January 2, 2011
A video on YouTube promotes a liberal mindset by framing contemporary America in the Jewish concept of Al Tirah, meaning fear not. The premise of the short film is that people consciously choose whether to respond to life’s challenges with fear or empathy. Reason does not always guide our decisions and because of that fear and empathy are two emotions with important impacts on our lives and relationships. Moreover, pundits and even the public promote their ideas through messages of fear or empathy to motivate others to respond in a certain way. For example, the Bush Administration manipulated fear in press conferences to justify the Second Gulf War. Advertisements from the Humane Society, on the other hand, use empathy to encourage pet adoption. The video suggests that a viable society lives in balance between the two cultures. There are times when each or both are necessary.
Environmental films like Gasland, An Inconvenient Truth, and even Avatar were effective partly because they adeptly balanced fear with calls to compassion to deliver a message that was grounded in reason and science. It strikes me as though 24-hour or even local news, on the other hand, is much more sensationalist and concerned with offering entertainment by delivering messages charged with fear and conflict.
The makers of the video suggest, and I agree, that modern day America has lost that critical sense of balance with dangerous consequences. Today, fear is the primary language of politics and marketing, oftentimes supplanting empathy and even reason. Even though American households reliably demonstrate their empathic nature through giving, John Birchesque figures like Glen Beck characterize popular culture. The nation in 2010 witnessed hateful and destructive rhetoric and actions targeting Muslims, immigrants, gays, and progressive politics.
Fear is an effective media, but it can and has been used to dangerously jumble our moral landscape and interfere with our capacity to distinguish right and wrong. Cultures dominated by fear propagate anger, contempt, cynicism, and hatred. It has been responsible for racial tension and religious intolerance including as demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church. Fear has come to characterize popular American politics and society. Though the limited and just use of fear to deliver ideas can be good, its abuse and overuse can make it ineffective and dull our sense of compassion.
Empathy is the foundation of ethical passion, purpose, and direction. Fear can compromise our sensitivity, as can privilege, power, compassion fatigue, boredom, and bombardment by marketed messages. Those things undermine our identification with suffering and blur our direct responsibilities and affirmative obligations to love our neighbors.
Environmentalists should remember that fear is one valuable tool for delivering messages, but should only be used limitedly. Moreover, they should be willing to challenge opponents on fear mongering and for a lack of sensitivity. Foremost, environmentalists like all other people are obligated to demonstrate empathy. That means approaching potential opponents with openness and understanding while defending victims of injustice. Ultimately, its more important to people with strong environmental consciousness that others share their consciences than their fears. Empathy is a foundation of environmental ethics.