The Politics of Fear

The first time I heard the now-famous, over-used slogan “either you’re with us or against us,” I thought it was one of the most inane, xenophobic lines I’d ever heard. Frankly, as an American, I was embarrassed. I had an incredible urge to write a blanket apology to the people the world over.

This oversimplification utterly dismisses the complexities of people, societies and their relationships. Of course I can be ‘with’ my country and still not agree with many of its policies just as I can remain completely loyal to my friends, family and clients even when I think they make incredibly foolish choices, as they do for me.

But as I thought more about it, I realized it was an absolutely brilliant line exactly because it was meant to encourage people to overlook the complexities of life and think in oversimplified terms, tapping into deep-seated fears. Someone paid attention in psychology class and I’m thinking it wasn’t C-Student Bush.

It is no coincidence that Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, the hugely successful children’s author, was once a writer of war propaganda. Both genres of writing get in touch with the same concrete, childlike [not to be confused with childish] thought processes like ‘you bad, me good.’ Young children think like this because of where they are in their cognitive development.

Adults whose lives have been seriously threatened–or perceive that their lives are seriously threatened–sometimes think similarly. They move from a healthy balance of operating from all areas of the brain [including the rational neocortex] to operating primarily from the limbic system [the primitive brain and the intermediate brain], which, among other things, is responsible for self-preservation.

The limbic system is where fear and its physiological responses are born and they function to help us mobilize and defend ourselves against the woolly mammoth or the saber-toothed tiger. This is also where the mechanisms of aggression are developed. And the neocortex is responsible, among other things, for rational thought, abstract thinking and the ability to consider complexities

And during such fearful times, as the ole’ neocortex is overridden by the limbic system, we find ourselves with the fear-based, reactive, jingoistic, and seemingly intractable pro-war reactions in much of the American people. It’s about self-preservation. [As this isn’t a neuropsychology class this is an over simplification and certainly a spotty explanation, but you get the drift.]

Coupled with this fact, I’ve come to realize that many Americans have parentified our government–not in the literal sense, but in the psychological one. I do not say this in a condescending or judgmental way, but in a factual one. We’ve all done it in one arena of our life or another.

The government is, in theory, supposed to be for the people. [I know, I know.] Like a parent, it is supposed to be there to protect us, to look after our best interests. And when something as huge as 9.11 happens, seeming to threaten our very survival, many of us who take the government at its word and who are programmed by the Americentric media [another trusted parental figure] look to our government to defend us from the scary “other” out there.

Even if you are of the “bomb all the son-of-a-bitches to smithereens” school, forgetting that some of those son-of-a-bitches are blameless children and their parents, you are still operating from fear. In fact, that is a great example of the inability to think in complex terms. You can’t see the intricacies of the issue and tease out who is dangerous and who isn’t because you are afraid, even if you don’t realize you are afraid. You’ve gone into survival mode. Anger doesn’t fool me. It is oftentimes a thinly veiled mask of fear. However, sometimes it is an appropriate response to injustice [but that’s another story] or shame [yet another story].

And so when you and I question or disagree with governmental policy, many people can’t hear it, absolutely won’t hear it. It’s too threatening: please don’t tell us about the complex realities of our world, say their unconscious minds, because we are scared shitless and we have little access to our rational brain right now. We need our government, our metaphorical ‘parents’ to survive. We must see them as good and split off the bad. Letting ourselves entertain the notion of anything different than our construct of reality threatens our tenuous illusion of safety. DON’T YOU KNOW OUR VERY SURVIVAL IS AT STAKE HERE??

This does not mean that people are immature or need to grow up [to say so is as oversimplified as saying ‘either you’re with us or against us’]. People often need to defend their defenders–in this case our government–because in doing so they are trying to preserve their very lives. Self-preservation is primal, instinctual, often times not in our awareness and is hardwired into our brain to perpetuate the species. This is part of the seemingly inexplicable phenomenon of kids who defend their horrible parent-abusers.

I believe this phenomenon also explains to a certain extent the so-called approval rating of many of the American people to rush off to war. [The phenomenon of the Congress’ rush to war is yet again another story.] That rating is really by and large a fear rating. But, researchers know polls are skewed by response bias. People who choose to answer polls are by definition a self-selected group. And pretend as pollsters and those that cite them for their gain might, respondents aren’t necessarily a truly representative sample of the whole. So, unless you poll 100% of the people, always question polling results, even if they say what you want them to. Polls are often used [by the Left and the Right] to influence opinion, not actually to quantify it.

