian attitudes is the natural antidote to this fear.