“C’mon Wei Choong, join us for the Nights of Fright outing next Friday, we’ll have a blast!”

  “NO. I would like my sleep for the next two weeks to be nightmare-free. Besides, the ticket isn’t cheap either.”

  “Too late, we’ve got you a ticket as your birthday present earlier this month. Stop being such a scaredy-cat, will ya? Plus, you said it yourself, the ticket costs a fortune. Don’t give us a no-show alright?”

Fear, a uniquely human emotion.

Fear, according to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, is an unpleasant emotion or thought that you have when you are frightened or worried by something dangerous, painful, or bad that is happening or might happen. You may ask, what is there to discuss about fear? Being afraid of something is part of life, a natural human instinct. Heck, that feeling of unease is to protect us from said harm! For as long as humans existed, there was fear.

However, this fight-or-flight response is open to manipulation.

Widespread manipulation.

Anyone can play the cards of fear, whoever masters the invocation of fear, can command anyone they please.

The basic principle of fear isn’t all that daunting. In fact, the celebration of Halloween wouldn’t materialise if supernatural entities weren’t scary. To top it off, fear is an important source of tease. Afraid of ghosts? What a scaredy-cat! People around you would then burst into laughter. On a serious note, law and order are built on the fundamentals of fearing repercussions. Fear of punishment circumvents thoughts of committing crimes. 

Things aren’t always that simple. Fear is being employed, or more precisely, shaped according to a certain motive in every stage of our lives. It starts off with our guardians when we were kids. Gradually, the teachers we know and respect in schools. Then, the workplace and in relationships. The bigger picture? Seeing active use in running a country.

As kids, we were taught how to behave, how to act and respond as a decent human being. The method of delivery may differ from guardian to guardian. It may not necessarily be our parents pulling the strings. Regardless, there is one common goal – compliance. When a kid fails to adhere to rules and expectations set by the guardian, say clean up after a toy-play session, he or she will be disciplined. Assume the rebellious kid took multiple faults to realise the mistake, he or she will finally fathom the consequences of it to avoid caning. But think about this, a particular guardian may use fear, or this newfound weapon, to exert control or unrealistic expectations. Let’s put this into perspective: the grandmother of this four-year-old granddaughter has a pre-existing bias against left-handed people. In a position to impose restrictions without rebuke, the grandmother forced the granddaughter to write with her right hand instead. Facing the prospects of punishment, the granddaughter would be afraid to raise her voice about this uncomfortable change forced upon her. Grandmother knows she is in a position of authority, and that fear will keep her granddaughter compliant. As such, fear can shape children into better people, or scar them for life if things take a turn for worse.

In the next phase of our lives, the utility of fear continues to take hold. Schooling days barely take up a quarter of our very existence, yet we see fear being turned against us the most within this period of time. A time for exploration, yet preteens and teenagers take the brunt for their failures, usually academic-based. Young minds are prone to mistakes hence require guidance. Just like our guardians, most educators wish to see their students succeed over the course of their schooling days. Mistakes are bound to happen, however some hold higher stakes than others. Conveniently, fear fits the role perfectly, or so certain educators thought. Masked as an obstacle or challenge in life, teachers propel the message that everyone should fear poor academic performance. A research paper published in 2018 has shown that only students with confidence in their abilities to score will benefit from this push. What does this mean for the rest? Unless there is an external force to sustain their self-esteem (such as other achievements), it will only put them in a vicious cycle of demoralisation.

Beyond schooling days, fear still looms across the horizon. Adulthood is finally here. Careers start to take off, and people start to tie relationship knots. How does fear creep into our lives and wreak havoc? Pay close attention to people who carry this personality trait – dominance. Now, dominant individuals in our lives aren’t a cause for concern, they simply prefer to take charge and lead. Red flags usually come from partners or leaders that resort to instilling fear to assert their power, influence and tend to become toxic in the long run. In the workplace, even colleagues may use fear to downgrade others while propping themselves up. People who are afraid do not go against their peers or bosses whom are perceived to be superior, rendering them unable to stand their ground against unfairness. Fear in relationships is similar, albeit only involving two people most of the time. Men and women are both guilty of being and are susceptible to the dominant significant other. Taking charge and setting a direction together is the best possible outcome. The worst? Frequent outbreaks of violence replace the once-loving household. One person keeps the other enclosed in an inescapable abyss of abuse. Truth is, they’ve been manipulated into believing that there’s no way out. Keeping the partner afraid is to the dominant partner’s best interest, or to their insecurities at the least.

The use of fear only becomes more obvious in the affairs of the state, which is a fancy phrase for running a country. Fear is visible in autocratic and democratic states alike. The key difference being specific international condemnation that targets the oppressive regimes that promote fear openly. Keeping people on their toes is just as effective as crushing dissent on the streets of Pyongyang and garnering huge votes in the Republican Presidential Primaries of 2016. Politicians of today prefer to play the cards of fear by telling fantasies of a dystopian state if their opponents had won. After all, people in favour of LGBTQ+ rights are more likely to come out to vote against the incumbent conservative leader if opponents claim that he would take away recognition of gay marriages. The fear of losing to an allegedly rigged election is a strong push factor, and parties capitalise on it to capture votes. Growing partisanship doesn’t help either. When people latch onto their beliefs and refuse to budge over matters such as public health, politicians find it much easier to inflame tensions. Accusations of the opponent being radical is a common sight. One-sided opinions and a disregard of the other is a breeding ground for fear. Political debates are more of how an average supporter of the party should fear the other’s policies, and not how this platform can curb a possible issue with a different strategy. We as citizens are then driven to vote for our short-term benefits, even to an extent of voting to “own those who disagree with you”.

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Familiar, isn’t it? Straight from Star Wars Episode I, Jedi Master Yoda’s famous phrase resonates through modern society. It is more applicable in politics, much less in life. When people fear the implementation of a policy, they will be angry at those who made it possible. This anger transcends into hate. The hate of everyone that had any association with this policy. The inability to let go of this would cause a person to suffer psychologically, and to be in a perpetual state of anger and hate.

Alternatively, we should be brave in this world filled with fear-inducing elements. Bear Grylls, a former British serviceman (survival instructor) and television presenter once said, “that being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Rather, it means having fear but finding a way through it. Fear can hit us at any given time, even unknowingly. Identify it and most importantly, shrug off the scaredy-cat title that people brandished us. View fear as a small stepping stone to success, and change our mindset on dealing with it. Don’t dread it, smash it! Only then would we be able to truly be free from control.”

by Wei Choong

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