Fear and campaigning in Manuka


Carmen Lawrence’s Fear and Politics

Lawrence’s central argument is that we need to get rid of the Howard government. We need to get rid of the Howard government because terrible things will happen to our nation if we don’t. These terrible things will happen because they — Howard and his allies — are manipulating us through the politics of fear. And when we are afraid, some of us are likely to lash out against those we see as not-us. It happened in Nazi Germany and, the frightening truth is, it can happen anywhere and to anybody… even here and to us.

This, says Lawrence, is how the politics of fear works. First you construct a sense of shared identity. Then you uncover a threat to us and our way of life, a threat which comes from outside — from them. But, as every politician knows, you should never create a problem that doesn’t have you as its solution. So once you’ve evoked the threat and identified the them responsible, you show us how you can keep us safe. All you need from us is power.

Lawrence argues that the politics of fear is dangerous because it creates a climate where prejudice flourishes. When threatened we turn inwards to the people and things which are most familiar to us — the things we understand best and feel we can control. In turning inwards we move towards a more exclusive sense of who we are, of where our group begins and ends. It’s likely to be a we centred on kin, culture, race or religion — people who are like us, who share our values, and want to live the way we do.

Those who live beyond the pale become dehumanised. We become unable to think of them as people like ourselves — people with decent values, legitimate intentions, and a way of life we can respect and tolerate. Instead, these people become a one dimensional ‘other’. They start to look like monsters from a B-grade movie.

At a recent book launch two interesting questions came from the audience (along with one short speech disguised as a question). The first question was only six letters long, "Al Gore?" Recently former Vice President Gore has been doing his best to scare the bejesus out of audiences with his apocalyptic tales about global warming. It’s a fear appeal alright, but isn’t it for a good cause? Lawrence might have been expecting this question, but it seemed as if she hedged. Maybe, she said, it’s ok to to scare people about things which are objectively proven to be scary. What’s not ok is to exaggerate how scary things are just to get people to do what you want them to do. It’s a point she also makes in her book (p 16 & 114).

The second question was a bit longer than the first (but shorter than the disguised speech). The audience member pointed out that Lawrence was preaching to the converted. Wouldn’t it be good if it wasn’t just us reading the book. Maybe there was a way to get other people to read it too? Lawrence seemed to agree.

After these questions two things were clearer. The first was whether Lawrence really objects to the use of fear appeals in politics and the second was the boundaries of the ‘we’ she constructs in her book.

Lawrence doesn’t really object to emotional appeals as such. After all, her central argument is based on an appeal to fear. Towards the conclusion of her book she tells us that under the Howard government, "genuine democracy is more threatened than at any time since Federation" (p 125).

Lawrence argues that emotional appeals ought to be based on rational arguments (pathos should flow from logos as students of rhetoric would say). What’s not clear is whether these rational arguments ought to form the basis of a political campaign or whether it’s ok to distill the argument down to a 30 second spot with a picture of something frightening and a suggestion about who can save us from it. After all, how many of us have the time or inclination to review the evidence for global warming or the causes of crime? Perhaps what she wants to say is that politicians and activists have an ethical obligation not to use emotional appeals in a cynical way and voters have an obligation to pay attention to public life.

But failing that, presumably it’s up to those of us who read broadsheet newspapers, watch SBS and go to book launches to hold politicians to account when they cynically conjure up unwarranted fear, pride, anger or shame. And it’s hard not to think that this is the ‘us’ Lawrence’s questioner was thinking about. But if Lawrence is right about fear then there’s a problem. If we become frightened that they are stirring up racial hatred, silencing dissent and threatening democracy, then surely we will start to turn in on ourselves and start to demonise them.

If Lawrence is right about the politics of fear then there’s a risk that we will become unable to think of Howard and the people who support him as human beings like ourselves — people with decent values, legitimate intentions, and a way of life we can respect and tolerate. And because they are so malevolent and Machiavellian we obviously need to do whatever it takes to make sure they do not succeed — even if that means playing the politics of fear ourselves.


