Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Fear-Mongering Dilemma

This morning, I read an article: "The Allure of the Far Right Demands Immediate Action." It was about the recent Values Voters summit, especially focusing on Steve Bannon's fiery address at that event. The author, Adele M. Stan, describes Bannon's speech as "a dark, apocalyptic address" featuring a "burn-it-all-down litany of grievances" that "set the house on fire." She went on to speak in frightening terms about the overall atmosphere of the summit:
A menacing undercurrent flowed throughout the Values Voter conference, not only in hyperbolic descriptions of the supposed threats to Western civilization posed by Islam and the American left, but in veiled threats, couched in the language of violence, directed at opponents of the Trump agenda.
What we are left with is a portrait of fear-mongers skillfully fueling the anxieties of a group of people, inspiring them to see themselves as under siege, as facing such dire threats to their existence or way of life that they need to take decisive action to defeat these threats.

The article left me feeling more frightened than I'd been before, less optimistic about the prospect of a peaceful future for this country and the world, and more worried about threats to civil discourse and civil society. The message of the article was that these fear-mongers and their followers pose a serious threat to our safety and way of life, and we need to take action.

Here is the dilemma. Fear-mongering is dangerous. It puts people in a defensive posture where they see others as a threat, a posture from which they are more likely to strike out violently. The more that fear is stoked, the more serious our conflicts become and the less likely we are to find peaceful, integrative solutions that meet everyone's needs.

And there are people today--and I an convinced that Steve Bannon is among them--who have elevated fear-mongering to an art form and are stoking the human capacity for fear by convincing those who listen that their lives or ways of life are in dire peril. They are fueling divisions and inspiring fear of those on the other side of the fabricated divides, and their rhetoric is laced with violent imagery and the notion that a violent confrontation is inevitable.

And then there are those who warn us about these masters of fear-mongering and the crowds sucked in by them. And their warnings put us in danger of a second-order fear-mongering, one that fuels fear of the fear-mongers and their followers.

And I can only imagine that this isn't the solution. Urging us to fear those who peddle fear, it seems to me, can only inspire feedback loops of escalating fear and defensiveness, bringing us closer to the brink.

In fact, I suspect that the fear-mongers are counting on this response. "If we sow seeds of suspicion and fear among those who are prone to follow us, there will be those who will become more afraid of us and our followers, afraid of the growing potential for violence that we represent, and will begin raising the alarms among those who weren't sucked in by our fear-mongering. This will start a cycle that will help our efforts to sow fear, as our followers feel the defensive anger of these others in a way that we can play on to magnify the defensive hostility of those we've seduced."

But what can we do? Fear mongering is dangerous. It is a threat to civil society. So how do we get people to take it seriously and stand against it without issuing warnings that become a kind of second-order fear-mongering that only fuels the fire of fear? How do we mobilize the forces required to de-fang the fear-mongers without stoking fear?

There is a difference, of course, between legitimate warnings and fear-mongering--but my worry is that once fear-mongers have gotten a sufficiently strong foothold in our polity, this line of distinction begins to matter less, and even carefully circumscribed warnings can become fuel for feedback loops of escalating fear. We can't avoid calling attention to dangers, so what do we do?

My answers--sowing seeds of hope, becoming love-mongers, building wherever we can bridges of understanding that ease fears--make sense in theory. But how do we implement them at the scale that is required?


  1. Hi, Eric-

    One solution is to promote an atmosphere of intellectual rigor. Truth is a fatal poison to much of this fear mongering. To know that lie after lie is coming out of the White House transforms the rhetoric from fear-inducing to pathetic, self-serving, and manipulative. To know that Bannon's narrative is unhinged is to not react to it. And to know that Christianity is no more moral than the next tribal ideology, and is based on a series of historical / scientific lies plus a psychology of magical thinking would reduce attendence at these kinds of "values" conferences substantially.

    1. It may be more helpful to point out how at odds the ethical teachings of Jesus are with tribalistic us/them ideology and the "moral" positions rooted in it.

      As you know, I don't agree that religion in general or Christianity in particular must be reduced to magical thinking or tied to factual errors (even if these things are often features of actual religious belief and practice). But that disagreement aside, I think that the human tendency to respond to challenges to cherished beliefs by digging in their heels makes it unlikely that the approach you recommend would reduce attendance at these kinds of values conferences. In fact, I suspect that the pugnacity on display at these conferences is tied to the very heel-digging resistance to external challenges. In the light of this, an invitation to think more carefully about what it means to live as a follower of Jesus may be more likely to dampen the appeal of "Christian" conferences premised on othering and divisiveness.

