Fear is the Worst Political Emotion


This year presents a strange juxtaposition of the American holiday season with its Presidential election cycle.  On the one hand, the narratives that lie at the heart of American Thanksgiving and Christmas are tales of incredible courage and character in the face of insurmountable obstacles, while on the other hand, the most popular Presidential candidates are those who can best rouse people’s fears.  Indeed, there may be much to fear, from unlawful police shootings, to race riots, to the Paris bombing, to the menacing and seemingly undaunted Isis. Though there are many threats on the horizon, this is nothing new in American political life, and there has been much to fear throughout this country’s history. Early on in American history, politicians have seen fear as an opportunity, building coalitions on platforms of self-protection and so-called security.

In Western liberalism (by this I don’t refer to progressive politics, but the more general social-contract style democratic forms of government rooted in Enlightenment political theory) fear plays a foundational role, as Martha Nussbaum has observed.  She points out that for social contractarians (like Hobbes and John Locke) the primary reason that people enter into political arrangements at the local or national level is fear.  On this view, we’ve agreed to abide by a common rule of law because we recognize that a world without those rules would be far too dangerous to be tenable, and our fear of the horrors of a lawless world compels us to bite the bullet and enter social contracts.  Perhaps Nussbaum’s point helps us to see, at least in part, why fear is such a powerful political force in Western democracies.  If fear of enemies both domestic and abroad is what unites people politically, then it is easy to make sense of the priority of security in political discussions.

158574127Nussbaum asserts, however,  that the social contractor is mistaken about the primacy of fear in political relationship.  She claims that what ultimately motivates people to leave lives of lawlessness is a much different emotion-the emotion of love. If love is at the heart of political arrangement, then political priorities change dramatically.  Security becomes one of many concerns, but the state’s job, according to Nussbaum, is contributing to the flourishing lives of citizens. There is something very compelling about her claim that love matters for justice, and I’d like to assert that love is far superior to fear as a political emotion.  In point of fact, fear is the worst political emotion.

What are emotions for, in the first place?

In order to appreciate the nature of fear as a political emotion, it might be helpful to think carefully about the nature of emotional life generally. What exactly do emotions do for us anyway?  From a biological perspective, why do we need them, and what would life be like without feelings?

Though there are a variety of learned answers to those questions, one point of agreement about emotions is that emotions help our brains to organize perceptions, or as Noel Carroll puts it, “organize patterns of salience.” One of the most important tasks our brains perform is aggregation of data.  Our senses deliver thousands of bits of information per second to our brain, and without some sort of bottleneck, our conscious mind would be processing so much data that it would be overwhelming and paralyzing.  One primary function that emotions serve is to act as that bottleneck by providing an interpretive lens through which many of our cognitions are filtered.

Think of it this way.  Imagine that I’m at a bar speaking with a beautiful girlfriend.  I’m having a nice time, and she is the focus of my attention, so that most of the other features of the room fall into the backdrop of my consciousness.  Then, imagine that a drunk and disorderly man shoves me aside to have a word with my girlfriend.  Because of his sleight, I become angry, and the focus of my attention shifts from my girlfriend to the offender.  Not only does my emotional state change, but the way that I see the world changes as well.  The beer bottle sitting on the bar, which, while I was having a nice time with the woman, was barely noticeable before, suddenly begins to look a lot like a weapon.  Because of the change of circumstances, my emotions have cast a certain glow over objects that might help me to accomplish my goal-which in this case is to rid myself of the offender.  In point of fact, the room has not changed, nor has the sensory information I’m receiving from the room.  What has changed is the order of importance of that sensory information processed by my consciouness.  That order of importance has been altered by my emotional state.

Negative Political Emotions

Of course, negative emotions like fear and anger have an important function–in the most extreme cases, they keep us alive in the face of dire threats.  The trouble is that these sorts of emotions limit our ability to make rational choices.  Fear is not concerned with fairly sussing out the contours of any situation, just as my anger in the above example fails to take into consideration that my offender is not in control of his faculties and probably doesn’t deserve my wrath.  Instead, these negative emotional states are designed to mitigate threats.

There is empirical evidence that indicates that negative emotional states like fear inhibit a person’s ability to best process the world. Consider, for example, this study performed by researchers at the University of Michigan,  which tested students’ cognitive ability when primed with certain emotional states.  In students who were primed with negative emotions like anxiety, researchers noticed a significant impairment in the their cognitive ability, while those primed with positive emotions were able notice more details and to be able to consider a broad spectrum of possibilities than those with negative or no emotional affect.  Negative emotions limit rational cognition, while positive emotions expand our ability to best, and most rationally, interpret the world.

Such research should help a citizen see the importance of making political decisions based upon love instead of decisions based upon fear.  Fear of Syrian refugees, or Muslims, or gun-toting rednecks, or Socialism, or fracking, or LGBT people, or racial minorities, or climate change, or fundamentalist Christians, might help a Republic survive in the most basic sense, but it will not help that republic to thrive, just as it does not help individuals to live best. If you are concerned with making the most rational political decisions, it is important to make sure that those calculations aren’t based in fearfulness of some impending threat, whether that threat is real or imagined. During this election cycle, when selecting a political candidate, perhaps the words of St. John might be important to bear in mind, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

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