The Rhetoric of Fear

A friend recently posted a Facebook video of a hysterically outraged father berating his local School Committee for “teaching Islam” to his children. He appeared to believe that if his children learned anything AT ALL about a religion with 1.8 billion believers – almost a quarter of the world’s population, comprising many different sects whose members agree and disagree with our own values in many different ways – they would be indoctrinated into evil, to belief in terrorism and hatred of Christianity.

The rant was startlingly familiar to me, because as a member of my local School Committee I had recently heard similar rhetoric, delivered both personally and by mail, and backed by a large crowd of outraged parents.  The accused teacher just happened to be the only person of color on the school staff apart from the Superintendent, and she had made the mistake of including a unit from the acclaimed Teaching Tolerance curriculum in her classroom lessons.  The really disturbing thing in that case was that the hysteria was based on accusations of actions so bizarre that no teacher not in the middle of a mental breakdown would ever have considered even one of them. But none of the outraged parents seemed to have thought to ask questions in order to determine whether any of it really happened. Several parents and a teacher familiar with that classroom have stated forcefully that none of it ever did.

But the pattern was familiar even before that episode.  The level of panic and irrationality in those accusations closely matched that of the rhetoric I had seen while researching my book, coming from white settlers shortly before the Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears, and from Southern slaveholders on the eve of the Civil War. The targets of the abuse were prosperous and educated Cherokees in the first case, and free people of color in the second. The authors of the speeches and pamphlets attempted not only to dehumanize their targets, but to demonize them to the point where they represented a threat to civilization as a whole.

The Arkansas Cherokees, who had established farms, schools, and churches, fought under Andrew Jackson, and lived on friendly terms with their white neighbors, were characterized by Governor James S. Conway as “savage monsters” with “revenge lurking in their bosoms.” Arkansas’  free people of color, about to be expelled from the state as a threat to white society, were suddenly  “the free Negro, so worthless and depraved an animal,” “lazy, worthless, immoral, impudent and unprincipled…hating us who deny them equal privileges with ourselves…  and wholly unfit to be free.”

The connecting thread is fear.  Not fear of the people targeted, but fear of the destruction of the carefully constructed system of belief that enabled the speakers to justify their own place in the world. If once they were compelled to see people of a different culture or color as human beings like themselves, that knowledge could smash the protective glass globe around their lives.  It would not merely interfere with their power or social status. It could destroy their entire sense of themselves.  As Yoda put it, “Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.”  We’ve been seeing a lot of that around lately.

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