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Fear is not necessarily bigotry but we need to overcome it

By Rivka Witenberg - posted Thursday, 28 July 2016

At some point we have all heard the expression famously declared by President Franklin Roosevelt "The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself".

This is a very interesting idea which however does not explain anything about psychological fear and how to deal with or overcome it. The Australian television presenter and media personality Sonia Kruger is fearful of Muslims. Unfortunately she is not the only one. In my own research about tolerance to human diversity, I found that Australians are generally very tolerant but when intolerance was expressed it echoed Sonia Kruger's expression of fear. Whether rightly or wrongly, there are people who are fearful about terrorism which seems to them to be intimately connected to Islam. However, I doubt that Pauline Hanson is fearful –hers is a political move.

Fear can be simply defined as a concern or anxiety that an anticipated event or experience, usually imaged, will cause us harm. Fear is important to alert us about imminent or imagined imminent danger. In psychology we recognise at least five basic threats with the fear of extinction being the most prominent one. The fear of death and particularly a violent one is an existential angst for many of us followed closely by the idea of mutilation. Mutilation is the concern of losing for good or damaging any vital part of one's body. Finally, another threatening fear is loss of autonomy where we fear of being powerless, paralyzed, constrained, overwhelmed, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by situations beyond our control. These are all legitimate fears which need to be dealt with in a sensitive manner. Perhaps the least successful way is dismissing such fears with derision, calling people who express such fear names and accusing them of bigotry.


Yes, some expressions of fear may be disguised bigotry but it could also be genuine psychological fear that encompasses one or all three fears described above. Every day we wake up to new atrocities which heighten and intensify these fears for some of us. I know individuals who have witnessed atrocities as children and have never overcome their fear even in adulthood. One of my friends is about to embark on a holiday to the South of France. She is now hesitant about going and feels very fearful about what could happen. She is not a bigot. How can we reduce genuine fear in a world where geopolitical realities are changing so rapidly?

When it comes to overcoming fear of others who are different from us, psychological studies suggest that acknowledging it is the first step and important step followed by exposure to the fearful event or situation. When it comes to dealing with genuine fear, there is a large body of research in psychology about the influence of contact between people from diverse backgrounds. In point of fact, many organisations, whether NGO or governmental bodies, rely on programs that bring people together in less formal settings, especially in post-secondary education and with the adult population. While the literature refers to the contact hypothesis in terms of reducing prejudice, the reverse is true, in that tolerance and acceptance between people of diverse backgrounds develops as a result of consciously or unconsciously recognising the shared humanity we all have.

Sonia Kruger has acknowledged her fears, and why should anyone doubt that this rear is genuine. She should now take up the offers from the Muslim community to come and spend some time with them. It will most likely help her to overcome her fears and help her understand that the Muslim community, whether directly or indirectly, are also affected by the atrocities she so fears.

She may also develop greater empathy towards their plight. Empathetic individuals tend to be more sensitive to the thoughts, feelings and experiences of others. Empathy appears to have an immediate relationship to tolerance as my research highlights. It provides some initial empirical evidence about what underlies and motivates tolerance. More specifically, the research indicates that fairness, empathy and reason motivate tolerance of acceptance and respect with females favouring particularly empathy as a motivator for acceptance of others who are different. This is not about "putting up" with something which is disliked, as tolerance is often viewed, but rather acceptance of others as equal beings. Research further shows that fairness and empathy can be taught. If we ignore tolerance then we also jeopardise social harmony and cohesion. Whether formal or informal, promoting tolerance of acceptance and respect through education as a shared value will enhance social harmony and cohesion.

Finally, reciprocal tolerance is essential. In Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that "An intolerant sect has no right to complain when it is denied an equal liberty. A person's right to complain is limited to principles he acknowledges himself" (1971, p. 216). Tolerance needs to be about reciprocity – "do unto others" and "love thy neighbour". The message here is that you cannot expect tolerance and acceptance without practicing it as well. Reciprocity is about respect between people from diverse backgrounds accepting that every person has equal rights, whether politically or legally irrespective of belonging to either a minority or majority group.

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About the Author

Rivka T Witenberg is an academic, researcher and author. Her book Tolerance: The glue that binds us was recently published in NY.

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