A restrictive reaction to fear is what Bush’s handlers and speechwriters [and previous administrations and administrations in other countries] are banking on, hoping that people will cling to this fear and rally ’round the flag, buy whatever is said to them no matter how implausible, devoid of facts or contradictory it may be because their restrictive response has made it difficult for them to access the more rational part of their brain to say, “WHAT?? You want to bomb where???, or “Cheney is connected with what???”

This fearmongering is the stuff of color-coded alerts, speeches rife with promises of big turban-covered, germ-carrying boogiemen looming on every corner and contradictory phrases like, “anticipatory self-defense.” This is not to minimize the very real threats out there; as we know they are there for sure. It is to point out that our fear is being exploited–very effectively in the psyches of a lot of people.

This is also not an apologia for those who “don’t get it,” who don’t know of the complexities and the issues involved. I’m a big proponent of people taking responsibility for and educating themselves about the issues. But the ever-conglomerating, tow-the-line corporate media certainly doesn’t make it any easier. I simply think those of us who work for social, political and environmental change [and anybody, for that matter] would do well to keep the politics and mechanisms of fear in mind.

It’s one thing to preach to the converted choir, but it’s another to get the message across to Aunt Matilda who is scared shitless in Conservativetown, USA. Preaching to the choir is quite important in its own right and should continue full steam ahead. It keeps people energized and informed. And I find it great fun.

The choir understands my references, already knows the songs and will chime right in. But unless my agenda is just to be ‘right,’ and only talk to people ‘who get it’–certainly a person’s prerogative and I have to admit I’ve been guilty of that myself more times than I care to count–to see far-reaching change, it is important for at least some of us to find a way to talk to the ‘apolitical’ [fill in the category] in a way they can hear, whether I like it or not; to also at times strike a chord so that others who have never heard the song will begin humming a bar here and a bar there, until they are singing it loud and clear.

I’m not even remotely suggesting everything be all touchy-feely. I’m saying that from years of experience as a therapist working with some of the most hardened folks in the very toughest, scariest, and drug-infested neighborhoods in San Francisco, I know that if you want people to hear difficult, ugly realities that they haven’t yet faced, it is crucial to think about the role fear plays in a person’s life. And from there it is vital to think about how you present what you say or people will simply shut down or dig their heels in deeper, go into restrictive self-preservation mode, as harmful or maladaptive as it may be.

You don’t yell at or preach to a scared child to get her to stop being scared, even if she is yelling at you in response to her fear. At least you don’t if you want to help stop being afraid and realize she can do something about her fear other than yell and react impulsively.

There are many ways to do it. And, often the biggest skill is to sit and listen. Listen to what underlies the jingoism and the warmongering. Don’t get caught up in the content, listen to the underlying message. This is a skill creatives in advertising know well. Once you hear the message, you can address it and begin to engage in an intelligent dialogue [a skill advertisers know less well].

I often write absolutely irreverent, edgy satire that touches on ugly issues. And I always get a hugely positive response because it includes a lot of impactful information in a few words and the realities presented are couched in humor and absurdity, making it an easier pill to swallow for those who have never taken pills before as well as for those who have.

But there are many ways to speak so that a broader audience can also hear. The task is to explore and use some of those. And when people begin to listen, they may very well still have some of their fears, but hopefully they will have a different relationship to those fears. Consequently they’ll be able to find a balance and use some of that neocortical critical thinking to begin questioning and wondering.

This is when they’ll begin to let themselves see some difficult realities. And when that happens its important to give people ways to do something about these realities; give them tools and avenues for change that will instill a modicum of hope and a sense of self-agency. And if they ultimately come up with different conclusions than yours, so be it. At least they know what’s going on out there. But I believe if people are able to loosen the clutches of fear and let themselves take a critical look at the world around them, slowly but surely change will happen. And one day perhaps Republican grandfathers will march for justice and Aunt Matilda will start sending donations to Global Exchange.

I do not want this war, this sham. I do not want it. Scared? I am.

I do not want it in Iraq.

I do not want it in a sock.

I do not want it on TV.

I do not want it haunting me.

I do not want my Congress to fail me.

I do not want John Ashcroft to jail me.

I do not want this war, this sham.

Unpatriotic? Oh please, what a scam.

CAROL NORRIS is a psychotherapist and freelance writer. She can be contacted at

Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and longtime political activist.