Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 364 | Noviembre 2011



Fear is an instrument of opression

Throughout history, totalitarian regimes have maintained control by imposing a strategy based on fear. Those who oppose the established order are called a “danger” to the nation by those in power. Creating fear and keeping people in ignorance are two infallible ways to stay in power.

Xabier F. Coronado

George Bernard Shaw said that fear can lead men to any extreme.

Fear is one of the most uncomfortable sensations we all feel and we share it with the animal world. Fear and fright—with their variations of anxiety, phobias and other psychological manifestations—are always present and we all suffer directly or indirectly from their consequences in our daily lives.

Basic fear can be beneficial at the species level. Anthropologists and psychologists alike think that it is a natural evolutionary mechanism. They argue that the tension of alertness caused by fear is necessary to stay alive and to overcome real dangers. It also helps protect us from our anxieties. The fear that impels us to act and seek a response helps us control the situations causing the fear and get a grip on their causes.

There is another type of fear, however, one that paralyzes us, makes us retreat and keeps us from reacting and overcoming its causes. This other fear is the one that can be manipulated to dominate people. On the collective level, the de facto powers that govern our society use fear to subjugate people and keep them in a blocked state that limits their actions and thinking. Political and religious use of fear is well documented in the history of humanity. This collective fear moves us to act in conditioned ways and to accept and go along with situations because we are afraid of rejecting them. Who inculcated in us the popular saying “ni modo” [whatever, no matter, so who cares…]? Whoever did, succeeded in perpetuating inequality, injustice and lack of solidarity based on a small-minded fear that if we act, things could get worse for us.

Fear, fright, anxiety, neurosis and other shocks

H.P. Lovecraft wrote that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Is there a difference between fear and fright? The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.” It defines fright similarly, but more intensely: “a sudden intense feeling of fear,” typically caused not be threat but by reality, as in “an experience that causes one to feel sudden, intense fear.” In this article we’re going to combine the two terms and consider them a single concept that means a disturbance and the reaction.

The word fear in Spanish (miedo) comes from the Latin metus. Its Greek antecedents are fobos and deos. The first word, fobos, was used in Homer’s time to describe a flight from battle. Its symbol was on the shields of the goddess Athena and King Agamemnon in The Iliad. According to mythology, Fobo is the son of Ares, the supreme warrior, and accompanies him in battle to make his enemies flee.

Later Aristotle used the term fobos in his works to refer to fear he defines as pathos (emotion) of the psyche (soul). Plato is the one who used the term deos (fright) in one of his dialogues (Laches) to mean the opposite of courage.

For psychologists, fear is an emotion, a natural defense mechanism, that occurs when a person is faced with stimuli that can be “intense, novel, characteristic of special hazards of evolutionary significance and stimuli coming from social interactions with fellow human beings.”

It is essential and rational when the threat of danger is real. But we also feel irrational fears that come from anxiety and our imagination. Fear manifests itself through physiological reactions related to the nervous and endocrine systems (sweating, paleness, accelerated pulse). These changes activate a series of responses—such as the secretion of hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) and muscle activation that prepares us for fight or flight. It can also make us immobile, physically and mentally blocked, which translates into either insolent behavior or submission in the face of danger or domination.

We can say that human beings feel fear every time we confront a new situation—something that frequently occurs throughout life and especially during childhood. Our reaction depends on our learning to manage fear in order to overcome it. But it doesn’t always happen that way. These rational fears can turn into neurotic ones that are very complex and sometimes not even related to the original fear. Irrational fears generate depression, anxiety, phobias, manias and, in extreme cases, paranoia. Usually they are caused by social interactions and sometimes they become permanent in our lives (chronic fears) with little chance of our overcoming them.

All of these varieties are different from basic fear, which refers to the feeling when faced with clear dangers that provoke a protective reaction. Neurotically derived fear, in contrast, is related to free-floating feelings that produce isolation.

Anxiety, a term often used in psychoanalysis, is an oppressive fear with no precise origin that generates grief, distress and even suffering and pain. In common usage distress is equivalent to extreme anxiety or fear. Other related concepts are terror, which is extreme fear when confronted with a fatality or catastrophic event; shock, which is produced by an unexpected event and generates sudden fear; and panic, which is the response to intense fear.

The consequences of fear are diverse and run the gamut from overcoming the fear and learning from it to loss of will and submission. Continued exposure to stimuli that cause fear can produce changes in the person’s behavior and mental and physiological functioning.

