Heroism, Hostility and Politics: Part 2, Hero Projects and Worldview Defense

Why has politics become so tribal and hostile? Why is politics becoming a holy war?

In my Fuller Magazine article I turn to the work of Ernest Becker to explain this. 

Specifically, in his book The Denial of Death Becker argued that, in the face of death, we pursue self-esteem and significance by performing in what he called a cultural "hero system." A hero system is a pathway of meaning, an arena of performance where we can earn a sense of self-esteem, the feeling that our life "matters":

We’re interested in self-esteem, according to Becker, because of existential anxiety--in other words, our fear of meaninglessness in the face of death. This is the cry of Ecclesiastes, how death renders life “vain” and “meaningless,” our life work “a chasing after the wind.” Given the prospect of death, we want our lives to have a lasting, durable impact upon the world. A meaningful life is a life that “makes a dent in the universe,” a life that “makes a difference.” On my campus, at each graduation ceremony we give an award to an outstanding alumnus, someone who has made a significant contribution to the world. It’s called the “Outlive Your Life Award.” While few of us will win awards from our alma maters, we’re all trying to win some version of the Outlive Your Life Award. We are all trying, according to Ernest Becker, to live a “heroic” life.

Our cultures help us in this pursuit by providing us with a path toward significance and meaning, what Becker calls “a hero system.” These hero systems are everywhere, from the stories we pass down in our families to the metrics of success in our workplaces to the American Dream. Listen to any commencement address and you’ll hear some version of the American hero system, the speaker’s take on what constitutes a meaningful life.

We achieve a sense of self-esteem and significance by performing within these hero systems. And this answers the question of why self-esteem is so important to us. Self-esteem is the emotional voice informing us that we’re winning the Outlive Your Life Award, that we’re making a meaningful difference in the world.
In times past, religion was a huge player in these hero systems, given that religion was a critical repository of our deepest values, our metrics of meaning. It still is. But as I point out in my article, in an increasingly post-Christian world, politics is now taking the place of faith. Politics has become for us the arena of heroic action, the location where meaning and "making a difference" is now pursued:

Politics has always generated strong, even violent, emotions because of how politics enshrines deeply held values. And rising polarization suggests that political affiliation is assuming an ever-increasing significance in our lives, an outsized role in defining our self-perceptions and worldview. In an increasingly post-Christian nation politics is becoming our new religion: the repository of our values, the focus of our concerns, the arena of our action, and our hope for a better future. And as a consequence, election years feel more and more like holy wars.

The reason heroism is connected to hostility is that people who espouse values different from our own threaten the validity of our hero project, calling into question the metrics of our meaning. This unsettles us, makes us anxious. And in the face of that anxiety we lash out at those people who hold different values and beliefs, the people who vote differently than we do. Psychologists call this worldview defense:

[T]here’s a dark side to the hero system. In Ernest Becker’s book Escape from Evil, his sequel to The Denial of Death, he describes how our hero systems go on to become a source of social conflict. Specifically, we live in a diverse, pluralistic world. Not everyone agrees on how to win the Outlive Your Life Award. Our world is full of rival hero systems, competing beliefs and values about what matters in life. And all this diversity makes us uneasy. Rival hero systems threaten the legitimacy of my own, calling into question the values and beliefs by which I define a significant, meaningful life. If no single hero system is the ultimate truth, given all the options before us, why would any of them be a reliable and durable answer to the threat of death? In the face of that question, we’re thrust back into the lament of Ecclesiastes. If no hero system can be ultimately trusted, it seems every attempt to outlive your life is “vanity of vanities.”

Facing this fearful prospect, we engage in what Terror Management Theory calls “worldview defense.” It’s too anxiety inducing to allow others to place question marks next to the values and beliefs that make our life meaningful. Here we come to how self-esteem becomes implicated in group conflict and hostility. People who hold different values threaten the legitimacy of our hero project, calling into question the worldview that give our lives meaning and significance. And in the face of that threat, we attack.

The work of Ernest Becker is a powerful tool in explaining the tribalism and hostility at work in our current political landscape. As mentioned, as we move into a post-Christian future, politics will increasingly become the repository of our most deeply held values, the arena in which we will pursue the Outlive Your Life Award. Politics will become our hero system, the place where we strive for ultimate purpose and meaning. And as politics becomes increasingly fused with our self-image and self-esteem, it will, of a course, become increasingly tribal. Politics will be characterized by worldview defense, with our attacks on political opponents exhibiting greater levels of religious zealotry. 

This is how heroism is linked to hostility. Simply put, the more politics matters the more violent it will become. This is how politics becomes a holy war.

All of which provides us with a sharp, deep indictment of politics. 

And yet, what about faith? Isn't faith the original holy war? And if so, how does faith escape its own temptation to worldview defense?

Tomorrow, in the final post, I'll share my reflections on that question, and how those reflections might help our politics in a troubled election season.

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