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?