    2. Where was this high-mindedness when Oblabla was in office? You knew he was lying about Benghazi (a video? really?); you knew he was lying about keeping your health plans and your doctors. Do you guys have any, even a smidgen of self-awareness here? Do you really think the Cackling Pantsuit would be some kind of paragon of virtue, with her incredible baggage?

      You hate us, we "teabaggers," "red staters," "flyover country." We know what you mean when you start talking about "civil discourse." You never speak about the racist hate speech coming from black twitter, you never talk about the utter contempt the entertainment industry's (with their rapists and God knows what else) disdain of working class white America. This is just so disingenuous.

    3. I hear a lot of anger in that comment, perhaps hate--given the reliance on derisive put-downs of other human beings ("Oblabla," "Cackling Pantsuit"). For what it's worth, I live in a red state, in flyover country, and my wife is a boots-wearing, country-music-listening native whose family has its roots deep in red dirt country. I look at some of the dying small towns where some of my in-laws live, where everyone says hi to everyone and looks out for each other, and I feel an ache for a way of life that's hanging by a thread.

      Now I'm going to say a few words about what I think is true, although it would take way too much to defend each claim. So I share it just for the sake of offering a better sense of where I'm coming from.

      I think our current president--a New York City billionaire--doesn't really care about his base (although he cares a lot about being cheered by them). I think, rather, he is a con artist who figured out how to manipulate the frustration of many small-town Americans (largely by playing up us/them thinking) in order to win power. And I think he has in mind a self-serving policy agenda that will, if successfully implemented, devastate what is left of the small-town way of life I was describing above, while also making life far harder for people living in inner city slums who are already desperate and the middle class.

      I don't believe Clinton's policies would've helped restore small-town America or restored the prospects of the urban poor, but would've perpetuated the policies that have been steadily eroding the capacity of these communities to flourish--not as bad as the devastation the current administration would wreak (while saying things that make a subset of the victims cheer), but bad enough.


    4. We need real substantive change, away from the neoliberal economic policies that have steadily eroded the capacity of working class people--black and white, urban and rural, Republican and Democratic--to live well by their labor. And this does not mean embracing Marxism (in case that's what you think I'm getting at). It means being realistic about capitalism: recognizing it's enormous potential and power but seeing where it can lead to patterns of exploitation. As economic division grows, the wealthy have a growing capacity to exploit the have-nots, getting them to work for far less than their labor is worth and pocketing the difference; and a growing ability to manipulate market forces to ensure that when they make risky investments, the costs will be borne by the poor rather than by themselves. I believe we need to work to create systems of government that correct for these problems so that the benefits of competitive market economies are enjoyed by every person willing to work hard rather than primarily by the privileged elite who know how to leverage their advantages to make even more advantages for themselves (typically at the expense of the poor).

      And I'm not saying no one should be rich or that all rich people are bad, either. What I'm saying is that the system is set up so that if and when wealthy persons are unscrupulous, they can become obscenely rich (far richer than is really of benefit to anyone) by exploiting the vulnerable-and they can get away with it, often without even recognizing the suffering they've caused (because they're caught up in the game and playing by the rules and don't see the negative impact but only feel the rush of winning). The evil here is the system that allows that to continue, not ordinary human beings who just act the way people do when they find themselves on one end or the other of a system that creates such divisions.

      I'm not a revolutionary. I think it is possible to correct the system--but it requires that the people broadly educate themselves and discuss and debate which corrections will do the most good thoughtfully and openly, listening to a range of experts with academic training and an ability to discern nuances and ambiguities--and that we conduct such debates without vilifying each other. And then we must demand that political leaders make the kinds of changes that, in our emerging and informed consensus judgment, will do the most good for all.

      That's what I think. And I think that too often, instead of working in good faith towards such change, politicians play into ideologies of division and fear to get ordinary Americans to hate each other so that they won't join together to demand real change. And while I think the current administration may be the most egregious offender in living memory, I do not thereby withhold criticism from other administrations (in many cases characterized by a well-meaning philosophy that was distorted by "political realism"). But I also don't want to create false equivalencies.

  2. I think you are on to something Eric - love-mongering. What does that look like? How can opposing sides reject responding in love as the higher ground?

    It is about how we respond rather than what others are doing to us. Leaders must call out violence in reactions to injustices toward them. Leaders must call out injustices toward others. Honestly, I don’t oppose all of what comes out of our President Trump’s mouth, but if only President Trump would stop provoking and admit injustices and how to move forward.

    1. There are two questions here: First, what does it look like to be a love-monger? Second, how do we encourage and spread love-mongering? I can't answer both in a short comment and don't have time to address either now, but I may make these topics of future posts. I think I am better positioned to speak to the first question, as I've thought quite a bit about the nature of the sort of love at issue here. The second question is harder for me.