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.