Feelings and Fear - as a Topic and Resource

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In a wave of conspiracist thinking in the COVID-19 pandemic, we witness how people's insecurity is specifically promoted or reinforced in order to eliminate critical thinking. Such a mobilization approach has been discussed as the society of fear (Strasser, Bude) or the politics of fear. Widespread fear makes it possible to imagine a social state of emergency that justifies actions beyond democratic or civilized standards and attitudes - discriminating against minorities or curtailing the rights of the democratic majority. Fears reinforce conspiracy narratives and the perception of threats. How can we integrate fear and feelings in democracy-related learning?

A civic education/democracy-related learning oriented towards the needs and experiences of the learners always addresses real problems and conflicts. These are also connected with emotions. Sometimes anger and rage lead to a preoccupation with a topic, sometimes empathy or enthusiasm - or even fear.


Emotionalisation versus Rationalisation

In this sense, education does not aim at cognitive aspects alone. It responds to a social debate that is oriented around two poles. Some criticize the emotionalization of debates, which ultimately leads, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to a restriction of free speech and pluralism. Others argue that rationalizing political debates leads to a lack of distinctiveness in political offerings or ignores power differentials (the outcry is the right of the oppressed).


Mobilising Fear

Regardless of one's personal assessment of how much Le Pen, Orban or Salvini a society can tolerate or the extent to which set bourgeois speech can "carry" others beyond bourgeois milieus, many agree that one emotion must be dealt with in a particularly sensitive way politically: Fear. In a wave of conspiracy-minded thinking in the COVID-19 pandemic, we see how people's insecurity is purposefully promoted or reinforced in order to eliminate critical thinking. Such a mobilization approach has been discussed as the society of fear (Strasser, Bude) or the politics of fear. Widespread fear makes it possible to imagine a social state of emergency that justifies actions beyond democratic or civilized standards and attitudes - discriminating against minorities or curtailing rights of the democratic majority.

Fears reinforce conspiracy narratives and perceptions of threats. They suppress positive and prosocial feelings. But how to confront fear in a social situation that we do not understand because it is just new? Is a rational approach to incomprehensible processes and social challenges the solution? Recognizing that holistic learning processes conceive of theory, practice, and emotion in a constructive interrelationship, we seem to be missing something when we turn off the soul so that it doesn't interfere with the mind.


Balance in a Democratic Civic Culture

And even if we distinguish between destructive and constructive feelings, this is of limited help. Thus, a democratic culture is characterized by two seemingly contradictory attitudes - general trust and confidence in the system and in fellow human beings (a benevolent emotional attitude), but also by the possibility of being able and allowed to distrust without being bothered (i.e. a critical attitude and way of thinking).

Trust and mistrust, reason and emotion complement and balance each other in a living democratic culture: "One insight is that emotions do not always stand in the way of rational thought and action, but that, on the contrary, in democratic states they are even indispensable for arriving at rational decisions" (Becker & Brosi, 2019).

"Fear" as an emotion can consequently also be seen as a resource of a learning or thinking process. Just as one can reflect on what makes a person strong, she can consider what she is afraid of. As a result of this reflection, she may better understand her strengths and fears, and as a result, she can then better relate to them.

The German sociologist Heinz Bude writes in the foreword to his book "Society of Fear": "In terms of fear, it becomes clear where society is heading, what conflicts are ignited by, when certain groups say goodbye inwardly, and how end-of-life moods or feelings of bitterness spread all at once" (Bude, 2013, p. 10). Those who adhere to conspiracy worldviews will not detach themselves from negative emotions through overly rational address or forced Critical Thinking training, if only because a rational emotionless life is not desirable for most people. More realistically, reflecting on fear helps to identify and control negative or destructive emotions.


Who is Exploiting Fears?

This has increasing importance under the conditions of a changing public sphere. Increasingly, digital platforms help decide how worldviews and opinions are disseminated, along emotions weight content and (co)shape our social relations. Critics of the amplifying algorithms used by social media platforms point out that emotional content is preferred and amplified. In addition, users are guided and encouraged (with nudging and gamification) to spread emotionally charged content.

Since learners are users and producers in social media and thus always actively contribute to the spread of fake, hate and conspiracy fantasies, civic education/democracy-related learning can stimulate reflection on our (collective) emotional needs and on fears and their triggers.

Many conspirationist movements take advantage of the opportunity to charge discourses with negative emotions, understanding that many people are not able to detach themselves from their fears. The emotional state of emergency is ultimately meant to justify the political state of emergency that follows. "Fear for Germany" is what Melanie Amann called her book on the right wing party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in 2017. The Polish journalist Marek Migalski writes "After fear to power" about the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS). Many other examples can easily be found in politics of all European countries, or in the non-democratic organised groups in our civil societies.


Learn to Speak, Help to Speak

Conspiracy fans also make it taboo to speak openly about personal fears and needs, because speaking freely about them makes visible the real existing diversity and individuality in an imagined community. The social glue that holds it together crumbles and the character of the movement is then revealed as an emotional community of convenience.

The approach of "constructive journalism" can be inspiring for civic education/democracy-related learning. Here, emotio and ratio are not played off against each other, but an ethical and constructive attitude towards the democratic public and citizens is in the foreground. The Institute for Constructive Journalism describes it this way: "It is an approach that seeks to provide the audience with a fair, accurate and contextualized picture of the world, without the overemphasizing the negative and what is wrong" (Constructive Institute).



Further Reading

  • Amann, Melanie (2017). Angst für Deutschland. Die Wahrheit über die AfD: wo sie herkommt, wer sie führt, wohin sie steuert, München
  • Bude, Heinz (2014), Gesellschaft der Angst, Hamburg.
  • Strasser, Johano (2013). Gesellschaft in Angst. Zwischen Sicherheitswahn und Freiheit. Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh



Politischbilden.de

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This text was published in German language at politischbilden.de under a Creative Commons CC-BY_SA 4.0 license: Nils-Eyk Zimmermann: Ängste und Gefühle.


Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email: office@dare-network.eu