The politics of fear and why we love it
Much is made of the depressing and irrational intrusion of the “Politics of Fear”.
We all lament how our political parties are prone to distorting statistics, leaving out facts, stigmatizing minorities, corrupting words, oversimplifying situations and events or just plain making stuff up.
We criticize the media for their willingness to spread the “politics of fear” throughout the population and most of all we just hate the fact that it seems to work. Given its ever-increasing influence it’s worth pondering why.
Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped the American people regain faith in themselves. He brought hope as he promised prompt, vigorous action, and famously asserted in his Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
But Roosevelt was wrong about fear. If someone were to make a list of all the things that people fear then ‘fear itself’ would not be there… because we like it. It works because despite what your intuition might tell you we want to be afraid and we revel in it.
Ask yourself why we watch horror movies or jump out of planes or swim with sharks. These are all fear inducing activities and surely if ‘fear itself’ is to be feared these are things that should be avoided. We used to use one of two theories to explain why we did these things.
The first was that we weren’t really afraid but rather excited by such activities. The second was that we were willing to endure these moments of terror in order to enjoy the euphoric sense of relief at the end when we survived. So applied to the political situation politicians use fear to excite and mobilize the masses and to give us something of a mental orgasm at their brilliant potential solution.
That is what we used to think but now we know differently.A study by Eduardo Andrade (University of California, Berkeley) and Joel B. Cohen (University of Florida) appearing in the Journal of Consumer Research in 2007 argues that neither of these theories is correct.
The assumption underlining the old way of thinking has always been that we are motivated to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. In their study, Andrade and Cohen argue that the assumption that people are unable to experience positive and negative affect at the same time is incorrect.
In other words, the authors argue that horror movie viewers are happy to be unhappy.
This novel approach to emotion reveals that people experience both negative and positive emotions simultaneously - people may actually enjoy being scared, not just relief when the threat is removed. As the authors put it, “the most pleasant moments of a particular event may also be the most fearful.”
Consequently, we don’t fear ‘fear itself’ we actually embrace it. We love being frightened not only because of the innate pleasure it gives us but because it also gives us a sense of purpose. We are addicted to it. We want our fear and, quite frankly, we don’t care how we get our fix. Politicians are simply feeding our addiction.
If they didn’t distort those statistics or leave out some facts we would do it for them. Our fertile imaginations seek reasons to stigmatize minorities every day. We oversimplify situations, casually flip cause and effect and rather than just make stuff up we then work hard at proving our lies with ever more elaborate rationalisations.
The ends do not simply justify the means – the ends are the means. Fear.
Our criticism of the media for propagating it isn’t much different to criticizing the horror movie for frightening us. Both simply gave us what we asked for and in both cases we chose to watch. The responsibility is ours.
Ultimately the triumph of the ‘politics of fear’ is just a sad reflection of who we are. From the war on terror to the Global Financial Crisis, exploding real estate bubbles to exploding population growth, poisonous Chinese toys to drug epidemics our list of fears is growing exponentially. All this, despite the fact that we are the safest and healthiest human beings in recorded history.
It all points to one unavoidable conclusion. For some inexplicable emotional reason, we need to be afraid and the ‘politics of fear’ is necessary to get our vote. Lets face it, when you get right down to it, what we are actually arguing about is not whether or not we should be afraid but rather what we should be afraid of.
Who we vote for is largely dependent on who appeals to the fears we like most. As Samuel Johnson so articulately put it: “Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like those of the other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it.”
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