Gospel Manifesto: Overcoming the politics of fear

July 2014 Feature Kevin P Clements Western democracies are facing a cruel dilemma. Instead of feeling secure in our affluence and generous in our disposition we feel insecure, fearful and…

July 2014


Kevin P Clements

Western democracies are facing a cruel dilemma. Instead of feeling secure in our affluence and generous in our disposition we feel insecure, fearful and selfish. Politicians play on our insecurity and fear and we become passive rather than active citizens, infants instead of adults and supporters of the status quo rather than liberating change. George Orwell predicted some of this a long time ago when he said, in 1984:

‘Do you begin to see then, what kind of world we are creating? It is … a world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself.’

If we are to become active empowered citizens we need to address our fears so that we can be politically bold, critical and engaged. To do this we have to determine what we are afraid of and what we want from our political leaders and political parties.

There are two types of fear: healthy, probable and realistic and unhealthy, imagined and unrealistic.We are hardwired physiologically to avoid risky activities that might result in danger and death. In 21st century New Zealand we do need to worry about climate change, inequality and injustice; we do not need to worry about terrorism, criminality or existential insecurity. By focusing on these healthy, immediate and realistic fears we begin to gain some understanding of what we need to work for and what we can safely ignore.

Fear is a bad motivator for positive behaviour and normally engenders both individual and social paralysis. Frank Furedi, in The Politics of Fear, said that ‘The Right in politics have forgotten what sort of past they wish to preserve and the Left has forgotten what sort of future it wishes to realise so we are caught in a paralysing present’.
Most politics in the West, therefore, lack any sense of purpose, perspective and meaning. It’s sad that it is a default option for both the Right and the Left to lapse into cultivating a politics of fear. The major consequence of this is that citizens are treated like children by our politicians.
The solution is two-fold. We need to start with something positive. ‘Without a vision the people perish.’ If we do not have a strong ethical frame for our politics we cannot measure whether progress is being made.

My suggestion is to start with a reinvigorated humanistic vision for the 21st century. People and communities at local, national, regional and global levels should not be trapped in a paralyzing present but strive to realise justice, peace, compassion and truth in their social and political relationships. Our basic expectation is that ‘hope and history will rhyme’ and that we will develop a politics that will be enabling rather than disabling, participatory rather than exclusive, one which will enable us to connect as adult to adult rather than child to adult. We want a vision that will help us realize the common sense and wisdom that each one of us brings to life. This is a very different vision than that promoted by most politicians.

We need to be systematic about what we want from our politicians and clear about whose interests we are promoting. I find it sad that the notion of public service seems to be currently at a premium and that the common good is seen as a relic of a more idealistic past. If we cannot reactivate this notion that the state is the servant of the people rather than the other way around we will never be able to challenge dominatory politics or discover the power inherent in every single citizen. In this we must also be guided by tactics and strategies that deal with the root causes of political violence and not its symptoms. The US Political Instability Taskforce 2004, for example, correlated the following factors with incidents of terrorism and other sources of political violence: poverty, underdevelopment and maldistribution of resources; weak regimes and poor governance; poor regional integration and bad neighbourhoods. If we wish to do something about political violence and the democratic deficit then we need to ask our political leaders to address these and other concerns. They are much more important than current growth strategies or the potential for tax breaks.
In all of these kinds of discussions it would be helpful if all states responded to Kofi Annan’s call to advance the cause of larger freedom, by ensuring freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom to live in dignity. In an increasingly interconnected world, progress in the development, security and human rights must go hand in hand. Both development and security also depend on respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Christians contemplating these issues must enter what I call the mystery of suffering. How do we as strangers make loving sense of suffering? What are our responsibilities for the suffering of self and others? How do we witness it creatively? How do we embrace it so that we might be softened and transformed by it? With those who are suffering, how do we discern creative possibility? How in the face of polarisation and division do we stand for union and reunion of self with the other and self with the world?

In an interdependent world we can no longer afford to have narrow circles of compassion. Our individual lives and sense of wellbeing hinges on the wellbeing and safety of others. To assume responsibility to and for the welfare of the other we need to reach out to those in need (including those whom we fear) and stand in radical solidarity with them as they and we satisfy our basic human needs together and create the conditions for each of us to realize our full potential.

We would then be living beyond the politics of fear. We would be empowered and emboldened change agents for a better world.

Kevin P Clements is Chair and Director, The National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.