No, The World Isn’t Ending — But Here’s Why Some People Want You To Think It Is.
Fear is power, and the ways it is being used right now are effective — but they’re not invincible.
Ah, 2020. This year has been called a lot of things, and most of them can’t be spoken of in polite company. Truly, it has been the crowning jewel in a treasure trove of a disastrous decade, at least by the estimation of most currently-living people (and really, who else’s opinions matter?).
How do we hate thee, 2020? Let us count the ways. Of course there’s the pandemic and the ensuing loss of life and wellbeing that has followed in its wake. There are forest fires and hurricanes, flooding in some places and severe drought in others, and the lurking questions about how they tie into the ongoing global climate change crisis.
There is extreme political division in the West, with ideologies clashing on pretty much every imaginable issue that comes up for discussion. There is persecution in the East, from continued lynchings and horrifying rape cases in India to crackdowns in China, Myanmar, and Russia. The Arab world is beset once again by internal conflict, with the situation in Yemen reaching new lows and tensions in Iraq increasing yet again as sectarian divides yawn wide.
I could go on, but really, I think you get the picture. And a bleak picture it is, when viewed from any of these angles. How can so much be going so wrong all at once? How can we be headed for anything besides abject, all-consuming disaster?
To preface this exploration of the why, the how, and perhaps most importantly the who of our current and frightening age, I will make a very dramatic yet incredibly simple statement.
Wherever you are, there is at least one distinct group of people who would like you to be afraid. Very, very afraid, if possible.
Diving Deep Into The “Why” Of Mass Anxiety — Fear Is Power…Just Not For the Fearful.
I would venture to say that most of us know, on some level, that people who want increased power often do so by instilling some form of doubt, hostility, and anxiousness in a select group of potential followers. At the same time, many people “know” this only in a vague sense. Few have the time, energy, or information to explore precisely why this might be the case.
In a 2013 issue of Res Publica, the Illinois Wesleyan University’s journal of undergraduate research, one study synthesized a number of other studies exploring the connection between fear — which is, by the way, a very measurable attribute from a social science perspective — and authoritarianism.
To make a complex matter very simple, a number of studies done by big-name researchers such as Bob Altemeyer and Karen Stenner reveal a number of patterns that define an “authoritarian” person. Authoritarians are defined as people who live by a principle of “blind submission to authority, as opposed to freedom of thought and action.”
They are a topic of interest for those who research politics, psychology, and sociology, and much has been debated about where authoritarianism comes from and why it persists so strongly in some people versus others.
After a great deal of replication, analysis, and collaboration between researchers and their universities, certain patterns have arisen to explain this phenomenon. Certain traits are more common and more apparent in the radically obedient than others. I will summarize them here, though I highly recommend looking into some of the literature yourself if you want to experience a total shift in your worldview.
The patterns relevant to our current discussion are as follows:
- Most authoritarians display high levels of fear as compared to non-authoritarians.
- Authoritarians tend to have a high level of conformity — they highly value obedience to social norms and the leaders who espouse them, and feel negatively toward actions that undermine these norms.
- The radically obedient tend to blend in with “everyone else” most of the time (as in, moderates), but become more politically and socially active in times of perceived threat or instability.
- Authoritarians, by and large, tend to view the world as a dangerous and hostile place rather than a neutral or cooperative one. This view extends both to how they see other individuals as well as organized groups outside of their own, and they aren’t very tolerant of any challenge to this worldview. In fact, they are (perhaps shockingly) able to ignore or outright reject anything that might undermine their existing and often inherited beliefs.
Put these patterns together, and you will find a subset of humanity which is calm in the face of calm, but very active when that calm is threatened — or simply perceived to be threatened, as it so happens. Any kind of moral, ethical, or cultural challenge can represent that threat, and so there tends to be a fairly large arsenal of “trigger points” one can use to draw out authoritarians and get them “riled up,” to use a more vernacular term.
Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Harvard University’s Erica Chenoweth, we have an oft-cited data point regarding the amount of support needed to topple an authoritarian leader (in our case, this is someone followed by authoritarians, rather than someone who necessarily has an authoritarian personality of their own). That sweet spot is 3.5% of a given population.
With that being the case, one can reasonably infer that it takes a similar margin of support for a given leader to successfully attain and hold power in the first place. And, based on the research and patterns I have previously cited, if an authoritarian leader can successfully instill a sense of threat, fear, and disruption in a large enough portion of the population, they can bring out the authoritarian tendencies of a significant portion of these people.
With some simple maneuvering, these wannabe leaders can lock themselves in as a part of that crowd’s “in-group” and assume a position of authority over them using said group’s already-existing paradigms and world-views.
Whew. Sounds complicated, right? It’s actually a somewhat rudimentary formula: Existing prejudice x fear + the need for conformity = a readiness to obey leaders who represent authoritarians’ conceptions of “normalcy,” or, in most cases, “what ought to be defined as normal.”
Since these obedient masses already possess higher-than-average levels of prejudice due to their blind acceptance of prior authority figures’ own opinions and views, and since they already mark high when it comes to a need for conformity, fear is usually the only ingredient needed to incite these individuals and draw them into a desperately loyal following.
If this following happens to comprise approximately 3.5% of the population, they can be wielded to great effect by an authority seeking greater power and influence over a government, organization, or ideological camp. According to the most up-to-date polling data, about 18–30% of Americans skew authoritarian in their beliefs and habits. A portion of this group will be highly authoritarian, and these individuals are generally the best targets for anyone who wants to quickly, effectively, and non-negotiably secure positions of socio-political power.
All of this is related to my first big statement: there is, without a doubt, a group of people who are at this precise moment invested in your fear. Since we don’t come with neon signs alluding to our authoritarian or non-authoritarian tendencies, you represent a potential loyal follower for any person or persons who wish to seize power and/or inhibit the ability of rivals to prevent said seizure.
To draw out the angry, frightened, and blindly obedient wheat from the largely neutral and sometimes-resistant chaff, all that these interested parties need is a jolt of fear and a platform that utilizes it.
And that’s the why, folks. Now, let’s see how this plays into our current near-apocalypse, shall we?
It’s Both The Size of The Fear And How You Use It, When It Comes To Winning Power.
On some level, all of us share the same basic fears. Most of them center around loss — loss of life, loss of identity as a stand-in for life, and loss of the material comfort that ensures the reasonable continuation of that life.
In our complex human world, losing can look like a lot of things. Maybe it’s losing your home due to financial concerns or an unfavorable set of natural circumstances. Perhaps it’s losing your voice in the political arena through the intervention of those who would really love it if you kept your mouth shut, or losing your sense of community because the people who comprise it are starting to look a lot different than you’re used to.
Many of our fears work on a more-or-less subconscious basis. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t function very well, since fear is probably the loudest and most insistent of all biological mechanisms. It is reactive, meaning it requires a stimulus, and automatic, meaning we have very little control over our fear once it gets going.
If there happened to be a handbook accessible to every dictator, cult leader, demagogue, or would-be king on Earth, fear would comprise the largest and heftiest chapter without a doubt. This is because fear is not only measurable and observable, but also incredibly dependable as far as motivating forces go. Fear can be measured through a wide variety of metrics, both within and outside of the academic arena. As homo sapiens, we are extremely well-equipped to identify and measure fear in other humans — this is a part of our legacy as a deeply social species.
Groups display fear just as clearly as individuals do, and there are a few responses which are nearly indivisible from the feeling of fear itself. They are:
- Aggression, or the display of harmful behavior against an outside party. Sociologists would classify aggression as “behavior that is intended to harm another individual who does not wish to be harmed.” I am here extending that definition to go beyond individuals and include groups, as well.
- Increased loyalty towards a perceived “in-group” or defining ideology — this is the crowd or “mob” behavior we see when a perceived threat is spread via social cues and other conformity-related actions. Remember when I mentioned conformity as a trait common to authoritarians? Hmmm…you might want to keep that in mind.
