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We must conquer society's fear with hope

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John Ray


“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.” — Bertrand Russell

Fear is a powerful and necessary emotion. But fear interrupts the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, to deliberate, to consider data and to act ethically. Fear weakens the bonds of community and makes us more likely to see others as the threatening “other” and to incite hatred and violence toward those who are different. Fear is also a powerful societal tool to control others. Social virtues such as justice and empathy are ignored during times of collective fear and insecurity.

We hear much about the decay of American democracy. Much of this decay’s cause is societal fear. Understanding the nature of societal fear will enable a rebirth of democracy.

In this time of COVID, societal fear is rampant. COVID exacerbates the most fundamental fears like fear of poverty, sickness, losing loved ones, and death. But the fear that saps democracy started before COVID.

Widespread societal fear increases the pressure for conformity. Social conformity means that people will accept popular opinion as their own and will not engage in independent thinking. People trust their relevant social groups; not the experts who do not belong to their group.  Societal anxiety is engendered because people, not understanding what is occurring, feel alienated, powerless and look to the autocratic leader who blames the “other” for their problems. These forces of fear before COVID included automation, globalization, the replacement of the extractive economy with the knowledge economy and increasing diversity of society. The old social order that provided security and meaning has disappeared and too many individuals feel isolated while trying to adapt to the new reality. For too many, the rules, principles and assumptions that they took for granted are being challenged.

Ironically, the current political ranting about individual freedom being the only value adds to these feelings of isolation, alienation, powerlessness and threat. So, in the name of freedom, people turn to autocratic leaders to fix things. No wonder politicians wantonly pander to this societal fear. This has happened time and again in the past — Napoleon, Hitler, Joseph McCarthy, Trump, etc. The autocratic leader “gives a simple frame of reference, simple causes; whoever joins him gets rid of confusion. Many join for no other reason, in a convulsive effort at voluntary blindness.” (Kurt Reisler—The Social Psychology of Fear)

What are possible solutions to the problem of widespread fear? One would be to reemphasize the rules of democracy — civility, respect, listening, deliberation and concern for the common good. Another is for the Democratic political party to articulate a narrative to combat the Republican/Trumpian narrative based on fear, enemies and exclusion.

The Republicans have a clear narrative — the breakdown of traditions is at fault; the “other” is at fault; freedom to do as one pleases is the only political virtue. (One characteristic of fear is oversimplification and denial which we certainly see in the response to COVID that essentially says ignore the problem, deny the facts and have no concern regarding how your individual actions affect others — a kind of spiritual and moral isolationism.) Collective fear and insecurity breed intolerance and exclusivity, a closed universe of thought and discourse and fundamentalist religion becoming a unifying force justifying, bonding and excluding.

What should be this counter-narrative? I haven’t heard a coherent narrative that boldly replaces the rabid reactionary narrative. We need a positive counter-narrative that articulates democratic values including fair, equitable and just economic policies; protecting the environment; full protection of human, civil and political rights such as voting rights as essential to democratic government; embracing diversity — cultural, ethnic and gender; and empathy and compassion for all including the poorest and the marginalized. “If democratic leaders do not succeed in restoring the frame of reference and restructuring the mental space, even the ordinary citizen of average decency is in danger of falling victim to the great simplifier, the emotional leader, the scourge of modern society.” (Reisler)

Succumbing to fear will not end fear. Fear will not drive away fear. Only hope can overcome fear’s darkness.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”  (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

Dr. John W. Ray teaches classes in political theory, ethics and public policy at Montana Tech. He has published and done extensive work in the areas of environmental justice and achieving societal equity as well as promoting democratic values in society. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Montana Tech.



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