Validating Your Threat Assessment

History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes


Chances are any social struggle of significance that you engage in has a dividing line. A point which divides the us vs. them. The left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, cut the sandwich lengthwise or diagonally. Pick your struggle and observe it with intention. When this is done a pretty consistent formula emerges. An important variable in this formula is our threat assessment. The survival hardware in our brain functions that the level of feeding, fighting, and reproducing (yes the 3 F’s work here if you want to be juvenile, I KNOW YOU ARE BUT WHAT AM I??). Our strategies for feeding and reproducing have become far less primitive but what about that sleeping animal deep inside that played a critical part in our evolution? The part that reacted instantly to threats and addressed them with aggression was and still is a critical tool in the human toolbox.

In Michael S. Gazzinga’s book Who’s In Charge he discusses how certain reactions are built into our firmware and happen faster than conscious thought. A sudden noise or grass rustling on a hike, these jar the nervous system awake and trigger the do or die, fight or flight system that has kept our genes alive throughout history. This isn’t something we actively learn. We have an intrinsic, faster than thought system that executes threat assessments on a timescale that has the highest probability of keeping us alive. We are here to have this discussion because of how well that system works.

But what happens when that system is left unchecked? We begin to conduct threat assessments at higher levels that the instinctual. Everyone has a paradigm of the world through which we execute threat assessments. Lock our doors and set the alarm at night. We avoid places that seem dangerous and buckle up when we drive. We also have higher level threat assessments about who we attribute blame for the struggles we experience. One thing our internal survival tools do not do is waste time wondering what our part is in the situation. If the grass rustles our nerves light up and we react, regardless if there was a predator or not. We do not waste moments thinking “i hope I am not encroaching on this things habitat!!!” We scatter.

It is the same formula that runs amok when we start to assess who is responsible for the struggles that we may or may nor personally experience. The people who advocated for slavery and resisted desegregation were not directly reacting to personal experiences, they had come to believe that a people different than them was a threat to their peace, prosperity, and safety. Read through old newspaper headlines from the era. You will see the formula emerge. There were those willing to risk discomfort for change in the name of compassion, empathy, and progress. There were also people who reacted with fear in very ugly ways to the perceived threat of change.

Once this formula emerges showing how people assess and react to social struggles it becomes easier see where history is rhyming. Did the people accosting Ruby Bridges win? Are they proud of the side they fought for? How long did the old curmudgeons mumble to themselves that they were on the side of right when women took their right to vote?

Here are some of the reasons that were given in a pamphlet expressing the concerns of those against women being given the right to vote:

1. “90% of women either do not want it, or do not care.”

2. “It means competition of women with men instead of co-operation.”

3. “80% of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husband’s votes.”

4. “It can be of no benefit commensurate with the additional expense involved.”

5. “In some States more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule.”

6. “It is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

They even included a handy tip for murdering a suffragette: “If an Anti swallows bichloride, give her whites of eggs, but if it’s a suff, give her a vote.”

How familiar does all of this sound? The formula persists.

This is the same formula that was applied during desegregation and every other social struggle where people were willing to fight for positive change. I am not going to dive into the pathology of how or why people hold and defend these views. But I do know that they thought they were on the side of right. As Amaryllis Fox, a writer, peace activist and former CIA Clandestine Service officer states in a powerful interview “everyone believes they are the good guy”.  (please check out her interview if you have not)

So what then?

Pay attention to your threat assessment strategy and seriously try to analyze who you view as an enemy. If you believe that a certain group of people are the enemy prove it. Not through confirmation bias or googling your beliefs on “”, but really deconstruct who you view as an enemy. Pressure test your beliefs on who you support as well. I like to use the exercise are you a Katherine Switzer or a Jock Semple. Katherine was the first numbered runner to enter the Boston Marathon and Jock Semple was the race official who attempted to physically prevent her from racing. Jock thought he was the good guy but he is imprinted in history as a villain, complete with a video of him being a supreme asshole. A later organizer for the marathon later spoke of Jock saying “Once the rule was adjusted and women were allowed in the race, Jock was one of their staunchest supporters. He was very progressive.”. I imagine he would have preferred to have done an appropriate threat assessment prior to having one of his worse moments immortalized for history to judge.

If you find yourself angry or judgmental of an enemy you have never met, angry about injustices you have never experienced personally, or in opposition to someone sharing an opportunity you were afforded conduct an appropriate threat assessment. Don’t waste energy fighting a fight where you may not be the good guy. If by some rare measure you do find that you have an enemy before you maybe listen to the advice of Amaryllis Fox: “The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them,” she said. “If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not you might’ve made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.”

Don’t be a Jock!








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