In Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel, Anil’s Ghost, Sarath tells the eponymous protagonist, Anil: ‘I wanted to find one law to cover all of living. I found fear’. At first glance, this seems a gross exaggeration of humanity’s character, given its ability to love, show compassion and even altruism. The novel, set in the period of Sri Lankan’s ethnic turmoil, may appear to be specific to such a context alone. But is it?
Post-9/11 the ‘West’ (although this is not in any way homogeneous as a geographical category), and primarily the USA, has constantly demonstrated its governing ethos to be fear (Islamophobia being the most prominent of them). Across the world, undoubtedly under the influence of a US-driven media panic, the culture of fear has determined social relations between communities of different religious persuasions.
Vigilante actions against specific communities, hate speech and even legislation are rooted in this emerging republic of fear. Any group can, in the name of the larger community, group, nation take on the responsibility for threatening, even exterminating, another. Campaigns such as ‘Not In My Name’ or even legal action (when these people are not being acquitted, that is) seem to make little difference to such groups.
Statistics are selectively employed to demonstrate the imminent ‘threat’ from certain communities, investigative reports that reveal a different truth, buried and forgotten. Fear escalates in such contexts where selective memory teams up with the debunking of investigative reports in favour of loudly voiced myths and partial truths. When the perpetrators of some extreme acts of violence are identified, the entire community, by a brilliant strategy, is pulled into the category of the perpetrator: ‘they are all…’ (feel free to fill in the blanks).
Irrational and Harmful
In her incisive but resolutely non-programmatic examination of this atmosphere of fear, The Monarchy of Fear (2018), one of the world’s most influential philosopher-ethicists, Martha Nussbaum, offers us a brief introduction to how fear can become, frighteningly, a driving force in the national psyche. She locates the USA as her primary case study, but also cites Europe and India (now no doubt she will be told she has no business critiquing India’s policies) to demonstrate the prevalence and amplification of a culture of fear.
Nussbaum notes that a ‘kernel of rational fear (fear of terrorist violence by criminals…) can escalate into fears that are irrational and harmful’. One of her examples is this. If once African Americans get branded as criminals, then the larger society makes two wrong inferences: that a large proportion of crimes are committed by African Americans, and a large proportion of African Americans are criminals.
Both, she notes, are easily cultivated. Just as the USA did in post-9/11 decades, populist speakers and politicians thrive on this fear-factor. Condemning a community in toto comes easy when they can expand a set of examples into a national scourge. Nussbaum, via psychology, argues that ‘if a single type of problem is vivid in our experience, this leads us to overestimate the importance of the problem’. This retention of a problem as ‘vivid’ so that it becomes excessively important, is what we now recognise as the effect of media hype, viral memes, deliberate misinformation and myth-making. Her use of the USA, a democracy let us not forget, is pertinent, as we shall see.
Meditating via Nussbaum, we could think of Talaat Pasha’s instigation of the Turkish population against the Armenians or Adolf Hitler’s motivating of the Germans against the Jews as comparable modern-day examples. Both leaders, via their excellent populist mobilisation of fear, managed to mass-produce death. Unchecked in their rhetoric of hate and anger, which of course derives from fear, building on inchoate data, they pulled off some of the most brazen instances of ‘crimes against humanity’.
Closer to our own age, we have examples from the Ukraine, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The mobilisation of fear, as we can see from these examples, is a near-stereotypical feature of totalitarian, theocracies or military states. Monarchs always governed in fear. But, as we discern from Nussbaum, it is also a feature of democracies. And this is what ought to frighten us about the mobilisation of fear: that (even) in a democracy which by definition is about the equality of rights, specific myths, measures and monologic thought can identify and target certain communities.
The population growth of communities or their religious proselytising is posed as threatening. This energises the ‘fear of small numbers’, as Arjun Appadurai phrased it in his book of the same title. It becomes an effective fear because it ignores other key ‘measures’ of these communities, such as their presence in the echelons of the government or massive corporate conglomerates, the levels of literacy in the community, the percentage in employment, among others. The fear of small numbers is not extended to a fear of their minimal presence in national metrics for employment, income, gender empowerment or education.
There is a very effective mode of transforming the fear of a community or small numbers into a national obsession, or more accurately, the obsession of a regime which is then projected as the ‘will of the people’ and a national concern. Nussbaum notes that there is an ‘equating [of] well-being of our own group or class and forgetting the contributions of others’.
All national triumphs are claimed by a particular group or groups, while the rest are condemned as parasites, threats or as national liabilities. This last can then be effectively harnessed because we now have, as Hitler ostensibly ‘demonstrated’ to the Germans vis ì vis the Jews, a ‘national enemy’ within that deters us a nation from progressing.
The mobilisation of fear that sets communities in antagonistic relations to each other must be fought precisely because the fear of the Other cannot be the determining factor in social relations, national policy-making or even our intellectual processes (such as they are). Myths being floated must be questioned, stereotypes rejected, scapegoating condemned, group vigilante cultures subject to a rigorous scrutiny of the law. ‘Res publica’, the root of the word, concept and ideal, ‘republic’, means the country is a ‘public’ subject, of public concern. When this concern is founded entirely on fear, we run the risk of building a republic of fear.
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)