The first casualty of the politics of fear is open
debate, writes Frank Furedi.
Living in fear, lost for words
Politics has little in common with the passions and
conflicts that shaped people's commitments and sentiments over the past
two centuries. There is no longer room for principles, ideals or even a
clear political purpose.
Instead of ideas, party leaders look for brands and
sub-contract the job of image creation to think tanks, public relations
agencies or marketing organisations. But without purpose, politics
becomes a caricature of itself. Politics becomes exhausted and
discredited when the energies of its devotees become entirely invested
in the project of winning elections.
One symptom of the exhaustion of politics is the
disorientation of the ruling elites. They seem to lack a mission or a
focus. Public figures find it difficult to account for their objectives
through the medium of political, moral or philosophical ideas. Their
parties lack a program, even an identity. That is why party conferences
are invariably distracted by the question of "who are we?".
Instead of addressing people about their beliefs,
principles or doctrines, political parties modestly refer to an "agenda"
or a "project".
Take some of the so-called "Hurrah Words" that trip
off the tongues of public figures. Everybody is for diversity,
transparency, social cohesion, inclusion, best practice, evidence-based
policy, adding value and stakeholding. But what does any of it mean? Is
it any surprise that some public figures feel uncomfortable about
expounding their project when they are armed with such empty
The demise of political ideology is an outcome of a
profound sense of estrangement from the experience of the past. Its
impact encourages a sense of defeatism about the future. Without clearly
formulated alternatives, politics loses its orientation to the future.
It becomes short-termist and regards the future as a no-go area for
policy-making. So instead of elaborating policies that can secure a
better future, governments have become obsessed with micro-managing the
Public figures eschew big issues and opt for a diet of
unconnected single issues. The flipside of the depoliticisation of
public life is the tendency to focus attention on the minutiae of
people's existence. But these issues, which are framed through the
soulless idiom of managerialism, invariably fail to engage the public's
Costed proposals and evidence-based policies do little
to inspire or mobilise the electorate, and politicians have come to
recognise that their political, ideological and moral links with the
public are fragile. Managerial forms of party rhetoric and
micro-politics have little purchase on an evidently disenchanted public.
The ceaseless search for yet another public relations-led initiative
serves to heighten the isolation of politics from the people.
It is difficult to motivate normal human beings with a
"Respect Agenda". People are unlikely to be inspired by a minister's
undertaking to extend "best practice" or to "add value". And the claim
that we stand for diversity while the terrorists uphold evil is unlikely
to engage the imagination of people who are looking for some clear
purpose in life. Most people intuitively sense that the vocabulary used
by public figures consists of platitudes masquerading as meaningful
Take a key Hurrah Word: diversity. Celebrating the
value of diversity is a roundabout way of saying that society has no
values with a distinct purpose to celebrate. Diversity has no intrinsic
political or moral meaning. It does not represent a view of the world,
nor provide society with a purpose or a vision of the future. Diversity
merely provides a rhetorical strategy for avoiding the challenging task
of outlining what society stands for by claiming that it stands for
At best, the word diversity is a term of description
that testifies to the unlike and the varied. The term "diverse society"
tells us that people have different origins, cultures and ways of life.
It says little about what distinguishes that society and what ought to
be its aspiration. It certainly offers no alternative to the jihadist,
and lacks the credibility to inspire any significant section of society.
The embrace of this term by otherwise intelligent political figures is
evidence of a profound sense of malaise that afflicts public life.
It is the sense of political malaise that encourages
many Western governments to adopt such a negative style of governance.
Curbs on civil liberty are one manifestation of this trend. The other is
the politicisation of fear, which is inextricably linked to the
inability of governments to project a sense of purpose.
Societies that are able to project a positive vision
of the future do not need to employ fear as a currency in public life.
Take, for example, former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural
address in 1933. His statement that the "only thing we have to fear is
fear itself" was integral to a positive orientation to the future, which
would eventually lead to the launching of the New Deal. The contrast
between Roosevelt's message and the statements made by politicians today
is striking. Alarmist exhortations about binge drinking and child
obesity compete with the warning on terror: "Not if - but when."
There is now a substantial body of opinion that
regards fear as a positive resource for "raising awareness" in society.
