The Sunday Edition

The impact of the F-word on the election campaign - Michael's essay

Michael warns it might be wisest to be afraid of fear itself.
Fear (Wikimedia Commons)

My mother suffered from something called ornithophobia, a fear of birds. If she was walking along the sidewalk and saw a pigeon, she would cross the street or slip into a store. 

Fears can be rational and irrational. It is natural to be afraid of flying debris in a hurricane. It is irrational to be afraid of rectal probes by aliens.

Everybody fears something. With me, it's airplanes. I fail to see how something weighing several tons and jammed with human beings can fly through the air at 35,000 feet. And do it successfully. I have a friend who is afraid of bridges, of walking across them. We all know someone who is afraid of snakes or spiders, or heights or small, enclosed spaces. We all fear for the safety of those hostages to fortune, our children.

Fear is a driver. It compels us to take precautions in situations which are truly dangerous. It can also freeze us into inaction. We can become paralyzed by fear, not knowing which way to turn. Fears can be rational and irrational. It is natural to be afraid of flying debris in a hurricane. It is irrational to be afraid of rectal probes by aliens. Fear has always been a heady component in matters of politics and governments.  

Political leaders have created fears in the minds and hearts of their people or sought to assuage them, as Franklin Roosevelt did during the Second World War. 

The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.- Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Americans seem to be afraid of everything these days. Two of their biggest fears, according to surveys, are big government and walking alone at night. Other fears are becoming a victim of identity theft, getting killed in a random/mass shooting and public speaking.

In Canada, 58 per cent of us fear the threat of ISIS, while 45 per cent are very concerned about climate change. It is interesting that older Canadians, 50 and over, are frightened by more things than people 18 to 29 years old. 

The F-word has been tossed around a lot during the current 11-week election campaign. One party leader accuses another of fomenting fears of remote or non-existent threats. The other party leader responds that there are very real dangers in the world and Canadians must be protected at all costs. Philosophers, sociologists and other deep thinkers have long pondered this idea, that fear is disconnected from objective reality. 

The American sociologist David Altheide has written several books on fear and concludes that "fear does not just happen; it is socially constructed and then manipulated by those who seek to benefit." 

The American novelist Marilynne Robinson recently wrote a lengthy essay on fear in The New York Review of Books, and in it she said: "Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other, the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere." 

The philosopher Frank Furedi, in his book The Politics of Fear, sees a disturbing trend. "Fear plays a key role in 21st-Century consciousness. Increasingly we seem to engage with various issues through a narrative of fear."

The great philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell made the study of fear an ongoing passion. He realized that the rational apprehension of a danger was understandable and necessary, but that fear was not. "Fear is in itself degrading,"  he said, in his 1950 Nobel Prize for literature acceptance speech. "It easily becomes an obsession. It produces hate at that which is feared, and leads headlong to excesses of cruelty."

Perhaps something to think about, as we vote tomorrow.


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