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Musings on Fear and Governance



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Fear can be terrible and debilitating. For many leaders fear fosters concern that someone working with or for them is receiving undue attention or is too “good” at what they do, and thereby is displacing the leader’s rightful role. Therefore that person “must be put in their place” or prevented from succession, if at all possible. The business literature is rife with examples of this sad institutional reality and its consequences not only for the affected targets of such jealous ire, but also for the firms that lose the talents of gifted people because an insecure boss felt threatened or an executive was fearful of losing his or her pride of place. The phenomenon is well known in the public and nonprofit sectors as well.

Fear also drives other forms of discrimination, from persecution of those with perceived differences, whether of weight, gender, ethnicity, skin color, sexual orientation or religion, to punishment of those perceived as “other” because they are immigrants and therefore a “threat.” The United States, Israel and other nations, for example, have all built massive physical walls along at least portions of their borders out of fear of a posited predatory class of immigrants or “others” that is held responsible for all manner of actions and woes, many bearing no relationship to any factual reality. Those multi-billion dollar physical barriers are rooted in and driven fundamentally by fear. One thinks, too, of the purported differences created between the Hutus and Tutsis by the Belgians during that nation’s colonial rule in Rwanda when no real distinctions in fact separated these groups. Some years thereafter, however, this sadly powerful mythical construct of difference, when coupled with additional fear inducing allegations, resulted in one of the most horrific genocides in human history.

Adolf Hitler likewise used fear and hatred of a supposed evil “other” (Jews) to help to mobilize millions to catastrophic war and genocide. This example, as well as the current widespread vilification of immigrants in Europe and the United States, suggests the continuing power of fear as a way to mobilize individuals against “others” unlike themselves. Whether in the form of an individual executive’s fears of a “too competent” employee or in a group’s fear of an imagined “other” taking benefits of some kind from them, fear very often produces injustice and may result in calamitous consequences. Sometimes these may be limited to the individuals involved (keeping in view the fact that the perpetrator of an injustice out of fear is not thereby removed from responsibility for its consequences) and sometimes they result in social destruction on an unimaginable scale.

While fear may have diverse results, it seems clear it always has a target, and very often those marks are misleading social constructions arising from insecurity and an accompanying desire to explain difficult events—a stock market crash, a society wracked by high unemployment or inflation, or a personal concern over possibly losing power or relevance, for example. Fear needs a focus and that foil is often ascribed with all manner of motives and characteristics in order to play its assigned role as scapegoat to explain a phenomenon or alleviate an anxiety. For those fearful of immigrants, it may be a concern, more often than not imagined, but no less real to those experiencing it, that such individuals will “steal” a job they have desired or struggled to obtain.

The fear dynamic is straightforward. Events beyond an individual’s or group’s control are difficult and complex and result in insecurity, and that induces fear and sets up a situation in which someone or something must be blamed either for that apprehension, or for not removing its underlying causes. Such blame-casting then results in efforts by one or more individuals or groups to mobilize to discriminate or take overt action or worse against the alleged perpetrator supposedly creating the insecurity and fear, or not alleviating those feelings.

I was reminded of this fear-related dynamic as I watched recent events at the University of Virginia (UVA) unfold. While that institution’s Board of Visitors has now reversed its action, the Board initially forced the resignation of UVA’s popular President in early June, on the basis of a fear, as articulated by the group’s chair, that the university’s high standing was slipping and it was in danger of losing its status as a premier global institution of higher education. The Board’s leader argued that the sitting president was to be held responsible for not remedying this fear-inducing situation and so should be removed. Accordingly, the rector worked for months behind the scenes to eliminate the purported source of the identified anxiety. If Dr. Teresa Sullivan could be removed, a new actor could presumably take steps to address the factors producing the concern more quickly or effectively.

So, finally, fear was apparently a key factor animating the University of Virginia trustees’ action. The group that engineered her short-lived ouster viewed the president, at least for a time, as not addressing or alleviating their fears swiftly enough to quell their collective anxiety. Remove the agent not making the distress abate rapidly enough to quell discomfort and one at least identifies a path to address the apprehension, or so appears to have been the Board’s initial collective assumption. Sullivan became the Visitors’ scapegoat for fear of the implications of issues not of her making. In this case, when the Board ultimately judged its own actions unwarranted in the face of widespread protest, its reversal surely remedied an injustice, but often fear produces outcomes that go unchallenged or unaddressed.

The difficult sociological question is how to create populations willing to test their assumptions and not fall prey to the ever-powerful emotional claims of fear and allied scapegoating. Populations, that is, that neither “other” without reason nor succumb unthinkingly to those seeking to mobilize them for their own purposes on the basis of such claims. That surely is a central challenge confronting friends of democratic governance at all scales of action. The issue the paradoxical problematic of fear raises for democratic governance is at least two fold in character: first, how may free human societies discipline a natural propensity of their citizens to scapegoat in fear so as to secure the larger end of reflective action and second, do so nonetheless in ways that permit continued individual freedom of choice. The UVA governance debacle illustrated successful, educated individuals may fall prey to fear just as quickly and completely as those lacking such credentials. How do we equip Americans for reflective action generation after generation?

Publication Date

June 28, 2012