How to Transcend Fear

By Katie Brown and Dr Benedict Wilkinson

In George Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien, the thought police agent, argues that power is best asserted through fear and suffering. The Ingsoc, he explains, has created the ‘exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined’; it is a world which relies on ‘fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon’. ‘The old civilizations’, he concludes, ‘claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy’.

For O’Brien and his dystopian political agenda, fear and pain are the key weapons deployed to stifle change, ensure the continuation of the status quo and safeguard the continued survival of a shadowy, if powerful, political elite. In a recent lecture series, Professor Dominique Moïsi, picked up on this theme of fear as a tool of political control, moving from totalitarian regimes to the democratic West. While dictators have long sought to bolster their power by playing on the fears of insecurity of their populations, for Moïsi, this is precisely the strategy employed by populist parties, who, in the pursuit of power, simultaneously feed the fears of their citizens and promise to solve these fears. However, Moisi asserts, this is just one example of the myriad ways in which fear is at the heart of contemporary politics.

The same politics of fear are visible on the broader stage of international relations. For Moïsi, Asia is defined by the ‘culture of hope’, thanks to economic success and ever-increasing power; the Arab and Muslim worlds share the ‘culture of humiliation’; and ‘the West’, meaning the US and Europe, is united by ‘the culture of fear’.

Moïsi explains that the West is currently plagued by many different types of fear: fear of imminent danger from terrorism; fear of ‘the Other’, brought closer to home through immigration; anxiety about being left behind economically and politically, about loss of control over our own countries in an increasingly interconnected world, about global issues like climate change. In short, ‘fear, the dominant emotion of the West is above all a reaction to the events and feelings taking place elsewhere.

Moïsi concludes with a reflection on how to transcend fear, offering three main claims. Firstly, ‘transcending fear means accepting the inevitability of change’. Moïsi observes that while war has decreased, democracies have increased, and life expectancy has improved dramatically, we still concentrate on the destabilising nature of change. As such, in order to transcend fear, both an acceptance of the inevitability of change and increased education about the nature of change are essential. Moreover, as ‘ignorance is the best tool of intolerance’, Moïsi maintains that cultural knowledge, that is ‘the ability to grasp the cultures of others and to respect them’ is crucial. Consequently, ‘transcending fear means better leadership’. Moïsi argues that ‘leadership has gone wrong’ in the democratic world, and that our leaders must now realise the limits of their power.  He condemns ‘populist demagogy’ for encouraging and producing fear in order to win votes, and for offering scapegoats as ‘simple answers to complex questions’. Instead, he contends, we need ‘enlightened pedagogy’: that is, leaders have a responsibility to explain the complex world in such a way that does not allow for fear.