“noun: fear; an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat…a feeling of anxiety concerning…safety and well-being… (Dictionary.com)
Among other things, we are agitated by fears of the unknown space between cities and towns. Ignorance and animosity around race, ethnicity, culture, and language is partly geographical. Fears swirl within the deep space between Black Lives Matter banners and Blue Line Flags, and the fear infusing our rhetoric and politics thrives in those geographical distances.
I knew people in the suburbs of Buffalo who had not ventured into that city so near where they lived for thirty years. The unknown filled their imaginations with images evoking fear. I have even met people that live in the Town of Geneva and further out, who have not ventured into downtown Geneva, and who have similar fears. While that may seem simply unbelievable to those of us who live here, I also know citizens of Geneva who have grave misgivings about driving on Route 14 towards Lyons due to the outsized presence of multiple flags and banners. While some of that fear and mistrust is based upon actual experience, not to mention current and historic behavior, it is also composed of assumptions, ignorance, and prejudices. The latter makes the former particularly difficult to address and reconcile.
Did you know that fear is contagious? True, almost like a virus. Fear has a scent and our noses pick up chemosignals, according to a research summary in Psychology Today (Oct. 8, 2019). Facial expressions too, communicate and pass along fear. Thus, fear ripples from one person to another infecting entire social cohorts.
The same summary says fear is dissipated and reduced by robust social cohesion, which means that one of our reactions to fear is to get tightly surrounded by those we know. Fear of “others” pushes us to separate further and further from them, and thus surround ourselves more completely with those we count as “us” – and who share our fears. Yet fear, left to its own devices, infuses us with misplaced anxieties and paranoid suspicions.
“When you are no longer living in fear you are no longer prone to believing this stuff.” Lenka Perron, a former addict of Q-anon and other conspiracy theories is quoted as saying. (Profile in the New York Times, 1/29/21). Our separation from those who are not afraid of what we fear, deepens our fears. Think about that in relationship to Geneva’s racially and economically separated neighborhoods, and the huge economic and social gulf between the Town of Geneva and the City. It is precisely when we deny our inter-dependence and corral ourselves away from “others,” that we dig a mote of fear around ourselves. Such segregation hurts some more than others but it diminishes everyone involved.
We need to be thinking of ways to bring our neighborhoods together for work and play, to share in community-building activities that have authentic impact on us. It is only in building relationships across fear – which means across our geographical boundaries – that we will be liberated. Now, while we social distance, may be a great time to imagine and plan for “the other side.”