Dissing Fear

Political pundits like to accuse opponents of a “politics of fear”, or of hate.  In contrast, folks go out of their way to emphasize that theirs is a politics of hope or compassion.  Yet when each of us notices that we are feeling fear or hate, this doesn’t usually make us reject the beliefs that lead to such feelings.  Why do we embrace and accept our own fears and hates, even as we suggest that others’ fears and hates are bad signs about them?

One obvious explanation: relative to low status folks, high status folks have less occassion to fear or hate.  Pretty pampered prestigious people encounter fewer dangers to fear, or powerful enemies to hate.  Therefore publicly showing fear or hate is a sign of low status.  Complaining that your opponents have a “politics of fear” or hate is really just complaining about their low status.  Politics isn’t about policy, after all.

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  • KW

    That seems to take a narrower view of fear than I think of.

    How does that explain the relatively high-status who are very fearful: for an example, affluent overprotective parents who see peril–moral or physical–lurking around every corner and can afford extreme measures to protect their children from them, up to and including passing new laws? In this case it seems like publicly showing fear (and then acting, effectively or not) is showing that you care.

    Why not “they’re not as smart as we are, and don’t know that they fear and hate things they shouldn’t”? Our own fears and hates are just things all rational people should be wary of for our own safety and well-being (and therefore that we should protect everyone from for their own good); others’ are driven from ignorance and if they knew better like we did, they’d fear and hate what we do. (And if you fail to think acting on that fear is important, you don’t care about your children/America/tolerance/the future of the economy/happiness and kittens.)

  • Politics is inherently about forming coalitions that are in conflict with each other, and so inherently employes emotions like hatred and fear of outsiders, as well as more positively valenced emotions that bind people together, like patriotism and social responsibility. I suppose you are right to say that fear/hate based emotions tend to have a relatively lower status. But doesn’t that seem like a good thing? You can view the rise of Hitler, to take the most obvious example, as the triumph of both hate-based poltics and of the lower classes over the traditional German aristocracy. The aristos who disdained Hitler were right to do so.

    In America, the Know Nothing party (anti-Catholic) in the pre-civil-war era and its modern day equivalents (anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim) are a less extreme form of the same dynamic — lower-class movements expressing lower-class fears of the Other. The elite for the most part disdains them, or exploits them. The more thoughtful approach is try to recognize the legitimacy of their fears and direct them into more constructive forms of political expression.

  • Fear is a stronger emotional motivator than hope (because of loss aversion). Mightn’t opposition to “politics of fear” be a reaction against inappropriately pressing a powerful emotional button? Hope is of course also an emotional motivator and it is suspicious that people don’t disdain it at all (though “utopianism” is an occaisional criticism). Your status explanation can explain why hope is not criticized, but is not necessary to explain backlash against “fear.” In fact reacting against fear may be a rationalist-lite move: wariness of being emotionally manipulated!

    • Nate

      I agree. When speaking of “Politics of Fear”, what people usually mean is that the opponent’s arguments lack substance, and that they are relying exclusively on emotional manipulation rather than rationality.

      Obviously it’s something almost no politicians live up to, but I think the idea of trying to have a rational debate rather than one where emotions are manipulated in the absence of sound reason is a good one.

  • GNZ

    This is going the long way to the conclusion..
    Generally, I think people accuse others of politics of fear because it makes the fearful sound irrational and easy to manipulate and on another level – less happy.

    In the same way as they might accuse them of being fools or sheep etc and for the latter point the sort of school yard “your life sucks!”.

    This isnt that far below the concious level, I know I’m aware of this aspect of it if I use the term.

  • Evan

    I agree with PeterW and Nate. When I see someone accusing another person of using “politics of fear” the vibe I usually get out of them is that they feel the other person is “cheating” somehow, that using fear-based politics is “bad form.” That indicates to me that the reason fear-based politics is disliked is that it exploits a vulnerable in human cognitive architecture, and that the accuser is upset that their opponent is trying to exploit that weakness rather than win through logic and reason.

    • I wonder how such a person could wind up in politics in the first place.

      • Forgot to add how funny it is when someone complains about opponents raising “divisive” issues. Often such issues receive lopsided support for the panderer’s position, making them (as issues go) relatively unifying.

  • Fear distorts our perceptions, or rather our conclusions about our perceptions. Evolutionary, the cost for missing one tiger in the dark was enormously higher than the cost for identifying a thousand tigers who turned out to not in fact be there, so fear heightens our “rational” perception of threat to a gigantic extent.

    I think this is why the politics of fear looks so transparently wrong to outsiders. When we are not afraid of the catholics, the jews, the muslims, the blacks, the italians, the gernans, or the chinese, those making political hay with those who do have fear look ludicrous.

    Many of us rationalists are afraid that the tea party will be the end of civil liberties in the US. Our fear of the tea party certainly distorts in our minds the threat they actually represent.

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “Why do we embrace and accept our own fears and hates, even as we suggest that others’ fears and hates are bad signs about them?”

    Fear signalling is often an attempt at manipulation – as in the “crying wolf” story. If someone tells to to be afraid, be very afraid, then you should often look to see what they will get out of this.

  • Tracy W

    Perhaps out of a genuine fear of the politics of hate and fear? (a bit contradictory I know – “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) Hate and fear has been used to deprive people of their civil rights and sometimes has lead whole societies into disaster by military misadventure. Hatred and fear of Jews, of kulaks, of capitalists, of Catholics, of Protestants, of “reactionaries” has led to vast numbers of deaths.

    Furthermore, that other people are aware of the sometimes disastrous consequences of the politics of hate and fear makes it rhetorically useful to draw implicit comparisons. If I agree with you that, say, the French Revolution’s collapse into the Great Terror and then into a military dictatorship was a bad thing, and was driven in part by politics of hate and fear, saying that x is the politics of hate and fear probably increases the odds that I’ll start to regard x as a bad thing (unless we’re fundamentally opposed).

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