Monday, March 26, 2007

Fear Mongering Is A Provocation

Deliberate action or speech that makes someone fearful or angry, such as the recent (and regular) gems by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, perpetuates fear, most often existential fear.

There are numerous psychological studies establishing the power of fear:
  • Groups of strangers could persuade people to believe statements that were obviously false.
  • People were often willing to obey authority figures even when doing so violated their personal beliefs.
  • Ordinary citizens could continually shock an innocent man, even up to near-lethal levels, if commanded to do so by someone acting as an authority.
  • Cognitive dissonance often causes illogical and nonsensical mental constraints.
  • Heightened patriotic urge, for example right after 9/11, was an attempt to counterbalance the scary thought of ones own mortality brought on by those attacks.
  • When people are reminded of their own deaths, they become more conservative, more family oriented, more security-minded and more patriotic.
  • Fear of death provokes a need to feel connected to others, to have a clear sense of identity, to know how one fits into the world, and to feel one has free will.
  • People have different versions of God, thus they have different versions of evil.
In each of us there's a tug of war between our primitive instinct to survive at all costs and a brain that is not only conscious of its own existence but also is aware that our lives are finite -- our existential plight.

Social psychologists, philosophers -- and recently existential and terror management psychologists -- know and have proven these facts. Intuitively we all know them to be true. But very few of us ever leap beyond our own discomfort to figure out how to make use of this information -- to manipulate others based on knowledge of these principles.

Karl Rove and Lee Atwater are a examples of political operatives that have waged fear campaigns taking advantage of these psychological axioms. They have carefully crafted campaigns that create a longing for a protector/authority figure [in the form of their candidate(s)]. Even though in my book those tactics are blatantly immoral and unethical, they have repeatedly used them with great success.

With less knowledge but equal effect are bullies like Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Bush who wage similar campaigns through the airwaves of our daily news instilling fear and repugnance in all who read or hear the news. These are crippled people but unfortunately in powerful places. In Bush's case, he's both an addict (albeit reformed) and an effeminate man who masquerades as a macho man by bravado. The result is his stubborn belligerence to reality and his inability to act as a President should: pragmatically resolving the hard-to-resolve problems affecting America and Americans. Who knows why the other two play the game, but game it is and play it they do with you and I in the way of their friendly fire.

Ahmadinejad is playing that game today (provocation, bullying gestures in the press), expressing his anger at the US's denial of some of his UN visas by capturing and holding for trial 15 British sailors. Some of the incidental consequences are that oil prices are skyrocketing, British Prime Minister Blair is thwarted from using normal diplomacy, the British public are going ballistic, and we're all worried that Bush or Israel will do something quick and terrible that will blow up the situation even further.

[PS: You may wonder why Howard Dean is included in my rogues gallery above. I like the guy and what he's doing for the Democratic Party. But calling Reps "brain dead" and saying that "a lot of them never made an honest living in their lives" is equally provoking. His words define opponents as beyond the reach of reason which is no different than the polemics of extreme religious thought and the bullying back and forth of Ahmadinejad, Bush and Chavez.]