This orientation is not confined to the war on terrorism. It is worth
noting that the first major speech that British Prime Minister Tony
Blair made after returning from his summer holiday last year was on the
need to protect the majority from the minority of irresponsible parents
who refuse to control their children. Blair warned that "people need to
understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a
nuisance to their community, there is something that is going to happen,
they can't just get away with that".
Blair's parenting orders are typical products of the
kind of negative politics that contribute to the institutionalisation of
fear. Like the erosion of liberties in the name of protecting people
from terror, parenting orders represent an encroachment on people's
democratic rights. They threaten to force errant mothers and fathers to
bring up their children in accordance with the rules set by officials.
At present there is little public resistance to curbs
on civil liberties as long as they are promoted as sensible, commonsense
policies rather than as attacks on people's freedoms. I am always
surprised that the automatic vetting of adults who work, or might come
into contact, with children has rarely been questioned. Since its
introduction, more adults have become targets of this procedure, and it
is only a matter of time before a parent will need to be vetted before
she drives her son's mates to their football team's match.
That adults need to be vetted before they interact
with children indicates the extent to which fear-provoking policies have
enveloped intimate aspects of our lives. At least the curbs imposed
through anti-terrorism legislation can be justified on the grounds that
they constitute an exceptional response to exceptional circumstances.
These curbs on civil rights are linked to what has been defined as a war
in which the integrity of society is at stake. The police vetting of
adults who come into contact with children, by contrast, is presented as
the normal and responsible way of operating.
DEBATES ABOUT FREE speech and liberty are ultimately
shaped by two contrasting views. Those who cherish liberty claim that
free speech is not simply a democratic right; it also is indispensable
for the clarification of ideas and the conduct of civilised public life.
However, from an authoritarian perspective, free speech has no special
virtue. At best it is regarded as a source of confusion, and at worst an
instrument of subversion. In between these two contrasting positions
lies the outlook of the pragmatist, who regards free speech as useful,
but in times of difficulty a disposable privilege.
Today, the pragmatists and the authoritarians, who
claim to be speaking on behalf of the law-abiding majority, are making
all the running. The view that "too much" freedom and "too many" civil
rights are somehow inconsistent with waging a war against terrorism is
transmitted throughout society. When politicians invite us to defend our
freedoms from terrorism, the freedom of speech is not what they have in
For some time now, the British Government has sought
to place more legal curbs on the public's right to express its views
freely. Consequently, our right to question and criticise religion is
compromised by legislation that seeks to criminalise "incitement to
religious hatred". Although the law aims to protect Muslims from the
destructive force of hatred, its effect will be to undermine the
potential for a free and open discussion of the role of religion in
society. Such a law will encourage people to skirt around the question
of where Islam fits into society and avoids having a grown-up discussion
about the subject. It will help consolidate a climate where the
regulation of speech can be represented as normal behaviour.
As a quid quo pro for not letting anyone incite hatred
against Muslims, "they" also will be legally forbidden to hate "us". So
we now have the invention of a new offence - that of "indirect
incitement" to commit terrorism. Typically, the term "indirect
incitement" is deliberately diffuse, so that it can cover virtually any
strong opinion that is hostile to the Government's war on terror. When
ministers were asked to provide examples of what constituted an indirect
incitement to commit terrorism, they pointed to phrases that "glorify
terrorist acts" or ones that attack "the values of the West".
The Government proposes to crack down and expel
radical preachers to make sure that they cannot preach hatred. It
appears that the new grounds for deportation include "fostering hatred,
advocating violence to further a person's belief or justifying or
validating such violence". No doubt there are some people who are deeply
hostile to British society and who use dreadful words to express their
hatred. One does not need to spend a fortune on a BBC Panorama-type
investigation to encounter vicious propaganda that seeks to demonise
every dimension of British life. But why are we so worried about their
words of hatred? Do we think that extremist views are, by definition,
powerful and capable of infecting anyone? Do we believe young people are
so simple that they are more likely to be influenced by a radical
preacher than by reasoned thought? Or is it the case that, since we are
not too sure about who we are and where we are going, we feel confused
about how to respond to views that call into question our way of life?