- Hoarding behaviors, which can take a vast array of forms in a species as complex as ours. We can hoard more than physical resources — power, individuals (i.e. “our women”), or even a concept as vague as privilege can be hoarded by a group that feels threatened by an outside force.
Authoritarian leaders manipulate these behaviors to suit their goals, and they do so by aligning those goals with the target groups’ own fear-motivated ones. So, they amplify or present the fear, then they take advantage of the predictable, resulting behaviors that arise from it. And since authoritarians tend to be the ones who respond most readily to fear-oriented stimuli, they’re the first aim for any ambitious soul who wants to hold power in a dramatic way.
Again, we don’t have neon letters flashing over our heads to tell these power-hungry influencers whether or not we’re likely to respond to fear the way they want us to. So, they tend to use a broad brush to paint the frightening picture that will act as bait to draw out the authoritarians in our midst. As authoritarians are big fans of conformity and are therefore likely to be the “conservative” or “traditional” members of a given society, the picture in question tends to cater to whatever group or groups comprise that sector of the leader’s target population.
As stated at the beginning of this section, fear is generally related to the perception of imminent or ongoing loss, and loss can look like a lot of things for a lot of people. In the case of those who skew authoritarian (and are thus primed for the blind obedience wannabe power-grabbers crave), the losses that stimulate them tend to be ideological. Since they view the world and the people within it as largely hostile and untrustworthy, what they fear is the proverbial losing to someone or something which is placed in opposition to their own sense of self.
Essentially, they fear the “other” more than they fear blatantly physical threats like natural disasters or bodily illness. The high measures of religiosity amongst authoritarians only heightens this phenomenon, as it adds a sense of moral “rightness” and ethical superiority to the already potent mix of fear and prejudice. It’s quite the powder keg, and all you need to blow it sky-high is the right fuse and a little bit of good timing.
And you don’t have to go looking for either of those things. You can, with a little planning, simply create your own. And authoritarian leaders are very good at doing just that. It’s not so challenging, after all, when you’re aware that a significant portion of the population is already primed and waiting for the next big threat. It doesn’t take much to firmly plant any given “other” in that open position and, as we have seen throughout history, there are always plenty of Others to utilize.
Authoritarian leaders can even take a completely natural event and use it as a loaded gun, pointing it at whoever they can so much as slightly blame for its effects. The order of business, as a result, looks like this: find a fear, divide a population, and use the predictability of fear-induced behaviors against any and all rivals. The whole thing practically takes care of itself, once you get the process going.
This simple yet elegantly calibrated system does rely on a few moving parts, however, and that brings us to the final piece of the 2020 puzzle. Forget the British Invasion — we’re going to talk about the who of our current global panic.
Who Calls The Shots? Usually The One Whose Gun Is Already Loaded.
We all love a good conspiracy theory, complete with shady characters and secret meetings in dark, smoky back-rooms, but reality tends to be a little more…well, blasé. You see, the people who have the greatest interest in power are almost always the ones who already hold it.
Power structures are such a complicated subject that you could easily fill several libraries with all that’s been said and written about them. However, like so much of what we have discussed here today, the complexity usually rests upon a rather simple foundation. Those who hold power are those who hold resources, be they physical or more obscure.
Resources can be basic things like food, water, and shelter, or they can be the currency by which those basic things are attained. Land is a resource, as are stocks, companies, production facilities, and weapons. Political influence is also a resource, whether it is expressed through titles (and corresponding privileges), votes, or media support. When it comes to power, resources are anything that allows one person or group to tell other people or groups what to do, how to behave, and what the consequences are for disobedience. This aim can be achieved via consent or brute force — it depends on who’s holding that loaded gun I mentioned in the section heading.
