The politics of fear

We make bad decisions when we allow ourselves to be swayed by fear

Every human action is rooted in either love or fear. It’s not a new or a particularly complicated analysis of the human condition, but it is an apt and important one. As individuals most people profess to live by the former, but very often our larger societies seem to succumb to the latter. So why is there such a gap between our philosophy and our policies?

Of course this is a question that is far too big to fully answer in a single page of text, but a broad answer would be that we have institutionalized fear. There are institutions that were traditionally established to protect and inform us, like our government, the media, or organized religions, to name a few big ones.

But as such these institutions also became centres of power, and of course they seek to maintain that power through relevance, and the best way for them to maintain that relevance is through perpetuating messages of fear.

Whether it is microscopic antigens or global climate catastrophe, the person next door or the terrorist on the other side of the world, or even what will happen beyond the life of our biological bodies, we are plagued by messages of fear. These institutions disseminate the idea that the world is a complex, chaotic, and scary place, and that the only shelter we might find is under their umbrella.

Recently in the Israeli election the citizens voted for fear. In a nation plagued by economic woes that had been steadily getting worse under the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, national security was framed as an equally pressing election issue as the economy.

Netanyahu was touted, by himself and the media, as the choice for a hardline stance against Palestinian aggression and as the best option for protecting the citizenry. So, despite his abysmal economic record, Netanyahu marched on to win his fourth term as prime minister. What’s even more surprising is that, when looked at objectively, it can be argued that Netanyahu’s record on security is about as bad as his record on the economy.

The most recent conflict between Israel and Palestine was sparked by the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three Israeli teenagers, which Netanyahu was quick to blame on Hamas. Evidence later surfaced strongly suggesting that only a small independent cell of Hamas operatives, and not Hamas as a whole, was responsible for the crime, but Netanyahu used the occasion to round up 300 Hamas members in the West Bank, raising tensions and triggering war.

Even giving Netanyahu the total benefit of the doubt, assuming that he truly believed Hamas was responsible for the murders and thought he was doling out justice with his aggressive actions, and that he had no intention of a wider conflict with Palestine, he was still wrong, and consequently plunged the region into a conflict that resulted in the deaths of 66 Israeli soldiers and five civilians.

Keep in mind that is only the calculable harm done directly to Israel, and doesn’t factor in that the over 2,100 Palestinian deaths and severe infrastructure damage done to Palestine will doubtlessly destabilize the region even further and cause Israel to be even less secure. Under his leadership Israel has become less secure, and yet Netanyahu was still voted in on a platform of security. This kind of dissonance can only be achieved when the people’s perspective is distorted by the prism of fear.

The Middle East is an extreme example, but the politics of fear are hardly unique to that area. It isn’t something that any particular political brand is innocent of either. Doubtlessly next November in the Canadian election there will be a sizable amount of people who vote for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives because they are afraid of “radical jihadists” or a number of other xenophobic reasons.

However, the opposition parties also try to garner votes by cashing in on a fear of Stephen Harper, spending their time trying to make the public afraid of how the prime minister is changing Canada into something unseemly, instead of fully focusing their energy demonstrating how they themselves might be a positive force for change. These are tactics that demonstratively win elections, and they all foster and cater to a climate of fear.

It is very easy for us to pass the buck onto institutions like the media and the government and say that we are afraid because they are bombarding us with messages of fear, but I would suggest that we are equally to blame because we allow ourselves to be a fearful people.

Whether we are afraid because of their fearmongering narrative or whether they are perpetuating their narrative because we are a fearful people who respond to such tactics is irrelevant, because ultimately the result is still very much like a snake eating its own tail. Our institutions can’t be expected to change their policies until our philosophy renders such policies absurd.