Does fear of vulnerability explain our culture of cruelty?
During a recent Republican presidential candidate debate sponsored by the Tea Party and CNN, audience members cheered the suggestion of leaving a man to die for lack of health insurance coverage.
As reported by Amy Bingham for ABC News, the debate moderator posed to candidate Ron Paul a “hypothetical question about whether an uninsured 30-year-old working man in coma” should receive health care:
“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul responded, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…”
The audience erupted into cheers, cutting off the Congressman’s sentence.
After a pause, Blitzer followed up by asking “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” to which a small number of audience members shouted “Yeah!”
Fear of vulnerability
Legitimate differences of opinion over health care policy are fine, but how do we explain this spontaneous expression of cruelty?
In a recent essay (see below for details), Dr. Brené Brown, a leading scholar and commentator on shame, vulnerability, and moral courage, believes that cruelty is often a manifestation of our fear of vulnerability:
Cruelty is both a type of invulnerability shield and the outcome of a culture that is collectively losing its tolerance for vulnerability. In a world facing political, environmental, economic, and social uncertainty, we rage and humiliate to discharge our own fear and anxiety.
Could this explain the reactions of the Tea Party debate audience? It’s the most charitable explanation I’ve encountered: By cheering the possibility of leaving someone to die because they don’t have health insurance coverage, they are shielding themselves from the reality that they are one job loss away from being in the same position.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this cruel, punitive, “I’ve got mine” thinking around this country right now. If we don’t start to recognize our common vulnerabilities, a lot of people will suffer for it.
Brené Brown’s “The Strength of Vulnerability,” appears in End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life (2011), a collection of 62 essays by leading thinkers and business leaders, compiled as a fundraising book to combat malaria by the Domino Project, associated with Amazon.com.