A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the googly-eyed sage Yoda lectured a then still innocent Anakin Skywalker on the perils of fear. It was, he told him, “the path to the dark side”. By the time we got to hear about it here on Earth, in George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace (1999), the idea that it’s “fear itself” we should be most afraid of was already something of a cliché. Usually, it’s US President FD Roosevelt’s inauguration speech of 1933 that gets the credits, although a host of earlier writers, from Michel de Montaigne in the sixteenth century, to Henry Thoreau in the nineteenth, expressed similar sentiments. But perhaps fittingly, given our increasing blurring of fact and fiction, none of their words seem quite as prescient for our own troubled age as Yoda’s warning to the boy who would one day become Darth Vader. “Fear”, the Jedi Master told Anakin, “leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering.”

FDR was, of course, merely grappling with the Great Depression; Yoda was getting his first sniff of a galactic-level evil more in keeping with the planetary scale of some of our own problems. It’s not that he was recommending nonchalance or reckless disregard in the face of danger. From eco-system collapse to AI takeover, genocidal warfare to renewed global pandemic, there’s plenty to keep a conscientious world citizen staring up at the ceiling all night, assuming they still have one. And that’s just over the known threats. Even now, we might be hurtling towards a global catastrophe, or it towards us, the cause of which we haven’t yet managed to discern, just as when FDR spoke, he had no inkling of another world war just six years away.

Politicians are taking us by the nose down Yoda’s path to the dark side

Curiously, though, while we are more anxious than ever, these are not the kind of things we are actually afraid of, even when confronted with facts that suggest we should be. Fear is, by its very nature, a behaviour-changing emotion, causing us to respond to a perceived threat, be that with fight or flight. Take the fact that every month last year global temperatures were an average 1.2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, making it the hottest year on record by a country mile – one that required a new, darker shade of red on the “climate stripes” image used by scientists to get the message across; that it was a year of particularly crazy weather events, with record wildfires in Canada, Europe’s largest-ever fire in Greece, and record rain and flooding in China; that an area approaching 30 million acres – something like half the size of the UK – was burning in the Amazon, over 35 per cent more than the year before. Or that, over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic has decreased by 95 per cent, and that some scientists suggest it could be ice-free by 2040. Forget for a moment the degree to which any of this is the work of human hands, and consider the likelihood of increasingly severe climate disruption on a global scale now being very, very high. This should at least prompt us to make significant efforts at mitigation and to invest heavily in our future resilience. Instead, with the Tories now openly boasting of their anti-environmental credentials and Labour watering down its own green agenda, we have given up any efforts at climate fight or flight and instead adopted a determinedly unafraid ostrich position.

Here, as in America, politicians are making it easy for us to ignore such real perils by creating imaginary ones. We appear to have entered an age in which our leaders no longer seek to inspire us as FDR did, but to take us by the nose down Yoda’s path to the dark side, whipping up our fear, anger and hatred at those protesting about the real issues, and scapegoating vulnerable minorities. Cue the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, arranging a hurried press conference last month to warn us that “mob rule is replacing democratic rule”, an ominous sign that further repressive measures are intended on top of those already characterising the current parliament: voter disenfranchisement, limits on judicial oversight, circumvention of international law and restrictions on protest. Perhaps he meant his own “mob”, who have been in government since 2010? Even principled members of his own party seem to think so, including the Conservative peer Lord Vaizey, who suggested that “many in the Tory party should look to themselves” when it comes to figuring out who is really responsible for stoking hatred and division.

The rise of “us vs them” narratives reflects an age where ideals in politics are being replaced with ideologies, and is directly related to our increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Fear arises in the same parts of our psyche as imagination and faces the same limitations. As the great twentieth-century philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in her Crises of the Republic, this makes our reasoning easily prone to falling victim to liars because they have “the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear…”, while “reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we [are] not prepared.” If only Yoda had given Anakin the full story. It’s not fear itself but what we allow ourselves to be made afraid of that is the primary cause of suffering.

Peter Phelps is founder and publisher of Perspective

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April 2024, Columns, Soapbox

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