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19 Responses to Fear and campaigning in Manuka

  1. Rafe Champion says:

    “there’s a risk that we will become unable to think of Howard and the people who support him as human beings like ourselves”

    Good point. I am alarmed at the licence that people like Philip Adams, Mike Carlton and several cartoonists give themselves to denigrate and dehumanise people they hate, like John Howard, Piers Ackerman, Pauline Hanson. They are poisoning the wells of democracy just as much as anything that their targets might be doing. Has anyone who they respect ever called them on that?

  2. observa says:

    I’m convinced. The Carmen Lawrences of this world scare the hell out of me more than the fundies ever will.

  3. I’m glad I did not waste my money on this book! It sounds fanciful. The polling evidence on race suggests that the electorate as a whole is pretty calm about the whole thing, with the excitement restricted to One Nation supporters and the left.

  4. Nicki LaGrange says:

    Sure ‘fear politics’ can be used to constrain and reduce democracy

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Andrew – I don’t think Lawrence’s book is a waste of money. If you haven’t caught up with the literature on ideas like terror management theory (pdf) then you’ll probably find it interesting. I agree with Lawrence that prejudice is a serious problem.

    I see an irony in the book because I see differences in political worldview as cultural differences.

    I don’t think that the only difference between western ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’ is that the latter are more selfish, prejudiced and deluded than the former. I find it hard to accept the view that right wingers are just like ‘us’ except that they’ve misinterpreted a culture we both share.

  6. Ken Parish says:

    It isn’t obvious to me that fear tactics are confined to one side of politics, or even confined to politics. Advertisers use them all the time. State Labor governments are extraordinarily adept at running laura norder fear campaigns at election time and, as you noted in your post Don, numerous left-leaning politicians including Al Gore play the fear card on global warming for all it’s worth.

    Moreover, I doubt that Lawrence’s attempted distinction, between things that “are objectively proven to be scary” and things that aren’t, actually holds water (or greenhouse gases). Much of the shock-horror material about global warming (esepcially Gore’s) assumes that the worst possible outcomes from IPCC future “scenarios” are the ones that will actually occur. Thus, apocalyptic predictions of massive flooding and submerging of Pacifc islands are based on the assumption that greenhouse warming will exceed 5 degrees C by 2100. That is the most extreme of the IPCC scenarios. The median (and most likely based on extrapolation of current trends) is about 2-2.5 degrees C in that time, which is certainly serious enough to be worth worrying about and taking concrete measures like carbon taxes etc to minimise, but doesn’t justify those apocalyptic predictions.

    Thus the fear tactics employed by the “left” are just as exaggerated as those of some neocons which (at least arguably) overplay the extent of the terrorism threat. I certainly agree that exaggerating the threat of terrorism can tend to exacerbate adverse social consequences like racial hatred and intolerance, but the same is true of State Labor governments’ exaggeration of the extent of local crime, since laura norder campaigns are invariably code for cracking down on the ethnic and indigenous groups popularly – and to an extent accurately – perceived as disproportionately responsible for them. I think you would have a hard time mounting a persuasive case that any side of politics is in a position to seize the high moral ground on fear tactics (least of all Carmen Lawrence given the Easton affair – which was of course based on exploiting smear rather than fear).

    The best we can probably hope for is that politicians will tacitly accept the need for at least some level of restraint in utilising the psychology of fear for short-term political gain. However, I actually think Australian politicians even on the Coalition side ARE exercising a fair level of restraint. Indeed, if you compare the rhetoric employed by Australian and UK politicians (and even the US though to a lesser extent) with their counterparts in quite a few islamic countries on a daily basis, our mob are much more moderate. Mind you, that’s damning with faint praise. It would be nice if politicians refrained from using fear (and smear) tactics, just as it would be nice if bloggers and their commenters behaved with some semblance of “deep civility”, but in the real world you’d be unwise to hold your breath waiting for either to happen.

  7. Peter Keenan says:

    Don Arthur’s thoughtful review of “Fear and Politics” highlights an unstated double standard which is prevalent in many debates of social and political issues.

    It can be expressed as: “The end justifies the means if the end is something ‘we’ want to achieve.”

  8. Don Arthur says:

    Ken – You say that “the same is true of State Labor governments’ exaggeration of the extent of local crime”.

