Co-opting Fear to Influence Policy Making and Political Discourse


The challenge in American race relations is both historically complex and steeped in a flawed rhetoric. However, there is also another element–a segment of the population called White Nationalists asserting they are the victims of reverse discrimination and racism. Many Americans may share or empathize with their concerns for the “real America” and the intentions of the founding fathers being dismantled and threatened.

This co-opting of fear changes white supremacy to white nationalism, and it negates the typical responses to prejudice and discrimination. It no longer works to identify the “racist” and silence them rather than solicit empathy on their behalf. Denying a voice to anyone is proving the point that they are being censored no matter the danger of their rhetoric. Intervening requires that we educate ourselves on basic definitions of prejudices, racism, religious persecution and fear-based reactions in order combat the white nationalist assertion of the mythical reverse discrimination.

I first heard about Evan Osnos’ article in the New Yorker from his appearance on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The article reminded me of my years teaching a course entitled Christian Perspectives on Ethics and Diversity. In the course, I decided to challenge and inform the student’s understanding of the deeper motivations behind prejudice. Along the way, I learned that prejudices are not one, but they are plural. What struck me as I went back to read Young-Bruehl again in the context of #BlackLivesMatter, Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the Osnos article is that we must fundamentally change in our approach to addressing prejudices. I knew it back when I was teaching the course, but I didn’t have the social events with which to explain the change.

Beyond Discrimination, Defining Ethnocentricism & Orecticism
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in her 1996 work Anatomy of Prejudices, presents a number of findings that inform our discussion of discrimination. First, prejudices is not “prejudice” but “prejudices” in the plural. They are characteristic mechanisms of defense–attempts by individuals to protect themselves from “the other” and the unknown.  Second, four main prejudices exist: sexism, racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Third, these prejudices are motivated by a constructed character trait either hysterical, narcissistic, or obsessional.

Ethnocentrism is a term used to describe how people may view others only through their own lens and experiences. Every event is viewed in relation to its impact on the ethnocentrist or his/her group. Every achievement is judged in relation to the achievements of the ethnocentrist. Every statistic is evaluated with the ethnocentrist group as the reference point, the baseline, and/or the norm. What better way to maintain self-concept and personal safety than to consider yourself the standard by which others are judged?

Orecticism is another term you may or may not have heard before. According to Young-Bruehl, orecticism is the projection of set of characteristics a person believes he/she “sees” exhibited by a person or group. It doesn’t matter whether people are observed exhibiting characteristics that contradict the orecticist view, the orecticist still “sees” what he/she desires to see. To view people in this way maintains the self-concept and personal safety of the orecticist. They maintain safety by compartmentalizing individuals and groups into behaviors the orecticist believe individuals or groups will display.

An orecticist-homophobe maybe different from an ethnocentric-homophobe which may require a different approach when dealing with each. You care about the difference because, as a social worker, you don’t have the luxury of summarily dismissing uninformed views. You have the professional skill, informed by your ethics, to intentionally address the lack of knowledge and identify the roots of the issues to assist with behavior modification. Consider also for the orecticist, you are assessing for the reason behind the fearfulness. Identifying the fear is your key to promoting new choice behavior.

The orecticist-homophobe would view homosexuals as sexual deviants that are an abomination. He/she would want to separate society from these deviants. He/she would probably express physical sickness or emphatic disgust when the topic of homosexuality is introduced. This reaction is based on an unreasonable fear, but it is founded on a reasoned approach to self-protection. It is an attempt to be safe.

The ethnocentric-homophobe would view homosexuals as having some difference in their makeup than normal heterosexuals. He/she would probably agree that more research needs to be done to determine if there are any brain abnormalities in homosexuals or is it the way they were raised. He/she would probably say that he/she can be unbiased when evaluating a homosexual for a job. However, they are unaware their own bias rests in their view of themselves as the standard as opposed to creating an objective standard.

If you were to ask both whether they agree with adoption by homosexual couples, they both would say NO. If your intention was to work to convince them that adoption by homosexual couples is a community good, you would have to persuade them each in a different way. You would need to address the mechanism that is operant within their logic. You would need to see their behavior choice as reasonable.

The Requirements of an Intervention 

In order to counteract prejudices as characteristic mechanisms of defense, you would need to map the mechanisms similar to the analysis above. However, once the mechanism is mapped, we have another challenge. The ethnocentric person may be able to see that he or she is not the center of the universe. Social interaction, family relations, or critical events may shake the individual out of their isolated experience. With enough evidence the ethnocentrist, even though using him or herself as the standard, may allow for the failings of others because “we are all human” and “nobody’s perfect.”

The orecticist does not have as simple a path to inclusiveness. The orecticist is fearful, and unreasonable so, that the “other” is attempting to subvert, supersede, or otherwise diminish him or her by any means necessary. The other, in the mind of the orecticist, will resort to trickery, lies, and all manner of deceit in order to reach his sinister goals. Evidence provided to the orecticist only confirms his/her views. Those attempting to convince them are part of the problem, confused, brainwashed, or complicit in the deception. The orecticist will never see groups of others or institutions as safe. They can only connect with close individuals, even those who represent the group, because they have proven safe, “different from others,” or “for a [other], you are okay.”

Now, add these dynamics to the co-opting of fear. The co-opting of fear is the by-product of fear-based rhetoric that motivates people to do things because they fear some negatively reinforcing outcome. For example, we lock our doors fearing that someone may come into our houses uninvited. Though no one came in the time we left our keys in the door, we are convinced of “better safe than sorry,” and lock our doors as a precaution. Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to lock your doors. Some have applied this same logic to a number of social issues such as immigration. Orecticism co-opting of fear explains why Donald Trump can call Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, yet lead in most national polls. Calling him “racist” or other names will not change his support base thereby nurturing an environment where it is reasonable to fear immigrants.

The solution will have to be local and include person-to-person engagement in order to challenge personal ideology and beliefs. However, for some, any institutionally-based intervention will only be seen as a subversive attempt at deception.

To combat this, Social activist must organize more individual-based interactions such as story sharing and project-based civic work to help with personalizing vulnerable individuals and groups to change behaviors and increase compassion. Even then, understand that orecticist co-opted fear will only say, “Okay, Ahmed is okay. But, I’m still worried about those Muslims.” The orecticist will always fear groups, government, institutions, religious organizations, etc. We must be careful in not isolating and dismissing these types instead of identifying way to engage their point-of-view.  However, this should be one strategy in a multi-faceted approach to combat oppression and discrimination of vulnerable individuals and groups.

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Dr. Michael Wright

Dr. Michael Wright: Michael A. Wright, PhD, LAPSW is a Social Work Helper Contributor. He offers his expertise as an career coach, serial entrepreneur, and publisher through MAWMedia Group, LLC. Wright has maintained this macro practice consultancy since 1997. Wright lives in Reno, NV. View all posts by Dr. Michael Wright

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