Monday, May 30, 2005

Post No. 16: Fear Factor

“There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

“Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate, Hate leads to Suffering.” – Yoda, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Fear. Mention this word to anyone and the image that would most likely appear in most minds would be one that is dark, threatening & negative. Something which is harmful, brings about no benefits to society and therefore, something which must be conquered and/or overcome. Such a perception of Fear is clearly illustrated, in a nutshell, in the two quotes which I have employed above. However, is Fear really all bad and no good? According to Max Weber, it would be naïve to assume that good can only come from good and that good cannot arise from evil. Hence, with this in mind, my question would be: “Can good arise from Fear?” and my answer would be a qualified “Yes!” Why so? Read on and understand…

First and foremost, it is my observation that Fear, in the form of fear of punishment, can be beneficial to society. This fear of punishment, undoubtedly, provides a considerable disincentive to those potential criminals and would-be evildoers. Fearing punishment, most people would most likely think twice (or even thrice) before they choose to commit any crime or any act, which brings about harm to society, that is punishable by law. In fact, it would not be inaccurate to say that this fear of punishment serves as part of the foundation for the Legalist school of thought. To extend my argument, it may even be observed that such a fear of punishment also plays a part in Religion. Though this may be a misperception on my part but it seems to me that most religions appeal to their believers to do good & avoid committing sins by indoctrinating in them the notion that they would not escape punishment for they have committed in the afterlife (“burn & roast in Hell, you sinner!” :p). And where else can we find a better example of how the fear of punishment have served to bring about order & stability and deter crime in society but our very own Singapore? As much as we may disagree with or even criticise the Legalist bent in the Singapore system and/or parody it as a “fine” city, it is quite clear that the Singapore system, utilising the fear of punishment, have done good for us. Thus, it could be seen that good can indeed arise from Fear.

Yet, the fear of punishment is not the only form of Fear that can bring about good to society and the world. The fear of war, in my opinion, also brings about benefits to the general stability and peace (though much more can & should still be done) of the world. It is this fear of war that make world leaders, past & present (though I’m not too sure about the latter), to be generally cautious and avoid making any decision to launch a full-scale war with one another’s country. Even if they do decide to start a war, it is most likely that efforts would be made to reduce the number of casualties incurred. Yes, perhaps such a fear of war is no longer that relevant to certain world leaders of today (the fear of being sued for libel prevents me from naming any names but I think you all will know who I’m alluding to…) but it my opinion that such a fear still dominates the general public which, in democratic countries, can pressurise their belligerent governments not to launch wars (however, looking at recent events, such an opinion of mine may be questioned for its validity). And of course, it is quite evident that the fear of criticism and the fear of leaving behind a less-than-glowing legacy for posterity and future historians also influence world leaders’ willingness to start wars.

One example, in which the fear of war and the two other types of fear that I just mentioned above played a part in the avoidance of a full-scale war, that I can refer you all to would be the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. In brief (and to prevent the history student in me from rambling on & on), this crisis was one in which the U.S. and the Soviet Union, within the context of the Cold War, came to a head-to-head (or “eyeball-to-eyeball” as those more in the know would jokingly say… :P) direct confrontation with one another over the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, then a client state of the Soviet Union. To make matters easier to comprehend, I would just say that though tensions between the 2 sides rose near to breaking point during the 13 days period of the Crisis, war was fortunately averted (if not, it would be most certain that I wouldn’t be here to write this now and you all couldn’t be around to read this) and a peaceful resolution was found to end the Crisis. Considering this example, it is quite evident that the fear of war contributes in influencing world leaders and the like not to treat the launching of wars as trivial matters. Hence, as much as we may think that peace goes beyond the absence of conflict and involves the presence of goodwill & cooperation, we cannot deny the critical role that Fear, in the form of fear of war, plays in maintaining peace in the world.

In addition, it may be observed that the fear of failure and the fear of being sidelined and/or becoming irrelevant to society pushes & motivates people to continuously improve themselves and to excel. It is these two fears which push people to pick up & absorb critical skills that are important for them to survive and adapt in a world & economy in which change is the only constant. Without such fears, it is most likely that most people will become laid-back, take things for granted and not bother to improve oneself. Bode well for the well-being of society and productivity of the economy, this does not. To make matters simple, considering that I have more important concepts to address below, I would in brief say that Fear, in the form of the two fears I mentioned above, keeps the people in a society on their toes and pushes them to constantly improve themselves. That’s good, isn’t it?

Do not be mistaken… You all, after reading the past few paragraphs that I have written, may be thinking that I’m painting an overly rosy picture of Fear by seemingly claiming that it brings about all this good and benefits to society and the world. Yet, though I am quite aware of the good that Fear can contribute, I am too equally aware of the harm & dangers it causes. For one, there is the fear of being the odd one out in a group. Such a fear forces one to conform and perform acts which one may not agree with, for fear of being seen as the black sheep. Also, there is moral cowardice (or fear) which I characterise as the lack of moral courage. This causes one to remain silent when a dissenting voice is critically needed, to remain passive & stand by to just watch when action is needed and to close one’s eyes and heart when compassion is necessary. In addition, there is the irrational fear of “us-versus-them” which is frequently whipped up by demagogues (think Hitler and the like) to stir up support for their cause through inciting hatred against a group which is perceived as alien and foreign. It is quite evident that all the three forms of Fear I mentioned above were present in Nazi Germany where many educated (and non-educated) Germans participated in, or at the very least stood by & watch, the persecution of Jews, even though they have nothing personal against them or even friends of theirs before the Nazis came to power. Not many of them had the moral courage of Oskar Schindler… And at the risk of being criticised as politically incorrect, I would say that the first & third forms of fear I discussed above are currently present in the post-911 U.S., which I think is quite unfortunate…

And what do I have to conclude after writing all this (I hope you all are still with me and not lost somewhere else)…? Well, I would just like to conclude by saying that Fear is neutral; it is neither good nor evil. It all depends on the form & circumstances in which it manifests in and how one deals with it. Hence, Fear can be a positive force for good but also an insidious force for evil. It all depends on your viewpoint…

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