On Sitting with Fear

[Content Note: Guns; violence; misogyny.]

In my previous post, I said that a meaningful exploration of a culture that encourages and abets aggressive, violent masculinity, particularly in straight white cis men, needs to be part of our national dialogue on gun reform and homicide prevention.

Because I don't just want to call for a conversation, and then contribute nothing to it, here I go, trying to make a contribution.

Let me start here: One of the things that privilege does is insulate one from legitimate fear.

Most very privileged men—white, straight, cis, able-bodied, middle- or upper-class men—spend their lives without knowing sustained fear. Every person knows individual moments of fear—the sort of fear that grips a human moments before a car accident one can see coming but cannot avoid, or in the moment one begins to choke on a bit of lunch while eating alone, when one isn't sure if a cough will dislodge the intruder. Privilege doesn't insulate any of us from that kind of fear.

But the sustained fear of being hurt, being victimized, being exploited—unexpectedly, at any moment, and most frequently by people one trusts—is something that the very privileged do not know intimately, the way the rest of us do.

This difference is particularly stark between women and privileged men.

Women live a life of sustained fear. Which is not to say that most women exist in a state of heightened anxiety at all times, but is to acknowledge the reality that our lives are fundamentally different from men's because of a real threat of rape/violence at the hands of men, mostly men we know. (And because we are stupidly and wrongly tasked with its prevention.) Men's and women's lives are very different in that way.

(This difference is what underlines privileged men asserting that they have a right to feel safe.)

Because of this difference, most women learn how to live their lives against a backdrop of present threat, to a soundtrack of the dull roar of constant fear. For the most part, we learn to ongoingly process fear as we move through our days on such a subconscious level it's as natural as our hearts beating without conscious thought—we position our keys in hand as a potential weapon and scan deserted parking lots for signs of danger and size up dates in search of anything dangerous with the ease that we execute any one of thousands of other routine daily tasks.

Privileged men don't understand this reality, and, upon having it explained to them, will often react with disgust, with contempt. They accuse women of being oversensitive, of having a pessimistic view of the world, of profiling men, and yawn gaslight blah fart.

Fear—or, perhaps, fear management—is a central part of womanhood in a way it is simply not a central part of privileged manhood.

So boys, especially privileged boys, don't learn how to sit with fear the way girls do. We tell boys explicitly not to be afraid; we tell them that being afraid makes you a pussy. They learn that to be afraid is to be like a woman, and to be not a man.

And then we structure the world so that privileged men don't have a lot to be afraid of, so that it is easier to maintain an identity that is rooted in not being fearful, even though fear is a normal part of human experience.

So, there are large parts of the male population in this country who don't know how to process fear. And then there is this entire industry that is dedicated to planting manufactured fear in those very people. The Republican Party. Fox News. Conservative Christianity. A vast weapons industry whose marketing is based on the specious premise that there is Something to be afraid of, Something from which you need to protect yourself.

The same people whose privilege affords them the luxury of never having to learn how to sit with, how to live a life in the echo of, how to process fear are the target demographic for manufactured fear.

And the less privileged among their ranks—the working class men of otherwise undiluted privilege—have real fear about job insecurity or healthcare access or how the fuck they're going to pay the mortgage next month. They are fears that are out of their personal control, and for which the Fear Manufacturers are happy to provide scapegoats—immigrants and brown people and feminists and kissing boys—lest anyone notice the Fear Manufacturers have been the architects of that real insecurity, too.

What is one to do when one has no capacity to process fear, no ability to sit with it and live with it, no developed strategies for coping with fear?

Well, in a lot of cases, one buys a gun.

And when that doesn't make the fear go away, one buys another one. And another. And another. And magazine clips that shoot more bullets. And more deadly bullets. And so forth and so on.

Maybe where gun reform really starts is teaching privileged male people that it's okay to be afraid, and teaching them how to live with fear.

Fear is a part of a mortal life. Only privilege makes it seem like it could ever be otherwise.

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