Monday, September 22, 2008

Politics: Fear Has No Place in Politics

TORONTO, ONTARIO - In an interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC Television's The National last Wednesday, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton was asked whether he "feared" a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. To his credit, Layton wouldn't give in to the concept of fear, saying that fear was "not a term I tend to use," though he viewed a Conservative majority as something that "I'm doing everything I can to prevent." Mansbridge followed up, asking him again whether he specifically "feared" a Conservative majority, and Layton expounded on his original response, saying that a Conservative majority was "fundamentally wrong for the planet."

Of course, Layton likely didn't make this statement on principle. Historically, when voters "feared" a Conservative majority, or a Liberal majority, they have run away from the smaller parties and voted for one of the two traditionally-larger parties in hopes that they would be more likely to contain the other party. So, had Layton said that he feared the Conservatives, it would have been interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the Liberals by many voters.

Yet, Layton happened to be correct on principle--voters should never vote on the basis of fear. His statement that "I tend to say we have a better alternative. We've got a future that can be filled with hope and real change" is a much more future-looking, positive statement than telling the voter to fear not voting for his party.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that fear has no place in modern life except in circumstances of actual, immediate physical danger from a violent or potentially violent criminal. Fear evolved as an emotion to make human beings take extremely conservative (in the literal sense of that word) decisions when there was a threat to their family. Before civilization, there were many threats that could result in the deaths of the entire family if humans did not heed noises in the night or encounters with previously-unknown things in the environment, from new plant species to people from other places.

When fear is invoked, freedom of action is inhibited. The external threat intimidates the person feeling fear. The fearful person no longer cares about their own personal wishes, they simply give in to the intimidation for survival's sake. In some cases, the fearful person may instead react violently, taking overly-aggressive action in attempt to stomp out the threat instead of giving in to it. In neither case does the person act in a rational way.

Today, those reading this message live in a very different environment, a complicated society that protects its members from external threats. It may occasionally fail in these protections, usually because of political incompetence. A properly-functioning government keeps crime under control, for example, and warns its residents about impending natural disasters, then helps them recover afterward.

In this kind of society, there is really no place for fear. There is no reason to be intimidated into acting against one's personal interests, and there is no reason to lash out at a threat that is better addressed by the society as a whole. The only exception is an interpersonal criminal situation in which one's person or family is threatened by a criminal temporarily outside of the reach of the society.

Politicians do not need to invoke fear. By trying to incite fear, they are either trying to intimidate the voter away from acting in their best interest, or to cause them to lash out irrationally. Thus, any voter that sees a candidate trying to incite fear should not succumb to that fear. They should instead ask why that politician is trying to intimidate them and question their motivations.

More politicians should make statements like Jack Layton made to Peter Mansbridge last week, refusing to give in to fear and instead offering a positive alternate vision. If voters follow the positive visions, politicians will eventually stop the fear tactics, and that should be the outcome we all desire.

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