Defeating Fear

(Content warning: Picture of a spider, challenges to your preconceptions.)

Just in time to be late for Halloween, I’m here to help you take on and defeat fear itself. 

You know what they say about spiders? They’re around you even when you aren’t aware of them, they’re a vital part of the ecosystem and provide helpful services, and they’re more afraid of you than you are of them. All of these things are also true about your political opponents.

Some of them also have a strong sense of responsibility. (Yes, this is a real spider. Reality is Unrealistic.) 

The reason humans have trouble solving so many basic problems is that when they become afraid, they start turning into monsters as a defense mechanism. In the interest of not living in a land filled with monsters, I’ve decided to put together a workshop to help you put people’s fears to rest by building understanding and trust.

Long ago, I wrote about the fundamental liabilities that describe the problems that we all face and the different tradeoffs that we make in our approaches to dealing with them. Then I wrote about how those tradeoffs lead us to take up various positions on the political compass

The concepts I introduced in those articles are tools for understanding not only your own values and fears, but where other people’s values and fears come from and why they are to be respected.

Now it is time to put that knowledge to use. It is one thing to know that other people live in different situations, and therefore when they deal with liabilities the tradeoffs that they can afford to make will be different from the ones you make. That might make it easier to respect people, but the tradeoffs are still there. 

We all live in the same world, and sometimes one person’s tradeoff may interfere with someone else’s. When that happens, many people attempt to force everyone else to make the same tradeoffs that they make. 

With these conflicts we can play tug-of-war, with violence or votes, luck or laws, but that won’t get us anywhere. Everyone will just be attempting to sacrifice someone else’s well-being to increase their own. Society will be torn apart by fear and mistrust, into smaller and smaller pieces that all hate and revile each other. 

We can do better than that. 

In the liabilities article, I described the virtues that we must aspire to in order to successfully deal with the fundamental liabilities. In my other articles I’ve described most of the mindsets and attributes that we must practice in order to effectively pursue those virtues. The only thing standing in our way is a widespread lack of mutual understanding and trust. Here’s how we fix that.

The cause of mistrust, summarized

When people see a problem that hurts them, they tend to latch onto one potential solution, and they push that solution at all costs.

Other people don’t like that solution because it causes other problems that hurt them, and they push back.

Neither side thinks to come up with alternative solutions that work for everyone. They get stuck pushing back and forth over a false dichotomy.

Trust breaks down between these two groups because they believe they are inherently and irreconcilably at odds.

When trust breaks down, people fail to try and understand or communicate with each other as equals, and so the situation perpetuates itself.

People come to see themselves as obviously correct and justified, and their opponents as ignorant and selfish. This workshop was created in order to dispel these assumptions, and I’m publishing it in article form with the exercises removed because I think it will be important in the next few months.

First we’ll go through a refresher of the concepts involved. If the summaries are not clear, feel free to review the liabilities and political compass articles.

Defining problems

Problems can be defined in terms of four concepts: the fundamental liabilities. These liabilities can amplify each other or interfere with each other. 

  1. Scarcity: known physical obstacles. It’s what happens when stability threatens a goal. 
  2. Disaster: unknown physical obstacles. It’s what happens when discovery threatens a goal. 
  3. Stagnation: known motivational obstacles. It’s what happens when identity threatens a goal. 
  4. Conflict: unknown motivational obstacles. It’s what happens when choice threatens a goal.

The tradeoffs people make

People tend to advocate or oppose solutions based on what kinds of tradeoffs they feel they can afford to make. These tradeoffs can be described using the following terms. Just like the liabilities, these tradeoffs can amplify each other or interfere with each other, by accident or by design. 

  1. Wastefulness: underregulated scarcity. 
  2. Austerity: overregulated scarcity. 
  3. Negligence: underregulated disaster. 
  4. Susceptibility: overregulated disaster. 
  5. Decadence: underregulated stagnation. 
  6. Dogma: overregulated stagnation. 
  7. Turmoil: underregulated conflict. 
  8. Corruption: overregulated conflict. 

The political compass

People form factions based on which tradeoffs they are willing to accept about a particular situation. These factions are often described using the following terms.