As the “loaded guns” behind power structures, resources not only define much of the why and the how of fear-as-influence, but they’re also a pretty reliable way to spot the who of the whole messy business, too. We all know the phrase — do I really need to say it? Just “follow the money.” See who is holding the cards, and you’ll see who has the most to lose.
Obvious, right? Not really an earth-shattering conspiracy for you to post on social media or your extremely-niche blog site, so my apologies for that. The so-called “haves” of the have-not experience aren’t just one group, however, nor do they exist in a vacuum.
Look at it this way. The reason traditionalists are traditional is because, traditionally, those traditions benefitted them. Say that five times fast, I dare you. Since traditionalism is a big pattern within the ranks of authoritarians, it’s no surprise that most authoritarians tend to be a part of groups which have historically held power through resource control. Now I’m going to drop another big one on you: the authoritarian leaders are often big, fat liars.
Surprising, right? It’s true, if a bit cliche. These leaders aren’t a part of the movements they lead. Generally speaking, they couldn’t care less about tradition, ethical codes, or whatever identifying features their obedient followers adhere to.
Bob Altemeyer, a researcher whose work on authoritarianism defines the field, named two kinds of authoritarian. One, the Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) constitutes the “followers” I have largely focused on in this piece. The second is composed of those with a “Social Dominance Orientation” or SDO. These are the authoritarians who not only hold the loaded gun, but who are more than happy to use it on anyone lower than them on the power scale.
Based on the interactions between in and out-groups, the data cited in this piece and many other supporting studies, and observations from a wide array of socio-political observers, one thing has begun to clarify itself. SDO authoritarians are the ones looking to take and keep power, and Right Wing Authoritarians are the ones who allow them to do it.
To put it simply, while RWA’s tend to score high on fear and direct that fear toward losing, SDOs are only concerned with one thing: winning. They use fear as an effective tool to influence other people or groups, but they themselves tend to have lower-to-average levels of it, themselves. Nor do they score high on individual tests of conformity, traditionalism, or any of the other RWA-defining characteristics — in many cases, they’re the opposite of the RWAs they seek to utilize.
What they do show high levels of are traits such as aggressiveness, Machiavellianism, and self-interest. These are people whose natural superiority mindset is so ingrained that it has become a seamless element of their psyche. They score very low on empathy, with little concern for anyone outside of the “winner” circle they inhabit, and they thrive in environments with strictly delineated hierarchies.
Putting it all together, we can posit that the people who stand to benefit most from an atmosphere of fear and hostility are those who already hold a significant amount of power, because they are the ones who are most likely to view themselves as “winners” and the rest of humanity as “losers.”
It is the people or groups who do not perceive themselves as losers but who probably are (by an SDO estimation, anyway) that present the most dependable way to retain and secure power — i.e. continued “winning.” This is because the losers-who-think-they-aren’t-losers fear “losing” deeply, broadly, and with a blind fervor that is as shocking as it is effective.
It sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple when you look at it all from a big-picture angle. The people who cling most firmly to power (or “authority” in this context) are those who a) fear the consequences of that power belonging to a group of “others” who might harm them, or who b) view power as their natural right as “winners” in the all-encompassing hierarchy of life.
These are two corroborating extremes operating in tandem, with the rest of us caught up in the resulting chaos. Since those defined as “average” or neutral on the authoritarian scale aren’t as concerned with power in the first place, they tend to get left behind when fear is high and the RWA machine is working hard for those power-hungry SDO leaders.
And as the term “average” implies, that’s most of us. So if you feel a bit as if you’ve stumbled into some sort of whirling, panicked alternate reality, you’re not far from the truth — you’re a neutral party thrust into a carefully constructed warzone, and the ones pulling the strings aren’t keen on letting the chaos die down any time soon.
What are we going to do about it? Well, that depends on what you’re willing to do. And I’m very glad you asked.
The Emperor Has No Clothes — Looking At The Apocalypse And Deciding It’s Not An Apocalypse.
