How the fear of danger becomes dangerous
Regardless of the political context, century or continent, the primary motivator for war and struggle remains the instinctual fear of humans incited by their urge to survive. That fear can easily be fed by leaders systematically emphasizing that ‘something’ is at stake because ‘someone’ is a threat.
The United States has a new president: Joe Biden. Although the country still struggles with border protection and humane immigration policies, progress to address the anti-immigration policies under former president Donald J. Trump has been made. Some of the families that were separated are reunited, construction on the wall between the U.S. and Mexico has been stopped, and the number of unaccompanied migrant children held in jail-like conditions dropped nearly 84% - a stark contrast to the effects of a culture of fear of immigrants over the past four years under Trump.
In October 2018, 4000 migrants from Central America walked towards the Mexican border on their way to the US, in search of a better life. They would rather risk being arrested and sent back than endure the dangers and death threats of drug gangs and poverty back home. The Pentagon decided that 5,200 additional military personnel should be positioned at the border with Mexico to guard against this ‘migrant caravan’. The media-genic images of the large group of people ‘approaching the border’ were widely reported and fueled the Americans’ existing fear of the ‘invasion’ of ‘disenfranchised foreigners’.
The White House’s strategy of framing this event as not a humanitarian crisis but rather a threat to national security was painfully clear. Regardless of the political context, the century or the continent, the primary motivator for war and struggle remains the instinctual fear of humans incited by their urge to survive. That fear can be easily fed by a leader who systematically emphasizes that ‘something’ is at stake because ‘someone’ is a threat. This fear of ‘the other’ then makes us feel more connected to the rest of our own group. When negative feelings about the other coincide with existing feelings of distrust in a society towards that group, those feelings can lead to the naming of a scapegoat. When a leader thinks he can predict a threat - whether the threat is real, false, or exaggerated - violence against that scapegoat can quickly be presented as necessary or justified.
Defining the enemy
Sociologist and political philosopher Andreas Wimmer has categorized several myths on the basis of which people find it justified to inflict harm in order to protect themselves. People are afraid of a foreign culture, which could interfere with their own customs and culture. Others see a threat in the mixing of cultural or ideological ‘units’ that would then tarnish the ‘purity’ of their own group. This fear is often based on the essentialist, irrational idea that certain biological or cultural characteristics of groups run very deeply and that some groups are superior to others. In fact, these myths go so far that some people feel they need to protect themselves from strangers for fear of infection transmission, psychologist Brian O’Shea discovered long before COVID-19 broke out.
This is exactly why the Trump Cabinet’s tactics were so effective. Trump managed to activate voters by making them afraid of ‘a threat’ from foreigners, from economic superpowers outside America, from the corruption of the political elite. Similarly, political rhetoric has changed during the Trump administration, social psychologist Mina Cikara mentioned in a conversation I had with her. America was no longer presented as the most powerful nation on earth with the strongest army, the best economy, and the most opportunities, but as an inward-looking country, in which the president constantly hammered on the victimization of the Americans instead of their pride. The strategy, summarized in the slogan "America First", is transparent and tested: by defining the enemy, unity is created in its own group.
Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, studies the recurring elements that leaders make use of to incite violence against the other: A clear message is placed in a socio-historical context; there is a massively anxious audience; and a thoughtful use of the media to reach that audience. The relationship between fear and the collective dislike of another group often starts with a factual problem, ranging from crime, unemployment, political tensions, or a lack of proper health care. People tend to replace their dissatisfaction with these problems with a focus on a new target: a marginalized group that often already evokes feelings of distrust. Their distrust is fed with the idea of an enemy in disguise who only reveals his true nature when it is too late for ‘the vulnerable, innocent victims’ to seek safe refuge. In recognizing the other as a threat, so-called strategic thinkers position themselves as the protectors of the community. Scientists call this tactic the big lie, an important propaganda tool associated with Nazi Germany. The repeated lie is so big that no one can believe it to be untrue. The leader capitalizes on the psychology of fear: anxious people are more likely to believe lies and to spread misinformation.
Political leaders can strategically keep certain groups out of sight, and consequently out of mind of the majority. Individual aspects of the other gradually become less visible. According to psychologist Cikara, this was also what happened to illegal immigrants in the Trump era. By building a wall, by presenting them as a threat, by separating families, and by holding them in immigration detention centers near the border hermetically sealed from the press. These thousands of people were not given a human identity, other than ‘the illegal’. As a result, their suffering in the minds and frames of reference of many Americans became negligible.
Democratic ideals of freedom and equality are at stake when various aspects come together: a people that - inspired by love for one’s own group - prioritize the safety and status of one's own group, incentivized to follow a leader that emphasizes the threat of danger from outside. This is an important reminder that the vulnerability of democracy is expressed not only in the escalation of exclusion, in war or genocide, but also in the restriction and deprivation of space, and in the suppression of a vote or a voice, of human rights and of the freedoms of minorities.
This article is based on one of the chapters of the author's recently published book "Vreemde Eenden. Op zoek naar gelijkheid in een wergeld vol anderen" by Uitgeverij Podium.