    Lawrence acknowledges this in her book. She says that “The two major parties have converged on the position that we are under siege from burgeoning crime, that much more needs to be done to combat it…” (page 51).

    And on pages 57 and 58 she takes responsibility for her part in the introduction of mandatory sentencing in WA.

  9. FDB says:

    You’re unlikely to find a politician as principled and thorough in argument as Carmen Lawrence. This isn’t some half arsed polemic.

    Don’s criticism seems valid, but I’m only afraid of fear-mongers in terms of how frightened they’re making people. I don’t think of them as inhuman or worthy of destruction, or undeserving of basic human rights. The main difference being that they are actual entities doing actual things, whereas the strawmen they build and the world of hidden perils they invent are not. There’s no real paradox in what she’s saying. You’ve made a category mistake, IMO.

  10. FDB says:

    An interesting one, all the same.

  11. Don Arthur says:

    FDB – I think we agree that Lawrence is principled and thorough. But I’m interested in the idea that I’ve made a category mistake. Do you want to spell out what you mean in a bit more detail? I’m not sure I’m following the argument.

    Seeing a paradox disolve into a category mistake would almost make it worthwhile being wrong.

  12. tk.noonan says:

    The sins of our rulers: I could start with Malcolm Fraser’s daemonisation of “dole bludgers”, which in practise included anyone who had benefited from the policies of Gough Whitlam. Then the Hawk/Keeting reincarnation of a Labor Government determined not to make the same mistake that Gough did. In fact Keating under fire from the Howard Opposition pressurised the unemployed, the Commonwealth Employment Service, and the Department of Social Security, more than Howard did when he was elected. (OK Howard got rid of the CES, and I’m not sure when DSS became Centrelink.)

    That was because Howard found a bigger bogy, a Shibboleth, asylum seekers, boat people. Since 2001 it has been heaven as the Government have almost forgotten the marginal, the incompetent, the sad cases; to focus on the Spectre of Terrorists, which are not only foreign but overseas.

    Now the Government could certainly do a better job. There’s no point in flogging dead horses, but not quite dead horses could be coaxed back to usefulness. Perhaps things really are parlous. But since 1975 the generation of Fear and Loathing has become part and parcel of the political process. There could be unforseen consequences in a large pool of dispossed disinterested citizens, if a confluence of catastrophic events occured.

  13. observa says:

    Speaking of laura norder, it seems certain govts have a vested interest in allaying real rather than imaginary fears, if SA is anything to go by
    I must confess to being more concerned at the wanton viciousness and callousness of much crime these days, as against the overall statistical risk of being a victim.

  14. observa says:

    Then there is the underlying current of fear that is so all pervasive and commonplace nowadays, the Carmen Lawrences of this world couldn’t see it for what it really is and that’s the really scary bit about the Carmens that they find home made picklers and pickles more dangerous than home-made bombs and bombers

  15. FDB says:

    Hi Don.

    What I meant to suggest was that my “fear” of fear-mongers (the fear they accidentally create in me that they will turn society inwards on itself and ruin liberty and equality) is of a radically different character than the fear they deliberately monger (that our security is under constant threat from Other Forces).

    I think that the former, cynical sort of fear (worry or concern or hand-wringing) is far less likely to turn into divisive hatred than the latter (dread or moral panic).

    You’re right, though – not as stark as a category mistake. My bad. Gots to dust off me Russel again, methinks.

  16. FDB says:

    So should you if you want to see some (apparent) paradoxes dissolve into category mistakes.

    Shit I hate fake paradoxes.

  17. FDB says:

    And yes, sorry about launching a mini-tirade there. I didn’t think you were being unfair to Lawrence, just a few other commenters here.

    She’s a family friend and I like her, is all. And I reckon she’s been shafted.

  18. Don Arthur says:

    FDB – I thought your comment was interesting. And maybe I have been a bit unfair to Lawrence’s book. If there is a central argument it’s about politicians in general rather than one in particular.

    And yes, I can see the distinction you’re making between the two kinds of fear.

  19. observa says:

    The question for those who deep down are afraid of barbecue sauce makers, is whether or not their fears are real or well directed
    That is the source of much fearful debate curiously enough.

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