It seems that the obligatory incantation about the celebration of
diversity serves as a prelude to shutting up those who are a little bit
Whatever the motives that fuel the British
Government's illiberal attitude towards free speech, this attitude
reveals a profound sense of disorientation and defensiveness. It is
difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Government does not believe
that it can effectively counter the views of its opponents with
arguments of its own. At a time when a confident government would charge
forward to engage its opponents in a battle of ideas, the British elite
has opted for the defensive strategy of damage limitation. Even the
university, an institution devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and
reasoned debate, cannot be trusted to contain the ideas of the fanatics
through the exercise of free speech.
Back in July, the heads of British universities were
told that they too had to sign up to the crusade against terrorism by
clamping down on the influence of extremist campus groups that promote
terrorism. Bill Rammell, the British Higher Education Minister, informed
a meeting of vice-chancellors that they had to do their bit to challenge
the "evil ideology" responsible for the then recent bombings in London.
Rammell claimed that free speech was important but added that "we also
have a responsibility to tackle extremism on campus". Unfortunately,
experience indicates that the objective of rhetorically coupling free
speech with the demand that "we also have a responsibility to tackle
extremism" is to close down open discussion. That is why Rammell is not
asking universities to wage a battle of ideas in defence of democracy,
but to demand vigilance and, if necessary, to curb free speech.
A few weeks after Rammell's speech, Middlesex
University suspended the president of its student union for organising a
meeting at which the Islamic party Hizb-ut-Tahrir was to speak. As far
as the university authorities were concerned, curbing debate and free
speech on campus is the obvious way to defend "our way of life". What
the managers at Middlesex University failed to comprehend was that their
action sent out the message that they feared the consequences of a
debate in which Hizb-ut-Tahrir was a participant. In this way, they
succeeded in acknowledging their own moral and intellectual confusion
and helped transmit the idea that Islamist views are something that we
have to really fear.
Sadly, it appears that in its conflict with the
enemies of democracy, the British establishment regards civil liberties
as a source of weakness rather than a source of strength. That is why
liberties are represented as a potential source of vulnerability. When
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, warned that "some erosion
of what we value may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens
not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives", she
implicitly presented civil liberties as an obstacle to effectively
countering the bombers. The ease with which "what we value" is traded
off for the elusive promise of security indicates a feeble attachment to
The cavalier attitude of officialdom towards civil
liberties is not driven by some malevolent or authoritarian desire to
dominate public life. This is the response of a political class that
feels estranged from the world of ideas and principles. From time to
time, leading voices in the government call for a "battle of ideas" to
uphold "our way of life". But such pleas have an entirely rhetorical
character, since politicians are very reluctant to spell out just what
is this way of life that they wish to uphold.
It is precisely because politics is lost for words
that politicians would rather close down discussion about what it is we
are defending and fighting for than engage with it through the force of
its ideas. In such circumstances, many public figures are more than
happy to allow the imperative of security to compromise liberty. As
always, one of the first casualties of the politics of fear is open
dialogue and debate.
The term "politics of fear" contains the implication
that politicians self-consciously manipulate people's anxieties in order
to realise their objectives. There is little doubt that they do regard
fear as an important resource for gaining a hearing for their message.
Scare tactics can sometimes work to undermine opponents and to gain the
acquiescence of the electorate. However, the politics of fear is not
simply about the manipulation of public opinion. The political class is
itself anxious and disoriented. In the present circumstances, even
professional political operators who are in the business of promoting
fear are themselves habitually overwhelmed by it.
The politics of fear is a manipulative project that
aims to immobilise public dissent. But it is also the mantra with which
a disconnected elite responds in the circumstances of its isolation.
What the "politics of fear" really expresses is the
renunciation of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by
authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, it has no clearly focused
There is no big plan behind the elaboration of the
recent raft of illiberal government measures. For the political
establishment, one of the attractions of the politics of fear is that it
absolves its practitioners of having to formulate what they actually
stand for. Of course it does not make it any better that freedom in
Britain is being undermined, not by a malevolent conspiracy, but by a
powerful sense of stasis.
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the
University of Kent, and author of The Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and
Right (Continuum, $35)
28 January 2006