The times we are living in are disruptive. Nothing in this piece is intended to refute that, as the pandemic rages and conflict is a very real threat looming on a hundred different horizons at the moment. It isn’t a matter of whether things are hard, but rather of who is making them harder, how they’re achieving this, and why they would want to do so. I hope that after all this, I have at least begun to answer those questions.
The fact of the matter is that the world has spun through cataclysmic events in human history many, many times before. Most of them were far more damaging from a mortality standpoint, and some of them resulted in near-absolute destruction of the existing social landscape. People had narrower parameters by which to define their experiences, it’s true, but if you ask someone who survived Vesuvius or the Bubonic Plague about the apocalypse, they’re likely to paint a very different picture than the average person today.
This is true for those in the global North especially, but it is also the case for the majority of people living in developing countries these days. And it is somewhat ironic that the very reason things seem so apocalyptic now is that the world hasn’t been nearly as dangerous as it was in prior eras.
Humanity as a whole can only judge their time by a narrow margin. We, as in you and I and everyone alive right this second, haven’t been around for even the blink of an eye historically speaking. We have no perspective besides our own, and those perspectives are currently based on a very high standard of living compared to the ones our ancestors would have held. This news is both good and bad, depending on how you look at it. Unfortunately we have by-and-large been subject to an overwhelmingly negative collective viewpoint for the past few decades.
Blame Word War Two or Vietnam, Watergate or 9/11, or just blame the “entitled millennials” everyone was so up in arms against a few years back, but people are rather pessimistic these days. And as this entire article has pointed out, that pessimistic worldview is characteristic of authoritarians, especially those of the follow-the-supreme-leader ilk. We are feeding the beast, so to speak, and the beast is then feeding itself even more through those who see opportunity in the fear of others.
To defeat the trend and reveal the end times for what they are — more like middle-of-the-road times, by any historical estimation — we desperately need perspective. We need to see the power structures for what they are, how they are, and who they are benefitting, and then we need to firmly insist on not only sitting out of their game, but also of removing the pieces they’re using to play it.
One of the best predictors of lowered authoritarianism is education, along with exposure to diversity and norms which value collaboration over dominance. RWAs can change, and SDOs can fall from their sky-high winner’s podium to join the rest of us here on solid ground, if we make them do so. People who naturally score low on measures of authoritarianism tend to be empathetic, independent, confident, and logical. They are nonaggressive and possess good critical thinking skills, and they are able to spread their values easily through their strong communication abilities and open-mindedness.
We are and can be those people, if we take a deep breath and assess the fear tactics that have been consistently leveled against us as of late. Fear and anxiety are natural, and I would venture to say unavoidable, right now — but allowing them to dominate the tone and direction of our actions is anything but useful. We are a more diverse world than we ever have been before. Yes, this means those nasty SDOs are able to find more “others” to cast as threats than ever before, but it also means the potential for exposing the frightened conformists to new ideas is high. And as I mentioned before, this is one of the most reliable ways to lower people’s levels of authoritarianism over time.
The digital age means we can educate ourselves and others faster and with greater impact than ever before — this is the flipside to the coin of “fake news” and misinformation, and it is a side which shouldn’t be forgotten. Plenty of us — in fact most of us, based on the data — believe that collaboration, compromise, and cooperation are natural and good. We can instill and are instilling those values in the next generation, and we are fighting to retain them within our own communities.
The norms can be peaceful, the fear response can be moderated, and people can endure a great deal of turbulence without losing their grip on life or the potential for its fulfillment here on Earth.
So, if this is an apocalypse, it is one of many we have survived and recovered from over the centuries, and by most measures it isn’t a very large one. The grief, loss, and uncertainty we are feeling is very real, but when you view our current human experience through the unflinching eyes of science and research, you might be surprised to find a much more positive image than you had expected.
I will end this long journey with a quote from someone who endured the very worst ravages of fear and emerged a more compassionate, optimistic individual in spite of it. As 2020 merges into the new decade, let us recall the lesson imparted to us by that man. Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa and a revolutionary of the highest caliber, once said:
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”