In addition to whether fear is real or imaginary, it can be suffered individually or collectively. The described reactions can be intensified when experienced in a group. Accordingly, if the response is to surmount or defend, this can generate revolutionary or social resistance movements. If, however, the reaction is to become blocked, it can give rise to a mass of subdued and terrorized people. A relevant issue of our times is the introduction of fear as a social model to disperse, paralyze and subdue.

Subjugation through fear
and the culture of terror

Albert Einstein warned that teaching based on the methods of fear, force and authority destroys sincerity and trust and only achieves a false submission.

Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), was one of the first thinkers to relate fear to political organization and State-building. Nowadays the use of fear as an instrument of submission has developed into a sophisticated methodology aimed at intimidating people and, once the fear stimulus has been introduced, managing their reactions. The social application of this theory recommends provoking violent traumatic situations (assassinations, disappearances, torture) to subdue problematic social groups. In the past century these methods were used by Latin American military dictatorships. Specialists in torture methods came to the conclusion that only in a state of mental crisis brought on by physical fear would an individual enter such a vulnerable state as to make him or her perfectly manipulable.

History is full of examples of submission through fear for political, economic or social purposes. In many instances the use of fear is so subtle that it’s hard to realize when it’s being implemented. We can recall how we recently suffered through a simulated scenario of an apocalyptic health epidemic in Mexico City. We shared collective fear and will never forget the images of the consequences of the panic: the transport system used by specters with hospital masks and gloves or the miracle of a city without traffic. Months later we deduced that this simulation had obscure second-level economic intentions.

One premise of the subjugation-through-fear theory that governments apply with precision is that they must take advantage of moments of contingency during a catastrophe or major danger in order to impose control and subordination methods that people would reject in ordinary circumstances.

Fear, spread by the powers-that-be thanks to control of the mass media, is an effective weapon used against individuals for the benefit of those in power. The imposed fear invades all sectors of society until it settles into the collective unconscious, ready to act in the service of vested interests. Fear becomes panic and terror. This is how a culture of terror is instituted.

Throughout history totalitarian and imperialist regimes have maintained control by imposing such a culture of terror based on the fear underlying violence and coercion. Those who oppose the established order are called a “danger” to the nation by those in power. This element of creating fear, together with a political education that keeps people ignorant, are an almost infallible combination for staying in power.

Today fear is one of the factors most used in international politics to satisfy the economic and political interests of the most powerful nations. The consequences are almost always the ones they proclaim they want to avoid: thousands of dead and disappeared, incalculable collateral damage, millions displaced, hunger and misery, among other calamities. The culture of terror has been established in our century through the so-called “war on terror” articulated by the United States and its European associates. Legitimized by the manipulated and ineffective United Nations, they transgress international law (illegal detentions in clandestine prisons, invasions of sovereign nations with hidden objectives) with impunity and trample on human rights, all carried out by their implementing arm, NATO, a military organization that has maintained control of the planet since its creation after World War II “to safeguard peace and stability.”

Examples of this way of acting, a consequence of the disastrous and cruel strategy applied by the true “evil axis,” are occurring at an accelerated pace in the global scenario. Ongoing economic crises, induced political conflicts, wars, military-police control, drug trafficking, general violence and corruption, insecurity and impunity fill our daily existence. These imposed realities are justified by the media in the service of the culture of terror. The world situation oozes such violence that it in turn causes individual fear and collective panic and terror.

A move to action

Octavio Paz said that the most dangerous human masses are those whose veins have been injected with the poison of fear… fear of change.

We are all suffering in this situation but almost no one is saying or doing anything. The few who act or raise their voices to denounce this process of submission are eliminated one way or another. We’re paralyzed by a fear that keeps us hooked and of which we’re given our daily dose to maintain this fearful apathy that dominates and influences our everyday life.

The culture of fear is inherent in authoritarianism and is the intimidating weapon that keeps us hijacked in a dominating reality. We all help perpetuate this imposed scenario. The reality we live is a reflection of who we are; the bribe continues to be exacted because we pay it.

Is it possible to change? Are there any ways out? There must be a way to wake up from this bad dream. It’s important to say that the best vaccines are reason and free thought. But I think to get there we inevitably have to pass through a change at the personal level. The frontline battlefield is inside us. It’s from there that we must begin to act. In these times, the revolution begins at the personal level.

This article appeared in Mexico’s La Jornada, on October 30, 2011. It circulated in Nicaragua during the critical days following the November 6 elections.

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Fear is an instrument of opression
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