25 March 2010

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

This weeks episode is about fear. More particularly, it's about the use and abuse of fear as a political tool. We want to explore the ways in which politicians stoke our fears in order to mobilize us to action, stifle dissent, and justify all sorts of repressive policies. We by no means mean to suggest, though, that all political uses of fear are illegitimate. Some things are worth fearing. And fear sometimes leads us to do the right thing. For example, when we fear the consequences of global warming and try, as a consequence, to prevent it from happening, our fear has motivated us to do something good.

It could even be said that  society itself is founded on fear.  That's at any rate what  the philosopher Thomas Hobbes - one of the founding fathers of the social contract tradition  - seemed  to think.  He claimed that in the state of nature  human life is “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short”  because everyone is at war with everyone else.  And he argues that to end this war, we enter into civil society and surrender all power  -- all power to invoke fear – to the state.  So fear is a good thing because it is the glue that binds people together.  

Now Hobbes thought that all power should be concentrated into the hands of the state so that we no longer have to fear each other.  But one could reasonably wonder about  the state itself?   Shouldn’t we now fear it?  Hobbes's answer is that of course we should.  That's the point, in a way.   Instead of a thousand little cockroaches constantly nipping at each other,  by entering into civil society we all surrender power to the big kahuna of the state. We charge it with the responsibility of  keeping order amongst us. And we give it enough power to enforce that responsibility.   Cross up the state and you’re really in trouble.   

To contemporary ears, the Hobbesian state is bound to sound a shade too tyrannical --  despite the fact that its legitimacy  rests on voluntary submission to the will of the sovereign.   Surely, there needs to be some limit on the state’s ability to use the instruments of fear to impress its will upon us.  Otherwise, the state will just run amok.  The tyrants of the 20th Century – Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and their many, many imitators --  taught us that.  A state with the exclusive power to incite mass fear would be an ugly sight.   On the other hand,  a state with no power to cause fear would be, well, a wimp of a state.   What would the law be without the backing of force?  What would a state’s inherent right of self-defense amount to without a kick-butt army to back up that right.

But despite the fact that a state that could not invoke fear in friend and foe would hardly deserve to be called a state,  it's hard to deny the downside cost of the constant use of  fear as an instrument of politics.   It’s because of overblown fear-mongering,  one suspects,  that we in California are blessed with things like three-strikes and you’re out – which, as far as we can see is helping to bankrupt our state, without doing a great deal to diminish crime.      When social problems are framed in ways that are intended to maximize our fear, we’re liable to take actions that are not at all proportional to the problem.  Think of the entire war on drugs.   It’s turned us into the world’s biggest prison house, without doing much to solve our drug problem.

So maybe Frank Herbert had it right.  Maybe  fear really is the mind killer.    A mind seized with fear makes us do all sorts of crazy things, often way out of proportion to the danger posed by the object of our fear.   Which leads us to the question, just what role should fear play in our political discourse?  How do we distinguish legitimate from  illegitimate appeals to fear? Could there be a politics base more on hope than on fear?


We'd love to know your thoughts. 


Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, March 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Great thoughts about fear. The beginning of the bl

Great thoughts about fear. The beginning of the blog ....I must not fear.Fear is the mind-killer... is really inspiring. I loved the way you have put across both the aspects of fear, how fear can make us do crazy things and how sometimes it leads to good for all. I feel fear makes us stronger if we stand and face it.Great read.

Guest's picture


Friday, April 2, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

"Could there be a politics base more on hope than

"Could there be a politics base more on hope than on fear?" I think that's a great question.
What would a politics based on hope, compassion, logic, and reason look like? Not like Democracy. At least the Democracy currently [imposed] on the public, and myself.
No religion; no science; no one idea could lead us into the new age of the Human Being, so keep it to yourself; when dealing with politics and social cooperation it behooves us to understand many layers of our animal psyche, inter-personal psychology. To submit our autonomy to the heteronomy of these corrupt figures that maul science, politics, and religion to their pleasures, this is not hope, it?s control.

Guest's picture


Monday, April 5, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I kind of think of the Republicans as the party of

I kind of think of the Republicans as the party of fear and the democrats as the party of worry. The sorts of crises that provoke immediate, palpable fear for one's safety, i.e. terrorist attacks, foreign invasion, street crime, etc. tend to cause people to vote conservative. Conversely, crises that provoke worry, but not necessarily visceral fear, i.e. unemployment, global warming, health care coverage, tends to influence them to be more liberal, to vote Democratic.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, July 28, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Democrats are also the party of fear. That's how t

Democrats are also the party of fear. That's how they drove healthcare down our throats; by scaring people into accepting it. Of course, republicans tried to scare people out of accepting it. Fear comes from all directions. Telehealth is the real solution to the health care crisis. Now you can talk to online doctorsany time you want to over the phone or Internet.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, October 16, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Writers of science, social and political fiction h

Writers of science, social and political fiction have gotten a great deal of mileage out of the fear factor. Frank Herbert, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury---the list goes on. Only the master, Robert Anson Heinlein, wrote about time enough for love.
A good friend and thinker in his own right once asked me: what is mankind's biggest problem? I am sure he expected me to think it over before responding. But, I said, almost immediately: fear. Fear is the misery which keeps on giving, and in doing so, it does have a unifying effect, as has been noted.
Fear creates a more rapid reactivity than any other human emotion, and as such a motivator, it keeps the species sharp-witted and ready to defend itself (all you psychologists and neuroscience researchers know this, sure, but so do many of us lay people.)
There are problems with overstimulation, however. It can lead to ever-expanding addiction, similar to the heroin addict's increasing need for more of his drug. This has happened, is happening in many of our social institutions: business, politics, religion, etc.
Several commenters used the political model in opining on fear, implicating one party or the other as being at fault. It is not so cut-and-dried, as I am sure most of us know. The problem began somewhen---though just when does not seem to be agreed upon. What appears fairly certain is that the politics of fear was not hatched by one group or one party.
That overstimulation mentioned above led to addiction and an ever increasing need for more of the same fear that fed the overstimulation: fear evolved into its evil progeny, hatred. And that is pretty much where we are today. Pretty much how a big piece of the world sees us.
Our political system has, accordingly, drifted away from what the founding fathers envisioned. And no one seems to have the sense of this fact, or the wherewithall to do anything about it. But, the post was about fear, wasn't it? So, be afraid. Better though, DO SOMETHING if you have the sense or wherewithall. I am too old for this shit. And I don't have much hope.

Guest's picture


Saturday, December 24, 2011 -- 4:00 PM

Fear as a social and

Fear as a social and political motivator is nothing new, and I don't think it is any worse now than in times past. The Great Wall of China, the one human construction visible from space, is a monument to fear. The idea that we are seeing more use of fear as a political motivator is probably a misconception.
Is it valid to use fear as a motivator, in politics or otherwise? If one accepts that there are some things we should in fact fear, then yes it is. It is as valid a motivator as any other. The question is, what is the person or party using fear as a motivator trying to get us to do? There are two tests: 1) is the thing they bring up something we actually should fear? and 2) is the response they call us to justified? If we want to do right, both questions must come out yes.
I hold the position that there are exactly two kinds of ethics/morality in the world: the end justifies the means; and ends and means must be separately justified. Every person and every system of ethics falls into one of those two camps. So of itself, there is nothing wrong with having fear, and nothing wrong with being motivated by it - but the thing feared must be valid, and even something worth fearing does not justify any and every response. To give a contemporary example: fear of terrorist attack is valid, and it justifies some increased security measures in response - it does not, however, justify things like torture, indefinite imprisonment without charge, or racial/religious roundups or mass imprisonments.