Fear is an emotion, but it is one with a long history in both political theory and politics in the real world.
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.