Words are like terrorist weapons these days, bombs thrown at various topics by those who don’t care what damage they inflict upon anyone reading or within listening range. Instead of being utilized as the building blocks to form ideas or the brushes to paint mental images, they are exploded to exploit emotions and capitalize on fears.
Listen to anyone wanting to influence people now, and I don’t care what moral or political stance they take or what they call themselves, they are all doing the same thing. They all play up the chances of their audience losing something precious to them. From the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) to the pro-choice lobby, everybody has taken to practicing the fine art of fearmongering as their primary means of rhetoric.
Fear-based rhetoric has a fine history in politics and certain fire and brimstone branches of religion. What politician running for office hasn’t painted pictures of doom and gloom if their opponent should be elected? The late President Johnson of the United States was able to defeat his Republican competitor, Barry Goldwater, in 1964 by depicting him as being more than willing to plummet the world into a nuclear holocaust. With the Cuban Missile crisis fresh in people’s minds, it was enough to secure him his victory.
A little piece of political folklore I read in a book by the late Hunter S. Thompson has Johnson telling the campaign manager, for some office or another in Texas, to accuse their opponent of having sexual congress with pigs. When told that it wasn’t true, Johnson said he knew that, but they should make the guy deny it anyway. Making your opponent have to reassure the public of their integrity always makes them look weak and on the defensive.
The image of the fiery preacher standing up in front of his congregation warning them of the perils of sin and threatening them with hellfire is one we are all familiar with from either literature, movies, or late night evangelical shows on television. Two o’clock in the morning was usually the haven for either “B” movies or hell fire preachers on independent television stations back in the 1970s and early 80s. This was long before the days of mainstream acceptance of people like Oral Roberts and the invention of the infomercial made their offerings of the bad hair set and scream queen redundant and replaceable. But in their prime, these preachers ensured that people learned to fear their God, pray for forgiveness, and dread certain days of the week.
Compared to what we experience on a daily basis now, those days seem positively tame in comparison. It’s not just politicians and preachers any more who plant the seeds of fear in our hearts and minds. From every newspaper, radio, and television come the voices of “experts” and “pundits” with an axe to grind.
Many of these people have no claim to expertise in the fields they pontificate on, just an ability to manipulate and increase circulation or the Nielson ratings. They seem to have an inherent talent for finding the buttons to push that will create a panic reaction in their audience. A scared person can quickly become an angry person, and an angry scared person needs someone to blame.
You could be a poor white person without a job and blaming the immigrants for stealing work or a poor black in the inner city blaming the whites for your predicament. You could be part of the middle class watching your savings disappear as the cost of living goes through the roof and blaming the poor for stealing tax dollars and being a drain on the economy. You could be a woman blaming men for not being allowed to choose what happens to your body or a Christian blaming gays for the decline of morality — it’s all the same thing.
The great American novelist, William Faulkner, in his acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in the 1950s, said the current generation of people would grow up haunted by the threat of nuclear destruction. He made the point that this atmosphere of fear would affect everything – from the arts to lifestyle and down to basic human inter reactions.
The ensuing years have more than borne out his prediction and we can see the results of such prolonged exposure to fear in almost all aspects of our society. Personal relationships fail due to the fear of trusting another individual. Intolerance of differences in culture, religion, race, and sexuality has increased with our fear of anything unknown. The exchange of ideas has disintegrated as our need to protect ourselves has grown and our differences of opinion are less likely to be tolerated.
Who is going to be willing to listen to the ideas of those we are told to fear, especially if the fear is irrational and based on emotional responses? Not very many of us, I would think. Dependant on how the fear manifests itself in the world plays a significant role in our abilities to resolve the circumstances of its creation and continuation.
If our days are filled with constant reminders of the evil nature of this group or that and we are under continual threat because of their existence, how likely is it that we will be able to summon the courage to think differently about them, let alone reach out the hand of friendship?
The words good and evil have been devalued by both their constant usage and their employ by people whose authority is suspect. The only reason for calling a person like George Bush or a country like Iran evil is to make them feared and to let others know they shouldn’t like them. Just because someone or some country does something we don’t agree with does not make them evil, yet that is exactly how the word is utilized today.
Good and evil are highly subjective terms anyway; there are very few things that people are in universal agreement on when defining what is and isn’t evil. Even within their own moral codes, societies can have double standards on what constitutes evil dependant on who performs the act.
It’s all right for the state to order the death of an individual, but it’s not all right for an individual to assist another in taking their own life or even to let that person expire in peace. In some people’s minds, it’s acceptable to condemn a birthing mother to death, but not abort a foetus. Other people will abort a foetus for no other reason than its potential gender. All sides of the issues think they are morally right and the other morally wrong.
Needless to say, everybody thinks they are right and the other person is wrong. When everything becomes black and white, greys cease to exist. The chance of any compromise being reached between two parties is minimal. Very few of us are willing to “walk a mile in another’s shoes” anymore or to try and understand another person’s viewpoint.
Until we are able to do that, nothing is going to change, and this war of utilizing words for fear will continue.