Must it be Halloween everyday?

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Since it’s Halloween, and I have not yet overdosed on Starburst and Snickers, I started to wonder how what role fear has in 2007. We seem to want to be scared, which is why horror movies are so popular, although I am not a fan of torture-porn flicks like Saw and Hostel. Catwoman was scary enough.

But what about using fear for non-entertainment purposes? It can often be used in situations where it may not be the best approach. Like a parent who warns, “Study hard, or you won’t get into the Ivy League and you’ll have no future.” Well, I studied hard, didn’t get into the Ivy League, and am doing OK.

It may sound naïve, but hope really is a better sales pitch than fear. And if all you have to offer is fear, or it’s close relations such as cynicism, paranoia, etc. – you start to become unpleasant company after awhile.

Fear seems to be ascendant these days, and from all corners. Neocons are trying to scare us that Iran is bent on world domination, despite the fact that it cannot even dominate their own neighborhood or refine its own oil. Fareed Zakaria does a thorough job of taking down that argument here.

Some environmentalists are insisting that doomsday is right around the corner – a message I’ve been hearing since Happy Days was still on the air. And if a guy such as Bjorn Lomborg argues that the challenges, while real, can be dealt with by abandoning hysteria, he is branded a heretic with a level of ferocity that he could be a modern day Galileo up against the Catholic Church.

From a poli-sci POV, are certain kinds of democracies more prone to fear-mongering than others? Indian political and economic reforms are often ham-strung by fear of consequences. Some Indian politicians fear loosening labor restrictions because it will lead to abuses by MNCs. Or they fear allowing modern supermarkets to open up, because of the fear it will drive small shopkeepers out of business. In the U.S., we fear tainted meat and lead-laden toys, but not fatty foods or excessive drinking. France is afraid of the 40 hour workweek.

So, why is it that at a time when living standards and education levels are generally rising that fear is too often the first tool that someone uses to make their point? It might be easy to simply say “politicians” but they often first gauge the public mood, and then plan out a strategy. Are there steps we can take to lower the market value of fear as an instrument of persuasion? Now excuse me, I have to fininsh my work early enough so I can get home before some kids egg the house.

27 thoughts on “Must it be Halloween everyday?

  1. Interesting post, will check the links later work needs to be done. However, Speaking of fear, do we worry about this – though projections based on current scenarios don;t take into account technological advances derived off need and thus are pessimistic.

    Another thing, in this country unless one is completely wasted or unlucky, is it really possible for one to not do ok, Ivy League or not. Candy for thought…

  2. Amit, I am so with you on that one.

    hope really is a better sales pitch than fear

    True. I realized as a teacher that getting kids to work was all about positive incentives instead of the threat of failure, etc. I could get them to simmer and focus by just trading five minutes at the end of class with them. They give me the rest of class and at the end, they could play music, talk, and walk around when we were in the classroom doing health. ONLY if they did what they needed to though.

    On a completely different note-

    You forgot to mention the fear of latinos overrunning the US and changing it’s language and dominant culture. That fear seems to be creeping into the news everyday on some level.

  3. Coach,

    Exactly, Bill Maher had something on his show last night about the nut case Lou Dobbs and how he propogates the fear of Mexican workers and no one focuses on the real problems. An interesting aside, till I moved here, I was not exposed to the fear mongering by big pharma and insurance companies. The only medicine commercials I saw growing up in India were cough drops and headache medicines.

  4. KXB,

    Good post.

    Fear could be classified into two categories -

    1. Fear of the known/proven

    This is not such a bad thing. Fear of terrorism, tainted meat, lead-laden toys etc etc come under this category. There is enough empirical evidence (that repeats itself every month or so) to suggest that these could affect any of us without warning.

    1. Fear of the unknown/unproven

    This is a problem (that politicians exploit). Fear of global warming, healthcare crisis, free-markets etc come under this category. There is no evidence that these are actually problems – indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. It’s similiar to fearing ghosts.

    M. Nam

  5. Two books I liked on the subject of fear:

    The Gift Of Fear-Gavin DeBecker (I would say this is a must) The Culture Of Fear:Why Americans Are Afraid Of The Wrong Things-Barry Glassner

  6. That’s what she said.

    HA! That’s hilarious! Totally just fell out my chair. Lion, you totally caught me offguard man.