  1. Progressive (referred to in the previous article as “liberal”): rejects the status quo; fears austerity and susceptibility more than wastefulness and negligence
  2. Conservative: accepts the status quo; fears wastefulness and negligence more than austerity and susceptibility
  3. Libertarian: prioritizes individual freedom; fears dogma and corruption more than decadence and turmoil
  4. Authoritarian: prioritizes collective structure; fears decadence and turmoil more than dogma and corruption

It’s important to note that these terms are not intended to put people into categories. People can make different tradeoffs in different situations.

Furthermore, the same tradeoff can be described in multiple different ways depending on what aspect of the situation serves as the reference frame. For instance, someone can be economically conservative by attempting to conserve money at the expense of natural resources, or they can be environmentally conservative by attempting to conserve natural resources at the expense of money. It depends on what resources we’re focusing on and what we consider the “status quo”. That tells us that there are multiple resources in play that are subject to scarcity, and people disagree on which resources are more dangerous to waste and which ones are more costly to hoard.

Constructive approaches

We can move in constructive directions to find solutions which are better than any tradeoffs we can make, by getting creative and bringing in resources, skills, and values from outside the immediate context of the problem. To do that, we need to practice effectively applying the following virtues. 

  1. Investment, to deal effectively with scarcity. It brings us prosperity. 
  2. Preparation (formerly “exposure”), to deal effectively with disaster. It brings us safety. 
  3. Transcendence, to deal effectively with stagnation. It brings us vitality. 
  4. Ethics, to deal effectively with conflict. It brings us harmony. 

Applying the toolbox: 

We can apply these concepts using a three-step process (previously introduced here) to build understanding and trust. Doing so makes it easier to find solutions that work for everyone.

Step 1: Understand your values

In order to figure out effective solutions, we first need to understand our own values and fears regarding the problem. This requires peeling away the disagreement over what is to be done, and focusing on what tradeoffs we truly fear. The concepts of liabilities and tradeoffs help with that.

Step 2: Understand other people’s values

Second, we must understand what other people value and fear. The tradeoffs they are willing to make may be different from ours, based on what they feel they can afford. 

Talk with people and listen to them about what they care about and what they fear. Use the concepts listed in this article to peel back the specifics of what they say to find out what their true values and fears are. For instance, a person may claim to want lower speed limits when what they really want is fewer accidents.

Paraphrase to them your understanding of what they want and fear, so they can confirm that you understand to their satisfaction. You don’t need to use the vocabulary words from this articlethey’re just there to help you figure out the right questions to ask. Doing so builds understanding.

Next, express to them your own fears in a way that they can understand and accept, relating to examples from their life if possible. Doing so shows vulnerability and demonstrates that you have valid fears that drive your tradeoffs, same as them. It builds understanding and trust. 

Step 3: Frame the situation constructively

Now you must use the virtues to brainstorm and propose alternative solutions. These solutions should be constructive and should bring in resources, skills, and opportunities from outside the immediate context of the situation if necessary. As a show of goodwill, it’s important to take the initiative to brainstorm with serious thought. 

The first solution you come up with may not be the best one. There may not be a solution that immediately resolves the situation to the point where tradeoffs become unnecessary. However, proposing solutions that mitigate tradeoffs or simply compensate for them will help put people’s fears to rest, enabling people to cooperate for mutual benefit, and lay the groundwork for future solutions that are more effective. Doing so builds trust.

These alternatives may directly address the problem or they may fulfill their value in a completely different way, bypassing the problem or making it more tolerable. It is important that these potential solutions be win-win. They must be acceptable to all significant stakeholders.

Implementing an alternative may take effort on your part, but dealing with opponents takes effort as well and is far less efficient. Effort towards constructive alternatives is an investment in turning opponents into allies.


If we continue to fear people who make different tradeoffs from the ones we make, our fragmented quest to defeat each other in the name of a greater good will destroy civilization.

However, if we want constructive solutions that make our communities and civilization better for everyone, we must build understanding and trust.

That’s always been true. What’s new is that I’ve destroyed any excuse for behaving otherwise.

Pictured: the excuse idea light bulb immediately after burning out.

Image credits

Fear: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay;

Spider: Image by Peripitus, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons;

Fractured world map: Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay;

Tearing fabric: Image by CJ from Pixabay;

Scale balance: Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay;

Political compass: Public domain;

Puzzle teamwork: Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay;

Construction: Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay;

No excuses: Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay;