Fear is an emotion, but it is one with a long history in both political theory and politics in the real world. In many versions of social contract theory, it is a fear of the state of nature that leads to government in the first place. From McCarthy to post-9/11 politics, fear has played a leading role in American public discourse. Ken and John examine fear as theme in politics and political philosophy with Corey Robin from the City University of New York, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea.
According to Hobbes, fear is the force that originally motivated humanity to leave the state of nature. By agreeing to form societies, we revoke the power to cause fear and instead give the state a monopoly on inducing this primal emotion. Without limits on its power to create fear among its citizens, the state runs the risk of becoming totalitarian. But without any such power, the state lacks the ability to enforce its laws and protect its citizens. What is the appropriate balance between these two extremes? How can we determine when appeals to our fears are legitimate?
Corey Robin joins John and Ken to discuss these difficult questions. In Robin’s view, much of the fear we experience on a day-to-day basis is a direct result of subtle struggles within our communities. The frequently cited accomplishments of American democracy—the abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, and the successes of the labor movement—involved certain portions of society gaining power, while the rest of society had something to lose by these changes to the status quo. In this sense, the historical fears of wealthy, white males may have been rational. If the rationality of our fears is not sufficient for their legitimacy, what other element is missing?
The trio considers the social basis of justice in classical liberalism, the hopes and fears of the Founding Fathers, and how heightened security measures can paradoxically make us more afraid. Ken notes that the vividness of our imaginations can overshadow our ability to accurately assess the probabilities involved, leading to disproportionate responses and making it especially easy for the media to exploit our fears. Robin analyzes the ways in which the political use of fear has evolved over time, concluding that fear is caused by differences in power and is a perfectly normal state.
- Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 5:35): Rina Palta talks with political consultant Jim Ross, whose clients have included San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and Oregon Governor Ted Kulongosky, about the power of our emotional responses and our ability to retroactively give them rational justifications. The two discuss the historical use of frightening messages in campaign ads, with particular attention to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction. According to Ross, fear can be used effectively as a short-term tool for drawing attention to specific political issues. In the long run, however, positive messages that inspire hope are more effective social motivators and therefore are a necessary component of a campaign’s success.
- 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 48:25): Ian Shoales uses Orson Welles’s 1938 Halloween adaptation of The War of the Worlds to discuss the role of fear in our daily lives and the unlikely quirks of news media.
Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
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