  7. 1. Fear of the known/proven This is not such a bad thing. Fear of terrorism, tainted meat, lead-laden toys etc etc come under this category. There is enough empirical evidence (that repeats itself every month or so) to suggest that these could affect any of us without warning. 2. Fear of the unknown/unproven This is a problem (that politicians exploit). Fear of global warming, healthcare crisis, free-markets etc come under this category. There is no evidence that these are actually problems – indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. It’s similiar to fearing ghosts.

    How is fear of terrorism ‘proven’ while global warming and healthcare are not?? Last I heard, we all get old, frail, and die. While on our way, we consume a ridiculous amount of natural resources, create inordinate amounts of waste, and generally leave the planet in a worse condition than that in which we got it. Meanwhile, the number of terrorist attacks, especially in the US since Sept. 12 can be counted on one hand. You want to talk about being afraid of ghosts, how about fearing a man who the US hasn’t been able to catch or even confirm as living in the past 6 years? It’s easy to write off fear as irrational, but should we ignore common sense too?

  8. the last person who expressed a similar sentiment ended up having to face a toothbrush mustached tom thumb sized tyrant who was responsible for a genocide of over 6 million people, and deaths of countless more. so, kxb, i would think twice before expressing this kind of sentiment.

  9. Can’t believe I’m spending time on this blog by someone who didn’t even get in to one of the lesser Ivies. Chhee chhee.

  10. Exactly, Bill Maher had something on his show last night about the nut case Lou Dobbs and how he propogates the fear of Mexican workers

    The Lou Dobbs bashing on Sepia Mutiny must stop. This guys speaks the truth but some people can’t handle it.

  11. “The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking in the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent. Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built. In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked on as an advantage. It is deliberate policy to keep even the favoured groups somewhere near the brink of hardship, because a general state of scarcity increases the importance of small privileges and thus magnifies the distinction between one group and another. By the standards of the early twentieth century, even a member of the Inner Party lives an austere, laborious kind of life. Nevertheless, the few luxuries that he does enjoy his large, well-appointed flat, the better texture of his clothes, the better quality of his food and drink and tobacco, his two or three servants, his private motor-car or helicopter — set him in a different world from a member of the Outer Party, and the members of the Outer Party have a similar advantage in comparison with the submerged masses whom we call ‘the proles’. The social atmosphere is that of a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty. And at the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival.

    War, it will be seen, accomplishes the necessary destruction, but accomplishes it in a psychologically acceptable way. In principle it would be quite simple to waste the surplus labour of the world by building temples and pyramids, by digging holes and filling them up again, or even by producing vast quantities of goods and then setting fire to them. But this would provide only the economic and not the emotional basis for a hierarchical society. What is concerned here is not the morale of masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself. Even the humblest Party member is expected to be competent, industrious, and even intelligent within narrow limits, but it is also necessary that he should be a credulous and ignorant fanatic whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph. In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possible, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist. The splitting of the intelligence which the Party requires of its members, and which is more easily achieved in an atmosphere of war, is now almost universal, but the higher up the ranks one goes, the more marked it becomes. It is precisely in the Inner Party that war hysteria and hatred of the enemy are strongest. In his capacity as an administrator, it is often necessary for a member of the Inner Party to know that this or that item of war news is untruthful, and he may often be aware that the entire war is spurious and is either not happening or is being waged for purposes quite other than the declared ones: but such knowledge is easily neutralized by the technique of doublethink. Meanwhile no Inner Party member wavers for an instant in his mystical belief that the war is real, and that it is bound to end victoriously, with Oceania the undisputed master of the entire world.”

  12. Another thing, in this country unless one is completely wasted or unlucky, is it really possible for one to not do ok, Ivy League or not. Candy for thought…

    In short, yes. (it is really possible for one not to do ok while being hard working and sober).

    Lou Dobbs says things that are patently false. We don’t need to argue about the details.

