Politics of Fear: A reflection on Sarah Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

Since the events of 9/11, fear has been at the forefront of public discourses. The mornings headlines, whether brought to you by the BBC, by Reuters or CNN, often repeat the same rhetoric as that of the dominant political forces. Sarah Ahmed, in her last book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, explores the relationship between politics and fear, concluding that affective politics of fear result in the right to movement for some and the containment (thus denial of this right) of others. The dominant political forces in the West often evoke fear to validate their own actions and condemn those of others.

Ahmed begins her work by using Frantz Fanon’s view of “the fear of the black man” to illustrate how stereotyping sticks to certain bodies and thus restricts their mobility. Applying this sticky theory the post 9/11 designation of persons who appear “Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim” as “could be terrorists”, she makes an interesting point regarding the contradictions present in public discourses. Ahmed observes how “sayings such as this is not a war on Islam coexist with descriptions such as Islamic terrorists”, thus deceivingly de-linking words only to re-link them. She infers that once linked together, these words establish a causal relationship that then feeds existing stereotypes. In other words, just as fear of the black man causes the white man to equate negro with dirty, or ugly, or fearsome, post 9/11 public discourse incites us to equate “could be terrorist” with “looks Muslim’. How this fear of the “could be terrorist” affects the mobility of people is evident to anyone having boarded an international flight in the past six years. The author herself is a victim of this “maze of fear and politics’ as she reports being slowed down because of her Muslim last name . I myself have several friends who have been held up in airports because of their nationality. For example, my Peruvian friend Omar is continuously hassled by customs because his name seems Arab (and not Latin as it should be).

George Bush is quick to evoke fear when he rants about his “War on Terror”. Ahmed’s sticky theory is present once again as “the wound of terror (post 9/11) requires sticking together”, But this war on terror not only seeks to destroy the other, but also to preserve the “self”. As stated by the author “The present hence becomes preserved by defending the community against the imagined others”. Paradoxically, this preservation of present “freedom” has become more and more restrictive, for because we fear the loss of freedom of mobility for some, we contain others. Recent headlines abound with stories of individuals who were falsely detained without charge. Just recently on the BBC web site I read an article regarding British PM’S Gordon Brown’s plan to extend the time limit for holding terror suspects without charge.

Anastasia Maloney explores an interesting example of how these politics of fear are global in scope in the March 2005 issue of the New Internationalist. She examines the zero-tolerance attitude adopted by many Latin American nations towards public disorder since 9/11 and concludes that a dominating fear felt towards the marginalized and the poor is being packaged by government, using anti-terrorism rhetoric, and oftentimes used to justify the social cleansing of minorities posing a threat to society. The article warns us to be careful when hearing about “wars” against terror, drugs or poverty, as it can open the door to abuse by security forces and their “allies” .

I was able to clearly identify how the “Affective Politics of Fear” were present in my own life. Ahmed’s exploration of the Affective Politics of Fear not only looked at terrorism (as discussed previously), but also issues of feminism and how the politics of fear limit women’s movement within public space. Ultimately I believe that one important thing to realize is how, using fear of the other as justification, we are increasingly restricting freedom in order to be free.

2 responses to “Politics of Fear: A reflection on Sarah Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

  1. Hi. I genuinely enjoyed reading through your current blog post!. Good quality material. I would undoubtedly suggest you to do articles a bit more regularly. Using this method, having such type of a valuable site I imagine you will rank better in the search engines 🙂 . I also subscribed to your Rss. Keep up the good work!

  2. This article (and Ahmed’s wonderful research) are partially seductive, and informative–while also being, in my view, somewhat superficial still and caught up in an analysis of fear which needs to unhook yet from its own matrix of assumptions. I won’t go through the complex argumentation, other than to say, Postmodern scholars and cultural critics like Zygmunt Bauman, Frank Furedi, Peter McLaren, David Altheide, and Brian Massumi also have a re-contextualization that is needed in terms of our relationship to fear (fearology in a post-9/11 world). In particularly, they point to issues of analysis that draw out the problematic that at some point “fear of Other” is the tip of the iceberg of the Human Fear Problem (‘Fear’ Projection). In my own book, drawing on all these folks analyzing fear today, I make the case “fear” is no longer the same “species” as it once was, is cannot be located in that simplistic psychological way as Ahmed and the above article reproduce unquestionably. My position is more one of problematizing that ‘fear’ is now so much the context of the development of the ‘self’ that there is virtually no ‘self’ left undigested and unstuck in ‘fear’ constructions (discourse, lens, paradigm, worldview)–and thus, the ‘Fear’ Matrix “has us” and to talk glibly about “fear of Other” as if “fear” is so cleanly located (as with any fear of x, y, z)– is just not up to date with the sharpest and latest postmodern (and post-postmodern) thinking on the topic. Again, if you wish to see more nuanced arguments for my own critical integral fearanalysis see my book (The World’s Fearlessness Teachings, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2010) and/or discussions about that book on my blogsite: http://fearlessnessteach.blogspot. com)… -R. Michael Fisher, Ph.D.

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