THE BLOG
08/27/2007 12:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nothing to Fear...

It's tempting to think that if you scare the shit out of people -- really convince them, down to their bones, that hurricanes, diseases, and starving refugees are hiding just around the corner -- that mass mobilization against global warming will at long last ensue.

There's good reason to doubt it. Fear causes fairly predictable reactions, which do not include international cooperation, equitable distribution of resources, cost-benefit analysis on a multi-decadal scale, and short-term sacrifice in the service of long-term problem-solving. They do include increased xenophobia, reactionary moralism, and susceptibility to demagogues.

That is to say, the language of fear intrinsically serves the needs of authoritarian-leaning politics, regardless of the fear's particular object. That's the conclusion of a series of posts on fear and environmentalism I wrote a while back, and it's echoed in a recent article from John Judis in The New Republic. Judis takes a look at some results from the burgeoning field of political psychology and finds evidence that reminders of mortality ...

... can trigger a range of emotions -- from disdain for other races, religions, and nations, to a preference for charismatic over pragmatic leaders, to a heightened attraction to traditional mores.

The researchers call this "worldview defense" -- "the range of emotions, from intolerance to religiosity to a preference for law and order, that they believe thoughts of death can trigger."

Environmentalists terrify the populace with stories of oncoming doom, and in the next breath proclaim that the worldview of humankind must change fundamentally, that we need a global spiritual transformation.

The former triggers worldview defense and the latter exacerbates it. If you tell people that all they know is false and corrupt, and that they must leap with you into an entirely new world, you are going to create extremely high barriers. Almost by definition, very few people are going to join you. The rest will find some way to preserve their reality -- by disputing the message, by disdaining those who carry the message, or simply by tuning the whole mess out.

We -- you and I and all human beings -- cling to what we know, what gives our world order and meaning. Threatening that causes us to cling tighter. We fear loss of control, particularly when confronted by the ultimate loss of control: death.

That reaction is fine if your goals are reactionary. If your goals are progressive, it works against you. Progressives must convince people that changes in the direction of justice and sustainability are the logical extension of who they are. They are a fulfillment of our true nature, not a fundamental break with our past. They are: what you have, what you know, only better, moreso.

Progressives must show people a path from here to there, a continuity that can be bridged with hope and confidence. Fear yields neither.

Postscript: Relatedly, see "Authoritarianism and the political divide" by Jonathan Weiler and Marc J. Hetherington. They identify authoritarianism as "a general moral, political and social intolerance, an aversion to ambiguity and a related desire for clear and unambiguous authority," and say:

The original treatment of authoritarianism suggested it was a static personality type, but much recent work suggests that it waxes and wanes according to specific social contexts, especially levels of threat. When issues arrive on the agenda that engage authoritarianism, these issues will activate perceptions of threat and difference, making authoritarianism more central to shaping the terrain on which politics is contested even if, as has been true over the past decade, average levels of authoritarianism remain unchanged.

Importantly, issues likely to engage authoritarianism are among the most salient today. In 2004, gay marriage and the war on terror were particularly prominent. In 2005 and 2006, Republican elites served up constitutional amendments to ban flag burning and gay marriage, obstructed extension of the Voting Rights Act over multilingual ballots, pushed English as the nation's official language, passed congressional resolutions resisting withdrawal from Iraq, and proposed a long security fence between the United States and Mexico in response to illegal immigration. All these issues tap, quite directly, fundamental concerns about the proper structure of the family and authority, the need to quell possible threats to social homogeneity, and the need to use whatever means necessary to protect a suddenly vulnerable-seeming nation. In short, all of these issues tap anxieties central to an authoritarian world view. [emphasis mine]

Do we really want to tap those kinds of anxieties? I'd say no.

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