The price of fear

Why are we so polarized? It is an important question and one that is perplexing. Sure, social media rightly get their fair share of the blame. But is that a symptom, an exacerbating factor rather than a cause? Surely it is. We cannot simply blame everything on social media and sit back thinking we have resolved the problem. So, what else is there? This blog has previously identified the tendency of our representative government to infantilize the polis, to exclude people from the policy-making process. Indeed, that was the express aim of the founding fathers of the American constitution. Now, no-one can seriously propose that every member of society can or should think deeply about public affairs, even though Socrates said that in a fully functioning democracy every person’s thought matters. But one should expect society to furnish people with the opportunity to partake beyond voting every few years. It is why Salisbury Democracy Alliance is so keen to introduce an element of deliberative democracy in the form of the existing Salisbury Democracy Café and its continuing campaign to bring Citizens’ Juries to the city. But still, it seems, we haven’t got to the route of the problem.

Why are we so polarized?

According to Martha C Nussbaum in The Monarchy of FEAR it is, as the title shouts out, fear that lies at the heart of the problem. As she writes: “Thinking is hard, fear and blame are easy.” She claims that fear ‘is not only the earliest emotion in human life, it is also the most broadly shared within the animal kingdom’. Fear, she argues, is also profoundly anti-social. When we feel compassion we reach out and consider what is happening to other people. On the other hand fear is ‘intensely narcissistic’. It drives out all thought of others’. An infant’s fear is ‘entirely focused on its own body’ but, given stable and loving care, it can ‘start to become capable of generosity and altruism’.

When we are afraid we are thinking only about ourselves.

As an American philosopher Nussbaum focuses on the States, but her arguments can be equally applied to the UK. For her America is an angry country and, she claims, anger is the ‘child of fear’. Public anger contains not just protest at wrongs, a reaction that is healthy for society when the protest is well founded, but also a burning desire for revenge, as if the suffering of someone else could solve the group’s or the nation’s problems. It is not difficult to see how the likes of Trump and conspiracy theorists in general feed off this sense of retribution as they fuel fear and anger.

So far so bad. But what is Nussbaum’s solution to the fear and anger that seems to permeate out societies? Well, it is the fostering of ‘loving, imaginative vision (through poetry, music, and the other arts), and a spirit of deliberation and rational critique, embodied in philosophy, but also in good political discourse everywhere’. And overarching this is ‘hope’ that it has to be active and committed. She writes: “Practical hope, not idle hope, since you get to work to produce a good future’. Hope is the exact opposite of fear. “Hope expels and surges forward, fear shrinks back.”

How do we foster a spirit of deliberation?

All this seems to be rather pie-in-the sky, a just so narrative in which, with one bound, we are free of fear. With our fractious societies and a dominant ideology that seems to be intent on infantilizing us, it is difficult to see how we can foster the kind of environment in which these aspirations can be achieved. To help her with this Nussbaum refers to the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott who investigated ways in which people could grow and flourish rather than shrink. He called for the ‘facilitating environment’, which starts with a loving stability within the family. In the wider context, writes Nussbaum, ‘families cannot make children secure and balanced, capable of withstanding onslaughts of fear, if they are hungry, if they lack medical care, if children lack good schools and a safe neighbourhood environment’.

So, while Nussbaum does not look at or suggest detailed policies, she does outline some strategies. And she is also clear that the creation of a ‘facilitating environment’ on a national scale is a pre-condition for creating the kind of deliberative society she calls for. She also outlines 10 crucial capabilities that need to be fostered, including bodily health and integrity, being able to use the ‘senses to imagine, think and reason’. Having the emotional intelligence to ‘have attachment to things and people outside ourselves’. We should also foster a capability to ‘live with and towards others’ and to have the ‘social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation’. Perhaps the most important capability, at least from the perspective of Salisbury Democracy Alliance, is: “Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protective of free speech and association.”

A facilitating environment.

Although Nussbaum does not enter the murky world of representative government, it seems to be clear that neoliberalism is not the sort of governance she believes will achieve the kind of facilitating environment of which she speaks. But turning society round to a more deliberative, facilitating bent is not easy and can test one’s ‘active hope’ to breaking point. But we do know that things can change quickly and, although social media have their downsides that can help to consolidate the status quo, they also have the potential to facilitate change much more quickly than in the past. So, although ‘active hope’ seems to a thin thread at the moment, it is the only thread we have to hold on to.

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