On Fear

I wrote this essay in August of 2011. While some of the specifics have changed, I feel that the underlying message is more than still relevant today.

“The trouble with the news is simple: People, especially ones on the ends of the power spectrum, like it when you’re afraid. The people who have the power want you scared. They want you walking around paralyzed by the notion that you could die at any moment. There’s always something to be afraid of.
What does this have to do with the news?
This: The truth isn’t scary. Not when you understand it, not when you understand the repercussions of it, and not when you aren’t worried that something’s being kept from you.
The truth is only scary when you think part of it might be missing.
And those people? They like it when you’re scared. So they do their best to sit on the truth, to sensationalize the truth, to filter the truth in ways that make it something you can be afraid of.
If we didn’t have to fear the truths we didn’t hear, we’d lose the need to fear the ones we did.
People should consider that.”

(Mira Grant — Feed)

In these few words were expressed better than I ever could what I feel is happening to our world today. I have heard people say that if Republicans win the next election, they would move to Canada, because they were so afraid of what the country would become. I have heard people call President Obama a socialist, and claim that if he has his way we would become a communist state. I have heard people in tears because they believed that if we didn’t raise the debt ceiling, social security would be cut off and lots of people would all die of starvation. Sane, thinking people were honestly frightened at the prospect of the opposing group gaining power.

Of course the politicians want you to be afraid. If they can make you deathly afraid of what the opposition would do if they are allowed to, then you can focus on that, rather than maybe questioning some of the strange things that your own side is proposing “ah yes, but it’s better than the alternative, which scares me”.

The politicians and, through them, the media, want to polarise us — they want to split us into “us” and “them”, because it’s far easier to develop and maintain and power base if this is in place than if there were as big gray area in the middle that they have to spend a lot of time dealing with. I don’t believe that politicians, in spite of their best wills, maybe, are working “for the people” any more — they are working to keep their institutions in place and to keep the power that they need.

Politicians need to believe that they have power. They need to believe that they can change everyone’s lives. If you really look at what politicians have done in recent times, the best anyone has been able to do is tweak things. Yes, maybe you do or don’t like the tweaks, but there hasn’t been any real fundamental change in how this country, or Great Britain, or Germany, or France, Australia or any number of other countries has been run in the past few decades. Nothing has collapsed, in spite of the doom-sayers. In order for you to not see the truth of this, they need you to be scared.

The best way for them to get power is to make you afraid of the alternatives — because then you cling to them, and rely on them to “save you” from the horde that is waiting outside our gates — whether the horde in question is terrorism, socialism, religious extremism, or any number of other menaces.

The media, the news — they are merely amplifying the message that the politicians wish to put out there — it gets them good ratings, and it keeps things going for the 24-hour news cycle which needs to be fed. We watch the ones that we agree with, and dismiss the others as “extremist nutjobs”. We hold on to the ones that feed our own fears.

So in a survey, you have 29% of Democrats thinking of the Tea Party as “terrorists”. Joe Biden even used the term, drawing criticism from Sarah Palin and others. The irony is that she herself made efforts to sow fear into the American people by referring to then-candidate Obama “palling around with terrorists”. The term is deliberately emotive, and, in my opinion, should be treated in a similar way to Nazi comparisons. It is done for shock value, to make people afraid.

On the other side, you have conservative radio host Alex Jones talking about how the new so-called “Super Congress” (I have yet to see the designs for their outfits yet) is really a way to undermine democracy by the “ruling elite”, using incendiary words and phrases like “dictatorship”, “total destruction of the 2nd Amendment” and “totalitarian steamroller” and concluding that the goal of this ruling elite is to “build their authoritarian control structure designed to turn the earth into a sprawling slave labor gulag and plantation”. If this isn’t meant to be causing fear in its followers then I’m not sure what is…

So what can we do to change the discussion? Stephen Covey suggests that we “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Maybe a dose of that will help. When you read an article, or hear a news piece or talk to someone who is of an opposing view to you (and I suggest you do), try to work out whether this person is speaking from a position of fear, no matter how well disguised. Try to find out what they fear, and, most important, try to find out why they are afraid. Because these people are thinking, intelligent people (in spite of what the media would like to make you think) and there is a reason they have this fear. Watch MSNBC and Fox, listen to Alan Colmes and Rush Limbaugh and try to understand both the message and the underlying fear. Try to see the places they are trying to drive us.

A well-known leader once said:

“The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.”

Any guesses as to who said it? Hermann Göring. This has been shown time after time throughout history, even in recent US history. We are nurturing a Culture of Fear and we need to resist its lure, and not let it sway us.

The truth? We don’t need to be afraid. We should educate ourselves not to be cowed into submission by any one party or ideology. We should look at the choices offered and make up our own minds, countering those that add that dose of hysteria with a healthy dose of cynicism. Don’t allow yourself to be dragged into the fear-mongering, for it only makes them stronger. They need that.

We need strong leaders, but they need to be strong because of good, constructive ideas, rather than because they have educated a large subset of our population to believe in the fears of the truths that we don’t hear.

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