A recent cartoon in this newspaper depicted two cavemen talking with each other. “Think about it! All this intertribal violence, volcanoes, earthquakes, asteroids, tar pits, getting eaten by dinosaurs . . . it’s the end times, my friend!”
The cartoon made me chuckle out loud. It served as a reminder of the adage “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
The ever-expanding marathon that is our presidential election is regrettably already in mid-season form fully 16 months before the fact.
New York’s political culture, combined with the U.S. Constitution’s archaic Electoral College system, makes it unlikely that this state will be visited in earnest by any of the two dozen or more candidates that have entered or will enter this campaign.
That doesn’t mean we will be spared exposure to any of the accompanying rhetoric — and we haven’t.
Already we’re being told to fear undocumented immigrants as real or potential terrorists, a negotiated multilateral agreement with Iran as a guarantor of a nuclear Mideast, marriage equality as an attack on religious freedom, calls for reasonable gun regulation in the face of rampant gun violence as a precursor to evisceration of the Second Amendment.
Fear has its place. Sometimes it’s good and wise to be afraid. It can be a vital survival tool, alerting us to immediate danger and injecting the adrenaline rush of speed or strength temporarily required to overcome it.
Combined with experience, whether our own or that of others, a healthy fear teaches us when and how to avoid certain dangers altogether. It influences subsequent behavior, as when it is instilled to teach children the situations — busy streets, sharp objects, threatening animals or poisonous substances — that are a hazard to their own well being.
However, fear can be a powerful motivational tool, which invites its usage to heighten emotions for something less than wholly altruistic purposes. Some of these are harmless, as when it is used to profit from an effort to entertain — a thrill ride in an amusement park, a suspenseful story, a horror movie.
However, there is a thin line between profiting from entertainment, from which we at least get something, and profiting from exploitation, from which we get nothing but a sense of having been had.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of outlets in our saturated media landscape competing for even a minute of our attention fecklessly use fear in ways not in our best interests, but certainly in theirs.
Watch the first five minutes of ABC’s World News Tonight or experience the general theme running through something as seemingly innocuous as The Weather Channel. They delight in telling us that life is full of dangers lurking in unexpected places or even places we think of as relatively safe.
Radio talk shows and our local television newscasts do the same thing. Apparently, everything if not everyone are potential sources of danger. “Stay tuned to stay aware and protect yourself! We are your only reliable friends.” (However, the details on the coming Armageddon somehow won’t start until after the next assortment of commercial messages.)
All of which brings us back to the politicians and political operatives who know very well the motivational power of fear. After all, “fear mongering” is a term developed directly out of the political experience. Everyone claims to see it in a negative light, but its persistent use indicates that it is perceived as solidly effective despite its sullied reputation.
Ignorance, intellectual laziness and embedded biases are a few of its agents. Experts called political consultants teach candidates how use these agents to push all the right buttons and create a predictable, even Pavlovian, response.
There is a certain subtlety to most of the methods — although Mr. Trump and others seem intent on removing any traces of tact or finesse.
One of the more common ones is the “dog whistle.” That's the practice of using certain carefully crafted words or concepts to trigger a sense of recognition in segments of the electorate that they and the candidate have like-minded attitudes. These attitudes might otherwise find disapproval in much of the general population.
Once use of the dog whistle is exposed, the accompanying disapproval is then decried as an example of “political correctness” — a label arguing that this disapproval is dismissive of others’ rights to express themselves “authentically” and is, itself, artificially derived and systemized to restrict their speech. In the end, it fallaciously argues that only criticism of their criticism violates free speech principles. And so it goes.
“Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid.” — Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” (1966).
That’s where we are now. Unfortunately, the candidates and political positions employing such methods to greatest effect all too often win, and we are left to wonder why nothing seems to change for the better.
However, if we the electorate, regardless of political leaning, simply resolved to reject out of hand all attempts to play on our fears from whatever quarter they emerge, maybe our political culture — not to mention our political outcomes — would begin to improve.
At the very least, our refusal— in unison — to be manipulated could prove to be empowering.
John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.