Fear and Power

William Golding’s masterpiece, Lord of the Flies, is a complicated novel that requires careful critical analysis to understand the intricate themes. It is challenging for advanced readers, let alone for a ten-year-old—my age when I first attempted the classic. The exposure into human nature shocked and amazed my immature senses. How could boys, boys like me, engage in such awful acts? Would I devolve into an animal if I was sequestered from society like these young men in the novel? I was left confused, irritated, and angry. At such an age, I could not understand what was really happening. I felt like there was something much more complicated being relayed than just a few young kids becoming beasts. I suppose that I would have had a conversation along the vein of the discussion that Ralph, Piggy, and Simon had as they lamented their fate that would result without intervention from adults:

“Grownups know things,” said Piggy. “They ain’t afraid of the dark. They’d meet and have tea and discuss. Then things ‘ud be all right—”

“They wouldn’t set fire to the island. Or lose—”

“They’d build a ship—”

The three boys stood in the darkness, striving unsuccessfully to convey the majesty of adult life.

“They wouldn’t quarrel—”

“Or break my specs—”

“Or talk about a beast—”

“If only they could get a message to us,” cried Ralph desperately. “If only they could send us something grownup . . . a sign or something.”

What I failed to comprehend in my naïve mind, is the same subject that so many readers either cannot or refuse to see. Global leaders are akin to the little boys stranded on an island. Global citizens have faith in these leaders, yet the rulers of the world are afraid, they set fire to the world, they quarrel, and perhaps the most juvenile—they relentlessly portray the “beast.”

The turning point of the novel occurs when a council meeting is called. Ralph, the democratically elected leader, demands to discuss Jack’s failure to keep a smoke signal on top of a mountain. This failure allowed a distant ship to pass by the island without being alerted to the boys’ plight. The signal ceased because Ralph’s friend and rival, Jack, left the fire to hunt for pig. Jack and his hunting party triumphantly returned to the scene of dismay atop the mountain with a slaughtered pig. Ralph pleads with Jack and his followers to see the futility of hunting when weighed against rescue.

During the council, a few of the youngest children express their fear of a beast. There is no evidence of a beast, but groupthink prevails as the boys are whipped into a paranoia over an unsubstantiated creature. It is at this point that Jack, the newly christened pig-slaying hero, sees his opportunity to depose Ralph. He preys on the emotion that unrelentingly grips the boys. Many of the boys fall away from the reasoning leadership of Ralph and his signal fire, stable shelters, and sanitary latrines.

Golding’s most startling revelation ventures into the realm of brain composition. Generally, humans engage their prefrontal cortex when making decisions. It is the prefrontal cortex that brings logic, rationality, and evolved emotions into the thought process. However, there is a more primitive portion of the brain that also plays a role in decision making as well. The amygdala is the primitive aspect of the brain that recognizes more basic emotions, those that assist in basic survival. The amygdala registers fear. Evolution utilized this sensation to motivate early homo sapiens to flee from threats such as sabretooth tigers. The amygdala often overrides the premier decision making prefrontal cortex when one feels fear or anger. This results in a human’s brain being reduced to a more basic animal’s brain. When a threat is perceived, the human brain loses function of the prefrontal cortex and is left with the reasoning capabilities of an animal. The amygdala gains controls when fear is present, repeatedly telling its subject to fight or flee, while the rational portion of the brain is rendered incapable of expressing patience, charity, and logic.

Tyrants, dictators, and totalitarians cultivate fear in those they govern. History gives multiple examples of the collective amygdala outweighing the country’s prefrontal cortex. Adolf Hitler played on the base emotion of frustration and fear of the German people. Like Jack, Hitler convinced his people of the looming beast—Jews, revenge, and vindication of their rightful status. So many of the Germans began to see this previously undetected threat. Reasonable, ordinary people were plagued with paranoia like Golding’s island-dwelling boys. Hitler utilized the amygdala and harnessed that fear to catapult himself into one of the most powerful positions in the world. Germany, fearful of the beast, was stripped of the use of its prefrontal cortex along with the ability to comprehend—love, compassion, and rational evaluation.

Another poignant example of fear controlling an entire group of people occurred during the Cold War. The bipolar world saw powers in the Soviet Union and the United States playing nuclear chicken. At one point during the Cold War, the world understood the concept of “mutually assured destruction”. The world knew that if any nuclear attack was launched, both powers, and likely the world, would be destroyed. A global prefrontal cortex would reason, it would express concern and patience. It would highlight the lunacy of winning a battle that resulted in the annihilation of humanity. Still, the collective amygdala reigned for years before the world reengaged its prefrontal cortex.

This brings me to the crux of my argument: America is under the uncompromising influence of its amygdala as fear pervades television, social media, and water cooler discussions. So many are missing the point about the danger of Donald Trump. Critics point to lewd tweets, excessive golfing, and the asinine ketchup on a steak. Surely, President Trump has engaged in disturbing behavior, but the populace has been alerted so many times that any future warnings will fall on deaf ears. America’s collective concern must be on the fact that President Trump has hijacked our prefrontal cortex, and we are left operating the country and the world with a brain that can only register fear and hatred.

Perhaps the most disheartening calculation of Trump’s team’s actions is that it is not just fear of Mexicans, terrorists, and the media that is controlling America, although that is a significant part. Opponents of Trump have been captivated by the amygdala as well through their fear and hatred of, not just Trump, but his supporters as well. He has transformed himself into the beast in an effort to force, otherwise rational individuals, to hang on a Twitter account all hours of the day.

Controlling the amygdala is counterintuitive. The more you focus on it, the more you feed it, the more you try to shut it off, the more power it has. Instead, one must excessively engage the prefrontal cortex. It is hard at first when it seems that the amygdala will not shut off, but America must use its higher emotions like love and charity, and higher thinking like critical reasoning and logic.

Like Simon bemoans, there was no beast on the beautiful island when the boys arrived. They brought the beast. The beast resides within us.  

-The Saint

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