The use of fear and its relation to violence

This month we have a reflection on the use of fear and its relation to violence by a friend and colleague Peter Isackson. Peter is a consultant and coach in international and intercultural communication. A native Californian, educated at UCLA and Oxford, living and working in Paris for the past 30 years, he recently launched a new company, InterSmart Communication dedicated to furthering collaboration and communication in international contexts with the effective integration of networking and mobile technology.

The pundits have stated that people voted for Bush because they were afraid of terrorism. Now looking at the electoral map I notice something curious. If fear is the motivating factor why did New York—the principal and most spectacular target of all terror, past and future—give an 18% margin to Kerry? Do the rural denizens of Alabama and Kansas live in fear that Bin Laden (or perhaps Saddam Hussein's faithful followers still believed to be responsible for 9/11) are seeking to attack them? Obviously not, but I assume that inspired by their faith—and by the information supplied by Fox news, they are fascinated by the excuse provided for "the most powerful country in history" to:

1) demonstrate its incomparably massive and pitiless power
2) exploit the bold personality of a politician who's willing to use it without hesitation or wavering.

The most comforting thing for these people, attached to the ideal of their comfortable unchanging world, is that it's not their power and it's not their responsibility. They can simply vote to leave that power in the hands of those who obviously seem to enjoy it and go home. The power is no longer delegated by the people to its representatives, as the classic theory of democracy states the case. It now belongs to those who have appropriated it with the casual consent of the governed (mediated by... the media). They have been given a free reign to do what they want with it.

Kerry himself fell into the trap by voting in favor of unrestricted power for the president in Iraq, sensing that that was the trend but probably believing that it would only be used to "compassionate" and reasonable (rather than "rational") ends. He was a Democrat and continued to believe in "reason", as the other half (49%) of the U.S population apparently continues to do. Bush, Wolfowitz, Rove and Co. are Republicans and believed not in reason, but in the "rational": the unrestricted scientific use of power to carefully calculated ends. This is where the deep cynicism becomes perceptible. The voters transfer power with no critical analysis as an act of faith to a group of people who in the name of faith are committed to a form of political and economic rationalism, the science of power.

The phenomenon of religious exclusivity and intolerance isn't all that new. I remember as a university student in the late 60s being accosted by what were then called "Jesus Freaks", a spin-off of hippydom. The scene took place at the eastern end of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood (Sin City West). They shoved some of their literature into my face and told me that I needed to find Jesus. I replied (honestly) that I was a Catholic, thinking that they might see a link between that and Jesus and let me out of their grips. Out came a wild and obviously well prepared vituperative rant about the Whore of Babylon and the Pope as Anti-Christ. The ranter was a young woman of no more than 20.

Religiously formulated aggression seems to have a privileged place in U.S. culture, often boiling invisibly below the surface like a dormant volcano only to erupt from time to time with a variable degree of violence. For most people, the lava has cooled since 2001; it has been partially sublimated into a kind of misty nationalism that hasn't existed in Europe since the dismantling of the old empires. But it has also led to various degrees of reflection and analysis on the subject of culture, politics and religion. For some, however, 9/11 clearly reactivated the volcano of religious aggression. The touchy-feely mistiness that affected practically everyone— the sentiment of solidarity, national unity and collective mourning—was merely the initial spurt of steam caused by the slow and certain rise from below of the hot magma. As the misty reaction gradually dispersed to the winds, the aggressive religious side seems to have expanded towards the surface and is now, for the first time, fully aware of its awesome power.

This new configuration appears to have to do neither with sentiment, nor (in my opinion) with faith. It's characterized by a decision on the part of a majority of people to trust the one who is the most aggressive, on a pragmatic rather than on a moral level. Faith and moral values become mere excuses. The only value that's truly important is domination: the intent to impose one's will without asking any questions and with minimum accountability. Take from us what you need (so long as it isn't in the form of taxes) and do what you want to anyone who gets in your way (e.g. Arabs, Muslims or Democrats). Just use your power and be effective. Power and the use of power is the only way we know of relieving the stress. Let it erupt.

All this is to say that believing the election can be explained by the fear of terrorism which provoked a retreat into "traditional values" may be something of a dodge. Kerry was personally afraid of war because he had seen close up how fearful it was. Bush was afraid of nothing because he had lived a protected life. The voters in New York were so afraid of terrorism they were willing to elect a man committed to diplomacy to prevent it. The voters from the South and rural Middle West feared nothing for themselves, but used the notion of fear to send a message of aggression towards those who don't identify with their particular "values" (i.e., anything that is culturally familiar; not ethics, not tradition, not clearly formulated ideals).

Roosevelt's dictum in his first inaugural should perhaps be rewritten: "The only thing we have to fear is the tendency to use fear itself to create more fear".

© 2008 George Simons


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There are no elements so diverse that they cannot be joined in the heart of a man. - Jean Giraudoux

George Simons is a US specialist in intercultural and gender communication who hangs out in Mandelieu - la Napoule, France, as well as in Santa Cruz, CA. In the 1980’s he was one of the founders of the Hidden Valley Center for Men and the Cyberguys network. He is currently the treasurer on the board of The National Men's Resource Center™. He is on the faculty of Management Centre Europe, where he consults on virtual global teamwork. He has written over a dozen books on culture and gender including  Working Together:  How to Become More Effective in a Multicultural Organization and with Deborah G. Weissman, Men & Women:  Partners at Work. (Crisp Foundation) and is the creator of the award-winning Diversophy® game. or E-Mail.

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