By Emma Temple
If there is one thing that binds together humans, politically or otherwise, it is a resounding fear of the unknown. Fear is the ultimate mechanism for control and as such is a primary feature of the discourse both within international relations and domestic politics. To combat this requires a significant overhaul of not only the way in which political debates are conducted, but also the way we as individuals choose to prioritise our political concerns.
Many examples of this mechanism exist, used by both governments and non-state actors alike, by way of achieving either the support of the masses or certain political goals. Taking religion as our first example of the politics of fear, it is easy to see how a warped interpretation of religion and subsequent fear can act as a catalyst for political manipulation. Granted, the aspirations of the so called ‘Islamic State’ are undoubtedly questionable in terms of their religious basis. Yet, the manipulation and control achieved from such terroristic tactics is impressive in its global reach – an attack of whatever scale can dominate social media and global news outlets for days, whilst influencing the behaviour of almost entire populations of cities and more.
In part exacerbated by social media and the like, the presence, risk and fear associated with religiously motivated terrorism plays a reasonably large role in many ordinary individuals’ everyday lives. The enormity of the shock caused by attacks particularly but not exclusively in Western areas and the following reactions, play into the hands not only of the perpetrators themselves, but also state actors seeking formal control. A prime example of this is the election of Donald Trump – using his ideas for a ‘Muslim Ban’ to prey on the fear of those who particularly hold the understanding that the warped and virtually incorrect interpretation of a religion extends to those who perfectly innocently choose to practice it.
Religion aside and coming back to the concept of the fear of the unknown, is the part of the Brexit debate centred around economics. Campaigners on both sides of the debate were guilty of such tactics, as the leave campaign chose to exploit the fears of those worried about the economy of immigration, whilst the remain campaign chose to exploit the fears of the unknown of those unsure of the consequent levels of economic stability. Examples of the politics of fear can be found in countless examples globally and evidently has the power to drastically influence the outcomes of political debates.
Given that the politics of fear as a mechanism is successful in part due to the reactions it brings, there are several elements that should be considered in line with how we both collectively and individually choose to respond to such behaviour. The first, most crucial element is a level of political education. In both the examples discussed above, debates around the topics in question have at times been perfectly centred around the knowledge that people will act, react or vote in a certain way if they are made to be fearful of something. Therefore, before choosing to act upon information spread because of the politics of fear, it is paramount to make informed, educated decisions based on the available facts.
Secondly, a willingness to engage with politics not only in an educational manner but also empathetically is what also holds the key to defeating control through the politics of fear. By being able to recognise an actor’s desire for power or control, we can also learn to recognise the behaviour they will adopt to reach said desires. An understanding of this, teamed with the understanding that for those adopting these mechanisms any publicity is good publicity, can make for a rather difficult environment for those who choose to adopt fearful tactics to achieve their goals.
It is possible to be reserved in the face of the politics of fear without being ignorant. By remaining well informed, vigilant, empathetic and independent within political discourse is enough to harm the ability of the politics of fear as a mechanism. Cultural and religious diversity is a defining factor of the new multicultural era that we live in. The globalised world relies on a system encompassing a huge variety of backgrounds and beliefs to reap the benefits of cultural specialisation, which in turn relies on populations of people willing to participate in this. Abetting the politics of fear through choosing to react in an ill-informed manner is what poses a significant threat to this. Simon Jenkins, journalist, stated “you have a choice of prominence”. It is this statement which most concisely defines the very choice that influences the effectiveness and the relevance of the politics of fear.