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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Fear, threats and anxiety

Realist international relations is a theory built upon fear of real and potential threats, typically defined in material terms. In the post-9/11 age, much of American foreign policy focuses on fear of various kinds of allegedly "existential" threats that seem less concrete than that. Just click on some of the labels below to get an idea of some of my past blogging on this topic. Obviously, various fears continue to resonate given Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, and Orlando. Donald Trump's politics seem built on fear.

Or are they?

Some months ago, I pulled a page from the January 11/18 issue of The Nation where Simon Wolfe Taylor reviewed Joseph LeDoux's book Anxious. It was posted online in mid-December 2015. LeDoux is an expert in human emotions -- a neuroscientist, not an IR scholar. Neither the words "terrorism" or "war" appear in the piece:
Currently the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University, LeDoux has been grappling for the better part of the last four decades with questions of how emotions are processed by human and animal brains. 
Indeed, much of the review has to do with anxiety rather than fear, though Taylor ultimately accuses LeDoux of failing to distinguish between them adequately. Taylor does credit LeDoux with his clear thinking on how the brain reacts to genuine threats (fear) because personal safety is at stake.

When reading the review originally, I circled these two passages that center explicitly on fear and the potential links to political science:
Contemporary scientists generally understand fear as the recognition of an identifiable and present threat, and anxiety as the anticipation of an undefined future threat: definitions that bear only the slightest resemblance to Kierkegaard’s and Freud’s conceptions of those states, which themselves differ considerably. 
If this distinction is meaningful, then IR realists and various contemporary politicians build much of theory and programs around uncertain future threats anticipated by anxiety rather than genuine current threats. The reviewer continues:
LeDoux does not consider the idea, advanced most persuasively by the political theorist Corey Robin, that fear is a political idea as much as a conscious state.
Maybe one might say that IR-relevant fears/threats are socially constructed?

I'm not really qualified to speak to how either Taylor or LeDoux discuss anxiety at the personal level, but Taylor credits LeDoux for gesturing towards a humanistic approach to understanding (and addressing) anxiety. This passage is interesting, suggesting that anxiety is actually a positive sign:
Although it could be debilitating, even terrifying, anxiety was regarded by the likes of Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Kurt Goldstein, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Niebuhr as the price we pay for some of the values we hold most dear, including freedom, imagination, and creativity. There is, according to the existentialists, a positive correlation between anxiety and human potentiality; as Kierkegaard put it, “the more profoundly he is in anxiety, the greater is the man.”
Here is Taylor's description of more humanistic approaches to anxiety:
Rollo May, a psychologist and the author of 1950’s The Meaning of Anxiety, declared: “One has anxiety because it is possible to create.” Patients, he continued, should be encouraged to recognize that the “presence of anxiety means a conflict is going on, and so long as this is true, a constructive solution is possible.” 
Any notion of a positive understanding of anxiety has almost entirely collapsed over the last three decades. To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the kind of treatment advocated by May and other existentially oriented therapists. Merely asserting a link between anxiety and artistic fulfillment, for example, does little to help a patient in the grip of a panic attack. But the proposition that anxiety can be channeled into constructive behavior or activity is surely an idea worth considering—one with the potential to provide comfort and hope to many thousands of patients
I'm not sure there are lessons here for IR. How could we channel constructive creativity as a mass response to terrorism?

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