Virginia Tech® home

The Social Ontology of Fear



Authors as Published

My colleague, Laura Zanotti, helped to bring to campus this fall a new documentary concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine, entitled “Little Town of Bethlehem.” The film thoughtfully chronicles the efforts of would-be peacebuilders on both sides of the conflict who have risked their reputations, livelihoods and in some cases, their physical safety, to champion a settlement to the multi-dimensional and long-lived conflict that has afflicted the region. The documentary did not seek to take sides and did not polemicize, but neither did it sugarcoat the difficulties of daily life for those who must traverse multiple checkpoints merely to get to work and back home, who live within the shadow of the well-guarded and large-looming “Seam” wall designed to separate Jews and Arabs in the West Bank and whose homes are often in camps originally designed for a 15-day stay, but which now house many thousands more residents than ever envisaged when they were first created more than 60 years ago.

While the writer and producers of “Little Town” may be guilty of overemphasizing the agency possessed by individuals vis-à-vis the structural components that fuel the conflict they examined, they are appropriately unflinching in their focus on the fear that animates continued behavior and actions on both sides. Indeed, one Palestinian activist profiled in the film is eloquent on this point, suggesting the challenge is at once as difficult and as simple as having both sides in the conflict acknowledge the essential humanity of the other. He personalized that plea powerfully by observing that care for his very ill young son is available in the region only at Israeli facilities, but that it is not clear month-to- month whether the child will be permitted access to them. The family must rely on the humanity and compassion of checkpoint guards and office workers trained, on the basis of too many tragic terrorist actions, to be suspicious and to regard nothing at face value. The result of this reliance on serendipity is too often negative for his stricken child. This single example in the film illustrated the profound implications of a prevailing ontology of fear: an innocent child suffered when care was, in fact, available.

But the deeper point is that this situation is not unique. As I wrote in this space last time, raw fear as human motivator is hardly to be found in Palestine alone. It appears to be running strong here in the United States as well. Whatever else might be said of the passionate desire among many to close the nation’s border with Mexico, using a wall (these seem to be ubiquitous instruments around the world just now) and armed force, it is clear that for large numbers of Americans that turn is animated by fear of those “coming across to take our jobs, to have children illegally to claim our citizenship and otherwise to take advantage of our public services including health, education and welfare.” The facts, as so often happens, do not support these categorical assertions, nor does taking this position itself do anything to resolve the complex economic and social issues that lie at the heart of continued illegal border migration. What this stance does do, however, is offer a scapegoat for a difficult economy and parlay fear of a foreign other into a multi-million dollar national policy to “wall the bad folks” out. Fear of the other is driving a strong share of political debate, public policy and now sustained military deployment in the Southwestern United States. This unfolding episode surely illustrates the power of fear to motivate behavior, and it is not happening in the far-off Middle East but here, in our own nation.

Fear has also played a pivotal role in America’s current military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States invaded Iraq and undertook military action in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington in September 2001. Large majorities of Americans demanded revenge and the nation tightened security procedures in public transport and circumscribed individual civil liberties as mechanisms to assuage public fears of another tragic event and anger over what had already occurred. In retrospect the consequences of these emotion-laden choices have been profound for the public treasury, for America’s standing in the world, for those military families who have lost loved ones or seen them wounded for life and for citizen freedoms in the United States. And the military interventions did not eliminate fears of future attacks, nor have they created stable peaceful democracies in the targeted states. Instead, Americans’ fears continue to rage unabated, especially apparently among Tea Party activists who aim their anger against the nation’s public institutions, whose leaders in the view of these ardent advocates have not just pressed now unpopular actions, but changed and endangered the nation in doing so. These zealots fear their own national government and view it as the wellspring of the social and economic turmoil many are experiencing.

One more example of the role of fear in politics will suffice and it is perhaps the most obvious that might be drawn. The United States is still emerging from its deepest recession since the Great Depression and unemployment remains stubbornly high amidst stagnating wages, high rates of mortgage foreclosure and soaring national debt as the nation has sought to address its economic crisis and wage two wars as well. The situation is unprecedented in most Americans’ lifetimes and they are collectively uncertain about their own futures and about whether and how matters came to this pass. In poll after poll they express fear and uncertainty, and increasing numbers appear willing to blame their personal and collective woes on the current administration and President Obama especially. While President Obama can personally do little to assure individuals employment and surely did nothing to cause the financial market meltdown that led to the nation’s current woes, millions of Americans, fearful for their futures, now appear to be expecting that he should help them personally obtain positions in a phenomenon social psychologists politely label “inappropriate attribution of responsibility.” Less politely put, many Americans are fearful and angry and looking to blame someone for their perceived woes and the President represents a convenient and highly symbolic target: “I will blame that fellow; he should have been able to assure me a job by now.”

Whether the product of intractable religious and nationalist differences as in Palestine, the result of economic fears, the product of a discriminatory impulse as for many embracing America’s border wall, or simply the powerful and very human predilection to desire some simple explanation and source of responsibility that will make sense of otherwise unfathomable circumstances, such as the September 11 tragedy, fear is a compelling source of human and therefore political, motivation. As the United States has demonstrated on more than one occasion beyond the recent ones already cited—the so-called Red Scare of the 1950s, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the current enmity embraced by many citizens toward anyone of the Islamic faith, and these examples might be multiplied—fear, as the famed British philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed, is “…the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty.”

Fear now constitutes a sort of social ontology in the United States, with large numbers of Americans confused and apprehensive and therefore desirous of explanations and someone or something to hold accountable for their insecurity. Thus, the phenomenon of asking the President to be that which he cannot be. Or of ascribing to the President as symbol all manner of responsibility for events over which he has little or no purview or control in the anxious hope he will shortly set matters right. To say this situation is difficult is to understate its potential political significance. The central question is whether, in such circumstances, would-be elected leaders will foreswear using this powerful passion for their own electoral ends, even when to do so profoundly misleads or delegitimates the very institutions to which election is sought. My concern is that with a political consulting industry, which judges its “stars” only by whether “their candidates” win, and with so much ideological rancor otherwise afloat in the culture now, too few would-be office-holders will demonstrate the self-discipline to avoid exploiting fear, if they believe it will provide a margin of victory. While this is a hardy human perennial, it is a deeply lamentable one. If a democracy’s leaders cannot help their people to exercise a modicum of restraint and tolerance, and fear is exploited rather than combated, suspicion, cruelty and inhumanity will receive a much larger canvas for play. History teaches the results in such circumstances are often dark, cruel and dehumanizing. Such conditions are the bane of peace, freedom and popular government. Leadership can play a role in preventing or enabling their emergence.

Publication Date

September 30, 2010