Guest post by SaraJane Griffiths, University of Puget Sound.
Editor’s note: SaraJane was one of my speech and debate students; this is the final form of her Original Oratory entry that qualified for NSDA national speech competition, 2017 (though she’ll be competing in extemporaneous speaking instead). It is the culmination of a couple of years spent researching and learning how to defuse the politics of fear by means of parody and satire. Also available is our earlier work: a Politics of Fear K for policy debaters, by way of apology for being the running brunt of these jokes.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. Of them.
And if you’re not already afraid, the FBI has a quiz to help you know who to be afraid of. It’s their “Countering Violent Extremism” program, as reported on by CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Politico, Breitbart, and Teen Vogue, just to name a few that my friends and family have shared on Facebook.
With so many news outlets reporting on the FBI’s call to fear, I do what any patriotic 17 year old girl would do, I actually go and review the FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism program and its guide to terrifying people. It turns out that the FBI thinks people who use private messaging apps, discuss suspicious-sounding places, and are “using code words or unusual language” (FBI, n.d.) are scary. But just this morning I overheard my friends SnapChatting about uniquely perming a hedge in the South China Sea to cause nuclear war.
The message is clear: we should be completely and utterly terrified… of Policy Debaters. But is the message correct?
This is the politics of fear, the strategic deployment of scary stories to drive irrational political action: coming from the government, amplified by the media, broadcasted to the citizen.
Our understanding of whether or not a group of people is considered dangerous is easily distorted by pervasive media access, and media attention is easily drawn by political action like the FBI’s Countering Violent Extremism program. Today we will examine how the Politics of Fear permeates the media, the physiological effects on individuals, and the detrimental impacts upon society.
Let us consider the President’s desire to build a border wall and block refugees from–as he claims–flooding into our country. But the Pew Research Center reports that the quantity of unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States has flattened out at 11 million since the great recession of 2007 (Gonzalez-Barrera & Krogstad, 2017), and the Migration Policy Institute (n.d.) notes that recent legal immigration to the United States from all over the world is down 15% from 2006. So where did he get this deluge-ional idea from?
In 2014, Benjamin Fearnow–and I wish I was making his name up–wrote for CBS Houston about Gary Painter, a sheriff on the southern border of Texas: he’s concerned that ISIS might be invading from Mexico reporting that “Painter noted that ‘Muslim’ items have been strewn along the border and estimated that 10 to 15 million ‘undocumented aliens’ have crossed the border” (Fearnow, 2014) apparently just in Texas. For those keeping score at home, that’s roughly half the population of Texas, a mathematical fact that CBS Houston failed to mention. Indeed, Fearnow apparently failed to get any secondary sourcing to back Painter’s dubious claims before reporting them.
This is problematic enough when Aunt Margaret consumes and repeats this to anyone and everyone who will listen, but when somebody like Steve Bannon consumes and regurgitates this to Donald Trump, stopping imaginary floods of brown people becomes a national priority, prompting all the media outlets to gossip about it even more.
As best put by Representative Pelosi: “Fear is not a side effect of President Trump’s hateful and destructive immigration agenda, it is the purpose” (Lillis, 2017). Outrageous stories, such as that about Sheriff Painter are the perfect examples of how the politics of fear seeps into the media. But what happens to us physiologically when we aren’t educated consumers?
When I realize how truly terrifying my policy-debating friends are, my body reacts by dosing my brain with the hormone called cortisol. Dr. Daniel Goleman (2013, p. 273-74) describes that cortisol stimulates the Amygdala, but restricts the hippocampus. Bruce Schneier (2015) expounds that “cortisol is great in small and infrequent doses, and helps you run away from tigers. But it destroys your brain and body if you marinate in it for extended periods of time…it changes how you interact with your environment and it impairs your judgment. You forget what’s normal and start seeing the enemy everywhere.”
As a society, we are extremely susceptible to the politics of fear. This is understandable when over 60 percent of adults within the United States receive news from social media, and 44 percent do so through Facebook, according to a Pew Research Center study (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016). Over half of us have at least one Aunt Margaret-type that is as quick to share yet another 10 Ways To Lose Weight Fast and a video of an adorable pupper doing something some adorable as they are to share Sheriff Painter’s paranoia and a special interview with the lone survivor of the Bowling Green Massacre.
And so the exciting fear and paranoia spreads. A Guardian survey published shortly after Sheriff Painter went viral indicated that Americans believe that there are 1400% more Muslims in the United States than there actually are (Nardelli & Arnett, 2014).
