Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Fear Factor

One of the most well-known and established psychological phenomenon's is the effect that fear has on the human mind. Normally, our minds are very logical and reasonable machines. We assimilate information in a very ordered way, fit it neatly into our worldview, and use that additional insight to then assimilate the next piece of information. We can make logical arguments, come to reasonable conclusions, and weigh various possibilities when making a decision.

But throw fear into the mix, and suddenly our brains stop working that way. Suddenly, we are all about instant reaction, immediate response, fight-or-flight, and live-or-die. We lose our ability to think critically, to take our time and process the information we receive. If we are afraid, we become more base and animalistic in our tendencies toward things.

Fear is a powerful instrument with which to convince people. It can be difficult to get people to agree to anything if they feel it is not in their own best interests. But, if you can instill fear in a person or group of people, they are much more likely to respond to you in the way you want if you tell them they won't have to be afraid anymore if they do it.

This is the mentality that drives legislation like the Patriot Act under Bush, and subsequent legislation under Obama, that has redefined national security in America. The reason these laws passed was because their backers sparked a fear reaction in lawmakers, whether it be fear of appearing weak on national security or fear of impending doom.

But fear is not used solely as a way to generate votes for bills in Congress. It is also used extensively by members of the media. In particular, some of the less-than-stable personalities on radio and in television use fear to prod their fans into a froth of fear, anger, and spit-fire rhetoric.

Take Glenn Beck for example, whose news website The Blaze recently published these two stories. The first story is about a lawsuit filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The lawsuit was brought on behalf of four American Muslims who say that they have been racially profiled on multiple occasions when entering the United States from Canada. They claim that they have been harrassed by border agents, who have drawn their guns at them and demanded they answer questions about their religion. The story as it is written does not do much to instill fear, but the comments on the story show you just how reactionary Beck's audience can be. Most commonly, you have people who are saying they should a) leave the US for good, b) be detained or executed, or c) treated like terrorists in general for not being Christian. Logic would dictate that we should at least consider the human impact of being violently detained at the border over and over, and ask ourselves whether that is an appropriate reaction to someone who has done nothing wrong. But no one suggests this, and simply attack the plaintiffs of the lawsuit as dangerous cry-babies.

The second article, however, is much more direct in it's fear-mongering assertions. GBTV, Beck's television station, recently came out with a new documentary called "Rumors of War III" which details the rise of militant Islam in America and around the world. As you can imagine, this is a major fear-producing topic for many people, and Beck's documentary fuels that fire by claiming that Islam is on the rise, and is poised to take over the world.

Again, the target is Islam, and again, you are seeing this story written to fire up a group of people that have been saturated with xenophobic ideology for quite some time. This is a major point about fear tactics. Given enough time, with the human brain scrambling to create a logical structure for all of this information, a person will adopt a set of values and a worldview that reflects this kind of fear-mongering. People will readily accept outrageous claims such as there being a massive conspiracy to destroy America (something else Beck constantly tells his listeners), but will question something such as global warming. This second article talks about a film with the sole purpose of convincing people that they are on the brink of death at the hands of a radical ideology. A person will inevitably feel a measure of fear when presented with this information, and if they are kept in that state long enough they will make decisions based on their fear response. When this happens, you get people who threaten the lives of innocent Muslims, who protest the building of mosques, and who target people of a certain ethnic appearance for assault, and sometimes even murder.

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