    Fear-mongering, in my opinion, is a tactic of appealing to the lowest common denominator or to base reactions. I’m with coach — I think messages of hope build more investment and positivity in the long-run. They’re also harder to frame, in my opinion, because it’s harder to keep a sense of hopefulness when you are faced with big-time social, political, and economic concerns. It also requires appealing to a sense of shared values (generally), and it seems that the current political discourse is geared towards emphasizing difference and polarity as opposed to commonalities. I’m with Amit, though, turn off the TV.

  13. It goes back to civilization’s pre-historic roots. Fear is the basis of our survival. It is the same with animals in the jungle too. But overdose of fear is probably a modern product. Remember post 9/11 Bush’s security propoganda – red yellow green etc. etc.

  14. Doomsayers will always say “It’s the end of the world” when the world is merely changing, and they feel that A) They don’t understand what’s going on; B) The change might threaten their status; C) They are getting old.

    It is in the nature of anyone over 40 to lament the passage of time. Nobody gets younger! The same types who “predicted” environmental catastrophe in the 1970s are at it today. Problems exist, sure — and can be solved.

    But doomsayers are not out to fix problems. They thrive on them.

  15. In his first Inaugural Address (1933), with the nation confronting the specter of Depression, Franklin Roosevelt spoke his well known words, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. When I first came to the States in 1960, Republican Americans argued that what got America out of the Depression was not FDR’s New Deal but the economic activity unleashed by the nation’s entry into the Second World War. On a different plane, as economic opportunities in a society increase, fear of the immediate boss diminishes. In his “Ethics” Aristotle places the Golden Mean between extremes. I do not remember that he discusses fear but I believe he would locate the Golden Mean of rational or justified fear between a foolish fearlessness, as in the face of a hungry lion, on the one hand, and an irrational or cowardly fear, on the other.

  16. The same types who “predicted” environmental catastrophe in the 1970s are at it today. Problems exist, sure — and can be solved.

    Can you please elucidate more? What kind of environmental catastrophes in the 1970s are you talking about?

  17. The motto of Ranjitsinji, the legendary batsman, after whom the Ranji Trophy is named, was “Fear not (Gabrao math).

  18. What kind of environmental catastrophes in the 1970s are you talking about?

    One popular one was overpopulation. People came up with Malthusian arguments on how food production would not keep up with population increases. Yet, we produce more food than ever – it is is pricing and distribution that is out of whack. Running out of landfill space was another one. And most drinking water (in the U.S.) is so much cleaner now than 30 years ago that Aquafina and Dasanu simply pour tap water into bottles and sell it at a premium.

  19. What kind of environmental catastrophes in the 1970s are you talking about?

    The impending ice age.

  20. KXB – neo-cons are not suggesting that the iranians are out for world domination. they are, however, [rightly] claiming that, if the persians are allowed to obtain nukes, they could jeopardise global security.
    everbody, including zakaria, who checks the wind direction before putting pen to paper, knows that if they do get the nukes, other sunni states, like ksa [no prizes for guessing who will help ksa achieve their objective], will soon follow. a very, very, very, bad situation for all, including india, which, in case of war with pakistan, will likely bear the brunt of the fallout, literally.

  21. “Homer was worng,” wrote Heracleitus of Ephesus, Homer was wrong in saying: ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away.” These are words on which superhumanists should medidate. Aspiring toward a consistent perfection, they are aspiring towards annihilation. The Hindus had the wit to see and the courage to proclaim the fact; Nirvana, the goal of their striving, is nothingness. Wherever life exists, there also is inconsistency, division, strife.

    From Christopher Hitchens’ – letters to a young contrarian.

  22. I’m with Amit, though, turn off the TV.

    Man, I got slammed when I suggested that.

    Did anyone see that piece in the Wash Post today about the Rumsfeld memos? Some of his quotes from the piece:

    “Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists,” he wrote. “Too often Muslims are against physical labor, so they bring in Koreans and Pakistanis while their young people remain unemployed,” he wrote. “An unemployed population is easy to recruit to radicalism.”

    That last one doesn’t really have anything to do with fear, but I thought it interesting that he makes a distinction between Muslims and Pakistanis. Pakistan is overwhelmingly populated by Muslims! So f#$%n’ dumb for so many reasons.

  23. I was at the Halloween parade in NYC yesterday.. Darth vador, witches, predator et al. but nobody wore costume of a suicide bomber .. isn’t that the real face of fear rt now ?