Deborah Alecson | Musings on Mortality: How 'death phobia' contributes to xenophobia
In this column, I write about the relationship between an ever-increasing xenophobia, fear of the "other," and human violence as terrorism and war, to what happens when individuals are reminded of their own mortality. While this is not an academic paper, I do draw upon the work of the cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker (1924-1974) who wrote the Pulitzer-prize-winning book, "The Denial of Death," and from research done by social psychologists in the 1980s-1990s that resulted in the "Terror Management Theory" (see www.scientificamerican.com/article/fear-death- and-politics).
In past columns, I have written about the consequences of living in a death-phobic culture, especially when played out in medical care and end-of-life decision making. This column takes a slightly different direction, yet all related, for sure.
We are the only species that lives with the knowledge that our lives will come to an end. This knowledge, according to Becker, is terrifying and anxiety producing. It is the denial of death in our ordinary, everyday lives that enables us to buy into the illusion that this is not in fact so.
We have come up with strategies to keep this terror and anxiety in check. One is our cultural and religious identities, which provide a shared world view and meaning in an insecure world. Our social conformism gives us a sense of self-esteem and value.
Some of our cultural values, for example, are materialism, status, power, etc. As long as we are directed and distracted by the values of our culture, we are "protected" members of our society. Our society then serves a death-denying function.
The other strategy Becker writes about is the ways in which we strive for immortality through heroism and creation. This includes procreation, works of art, architecture, literature, etc. — that which many of us are busily engaged in; not to mention, buildings that have our names on them.
But, what happens when death-denial is met with a concerted effort by others to remind us of our own mortality? This is where the "Terror Management Theory" comes in. Social psychologists conducted laboratory experiments to test Becker's ideas. In over 150 studies, they claim to have proven that when reminded of death, the study subjects reacted aggressively and punitively toward others who were different and favorably to those who were perceived as the same. To be clear, their lives were not physically threatened. They were simply reminded of their own mortality, that's all.
What is the relationship between what happens when people become aware of their mortality and increasing xenophobia and global violence? According to Becker and the Terror Management Theory, the relationship can be cause and effect. For example, up until the horror of 9/11, most Americans were living relatively safe and secure lives exposed to death and mayhem mostly from news stories. Up until 9/11, we prided ourselves as a "melting pot" of universal cultures and religious belief systems. After 9/11, patriotism exploded. Anxiety gripped the nation while revenge became the mantra. 9/11 perforated our collective and cultural death-denial and we responded with aggression toward people who were different from us and with positive regard for those who were like us.
The "imposition" of other cultures and religions is that they threaten the death denying function of our own systems, thus, they threaten us. People in power, like presidential candidates who claim daily that our lives are in danger, trigger death anxiety. We respond with aggression toward others, a desperate identity with our "own," and xenophobia. To conclude, according to Becker and the Terror Management Theory, our present fear-based America is a pawn in a dynamic, which is the result of death anxiety unleashed.
Deborah Golden Alecson is a death, dying and bereavement educator and speaker who resides in Lenox. She is the author of three books that deal with her personal loss. Learn more at deborahgoldenalecson.com.
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