This same ingrained fear leads a quarter of primary voters–both Democrat and Republican–to be so violently afraid of Muslims that they agreed to jump on the bandwagon supporting the US bombing of Agrabah, the fictional kingdom from Aladdin (Jensen, 2015).
Sadly, the US is not alone in media manipulation. From the previously mentioned Guardian survey, British respondents estimated that there were over four times as many Muslims in the UK than there actually are. Brexit was fueled largely by nationalist xenophobia. But the important thing to remember is that the people who made the dubious choice to vote for this referendum are just that: people. People like my grandparents. I recently visited my grandparents in the U.K. Every dinner party that we went to, we were all but interrogated about how Trump could be rising in presidential polls in spite of his shocking rhetoric regarding minorities. But at the same time, when we asked these people about Brexit, they turned around and stated that of course they wouldn’t have voted for it if they would’ve known that it would actually pass.
My grandparents aren’t horrible people, though they are a little confused about democratic processes. Similarly, policy debaters generally aren’t that scary even if they’re excessively cavalier with discussions of nuclear annihilation. Similarly to how ridiculous it would be if everyone stopped talking to policy debaters after they left this room, it’s absurd that the moment we hear that one group or another could be dangerous, they are suddenly pushed to the outskirts of our society. And yet we routinely do; the horror stories that get told and repeated lead us to shun a targeted minority–Muslims, Mexicans, gays, policy debaters–leaving them exposed and vulnerable to predation or just the brutal whims of fate. According to the Guardian, in the weeks surrounding the June 23rd vote, the United Kingdom saw a 42 percent spike in hate crimes (Dodd, 2016).
This is why the only defense against the fear provoking themes present in the news from seeping into everyday life is to question the motivation behind these recurrent ideologies. While there are fewer Muslims and policy debaters in the US than the media would lead you to believe, there are likely enough that we can find voices to give input on policies that will impact them.
We are almost certainly stuck with mass media bringing us shocking news from around the world, but we can still choose how much we allow it to affect our opinions of our neighbors and our friends, and, more importantly, refuse to be terrified of the people we’ve never even seen.
While Sheriff Painter may make headlines with his dire warnings of 15 million illegal Mexican Jihadist immigrants that he wants to put in an internment camp, we must calmly and consistently refute the base claim: there are not 15 million illegal Mexican immigrants, and none of them are Jihadists, and if you want to put people you’re afraid of into camps, then please help pay for the policy debaters to go to debate camp: they’re actually really into that sort of thing.
Dodd, V. (2016, July 11). Police blame worst rise in recorded hate crime on EU referendum. The Guardian. Retrived from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jul/11/police-blame-worst-rise-in-recorded-hate-on-eu-referendum
Fearnow, B. (2014, Sept 15). Texas sheriff: Reports warn of ISIS terrorist cells coming across the border. CBS Houston. Retrieved from http://houston.cbslocal.com/2014/09/15/texas-sheriff-reports-warn-of-isis-terrorist-cells-coming-across-the-border/
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). (n.d.). When to report violent extremism. Countering Violent Extremism. Retrieved on March 5, 2017 from https://cve.fbi.gov/where/?state=report
Goleman, D. (2013). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. London: Arrow.
Gonzalez-Barrera, A. & Krogstad, J. (2017). What we know about illegal immigration from Mexico. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/03/02/what-we-know-about-illegal-immigration-from-mexico/
Gottfried, J. & Shearer, E. (2016, May 26). News use across social media platforms 2016. Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. Retrived from http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
Jensen, T. (2015, Dec 18). Public policy polling: National survey results. Public Policy Polling. Retrived from http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/pdf/2015/GOPResults.pdf with supplemental information:
Evon, D. (2015). Genie in a battle. Snopes. Retrieved from http://www.snopes.com/2015/12/18/agrabah-aladdin-republican-poll/
Lillis, M. (2017, Feb 13). Pelosi: Trump aims to terrify immigrants. The Hill. Retrieve from http://origin-nyi.thehill.com/homenews/house/319359-pelosi-trump-aims-to-terrify-immigrants?amp=1
Migration Policy Institute. (n.d.) United States: Inflow of new legal permanent residents by country of birth, fiscal year 1999-present [Spreadsheet]. Retrieved on March 5, 2017 from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/datahub/MPI-Data-Hub_USInflowLPRsbyCOB_2015.xlsx
Nardelli, A. & Arnett, G. (2014, Oct 29). Today’s key fact: You are probably wrong about almost everything. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2014/oct/29/todays-key-fact-you-are-probably-wrong-about-almost-everything
Schneier, B. (2015, Sept 22). Living in code yellow. Fusion. Retrieved from http://fusion.net/story/200747/living-in-code-yellow/