Fear Factor

I’ve recently heard an unfortunate number of people explain conflicts in which they’re involved by ascribing “fear” to the people with whom they disagree. That’s so very problematic. . . .

I don’t doubt that people rationalize public positions that they arrive at by way of private, perhaps unconscious fear. I take that as a given.

Nonetheless, that principle applies across the board; it can’t be reduced to “People like me are rational, people like them are fearful.” That’s why it’s a toxic tactic in public argument. It either trades on the presumed immunity of Side A to fear (“I’m a bold exponent of the truth! You, on the other hand, are an intellectual coward”), or undermines everyone’s arguments (“Golly, one of us might be afraid and justifying our strident polemic out of a kind of insecurity and projection”). Accusations of fearfulness amount to a more sophisticated, condescending version of name-calling, but (as with accusations that “you’re being defensive”) they perniciously privilege the accuser and diminish the accused, just on the basis of the accusation. If we hope for productive engagement with one another, we can’t afford to impute “fear” to our partners.

There are, of course, better and worse reasons for suspecting other people of fearful discourse. Still, once you enter public controversy, the accusation that your adversary is “afraid” no longer functions as a diagnosis for peculiar argumentation, but as a disrespectful derogation of your interlocutor. Those who brandish that accusation forfeit their claim that others interact respectfully with them.

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