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To Talk About Bill C-51, We Need to Get Over Fear

It's pretty clear that in the public discourse around C-51, there are serious fears on each side. One side is afraid of terrorism infiltrating Canada; the other is afraid of abuse of power through government surveillance. How are we to get back to a real public dialogue, instead of talking past one another?

In my last post, I discussed how fear appeals work, citing that in the case of terrorism the Harper government actually amplifies fear through the rhetoric of Bill C-51.

It's pretty clear that in the public discourse around C-51, there are serious fears on each side. One side is afraid of terrorism infiltrating Canada; the other is afraid of abuse of power through government surveillance.

But neither side seems to be addressing the fears of the other -- which made me wonder, if we are discussing important public policy, and have what could be called "competing fears" how are we to get back to a real public dialogue, instead of talking past one another?

I decided to ask Toronto psychotherapist Jodee McCaw about how best to make these discussions more productive, and how we can address each other's competing fears in our daily conversations.

Andreas Krebs: Fear is a really important emotion in political communications -- it has been shown to push people to action far more effectively than many other more "positive" emotions, like hope.

Jodee McCaw: Fear is a big reason why we make the choices that we do in general. It's a strong emotion -- if I'm afraid of something, I won't do it unless there's some very good reason to do it. And that very good reason is often that I'm afraid of something else that is more important than the thing that I am afraid of doing. Someone who is afraid of public speaking, for example, won't push themselves to do it because it's a good skill to have or they want to be a well-rounded human being, but because they are afraid they won't get the job they want, or that they will lose the job they have, unless they get better at speaking in public.

Andreas Krebs: I'm interested in how we should be discussing topics that induce fear. On a topic such as terrorism, and the government's response to it, there are very divided perspectives. Those who support C-51 seem to view terrorism as a legitimate threat, and respond to that threat with fear and anxiety. Those who oppose the bill seem less fearful about terrorism, which means that when they discuss the bill, they resort to arguments that seem to ignore the fear felt by the other side.

Jodee McCaw: I think that's a true observation, though I think the causality works in the other direction: In general, people who are more afraid of terrorism are more inclined to support an anti-terrorism bill, and less likely to give any particular bill a very critical analysis.

Andreas Krebs: So my first, and very broad question, is how can we stop talking past each other?

Jodee McCaw: What you're getting at here is that first we need to be having a conversation where we are all talking about the same thing. Which means that we have to talk about ALL the reasons that any of us are for or against the bill in question, including fear, and our very different perceptions of the thing that scares us.

Andreas Krebs: It seems that many people are afraid of even discussing their own fears, particularly in a public setting. Is there a way to overcome this fear? What would that involve?

Jodee McCaw: When you are wanting someone to think about their fear, that is going to make them vulnerable. I'm unlikely to succeed in convincing you to be vulnerable unless I make myself vulnerable first.

I can only see a discussion that would start from the truth that we are ALL afraid. And it's probably true that we have a lot in common on that, in that we're all afraid of losing a country that we love. Some of us are most afraid that we will lose out country through terrorism -- and it's useful to remember here some of the terrorist rhetoric tells us that it's not a completely unfounded fear. Some of us are much more afraid that we will lose the country we love through it turning into a police state, losing the liberty and tolerance and openness that we prize.

But framing it that way already shows us some common ground. Because, really, no one on the other side is saying that either they WANT a police state, or that they don't care if terrorism destroys Canada -- though at the extremes, it can sure sound like that. So that gives us a possible way forward to genuine dialogue.

Andreas Krebs: Are there techniques for de-escalating someone else's fear?

Jodee McCaw: First of all, you need to know what they are afraid of. The first mistake here is assuming you know what they are afraid of. The second mistake is denying or making fun of their fear, or belittling them for being afraid -- all of those macho confrontative techniques that make the person who is afraid feel misunderstood (which isn't wrong) and insulted and patronized, and all of which have the effect of reinforcing the fear, making it stronger -- if I am afraid, and you make me feel like you think I'm an idiot or a fool, I'm going to feel a little more vulnerable, because you've shown me that you are not my ally, and that will exacerbate my fear.

We know it on a personal level, that to deal with someone who seems to be more afraid of something that we see as necessary, we talk to them gently and supportively, and see if we can't get them to see another perspective. And if we do it slowly and carefully enough, often the result is something like "Okay, now that I have more information, I can see that I was more afraid of that thing than it really warranted -- actually, it wasn't that bad."

Most strong fears are rational to some extent, and to some extent irrational. Unless we can talk openly, we can't figure out whether my perspective or yours make sense, whether my fear is 90 per cent rational and 10 per cent irrational, or vice versa. But if you tell me my fear is not at all rational, I'm going to tell that you are wrong, and I would be right to do so. And I'd up more afraid than ever.

Andreas Krebs: In your opinion, what effect does the introduction of security legislation have on the public's fear of terror threats?

Jodee McCaw: It depends on the legislation in itself, and even more so on how that legislation is presented. There is no question that fear is a powerful motivating force, whether it's the ads that say "You'll be a loser unless you buy this product," or "Bad things will happen if we don't pass this legislation."

Andreas Krebs: It seems that there is fear on the side of those opposing Bill C-51 as well, particularly around police surveillance powers. Does this fear have a place in these discussions? Can it be an "experiential bridge"?

Jodee McCaw: Yes. Some of the opponents of security legislation seem to be so afraid that increased surveillance that you get the sense that security legislation could never be good enough or useful enough to take that risk of increasing surveillance. For anyone who doesn't share that fear as a strong fear, that is a nonsensical position, and means that what they say gets dismissed without considering its merits.

The fears are already a big part of the discussion. Acknowledging them and talking about them openly is the only chance we have to actually have a dialogue, as opposed to two dueling monologues I'll add here that the nature of fear, psychologically speaking, is that to name this fear gives it more power, but actually its got most power when we are NOT talking about it.

Andreas Krebs: Is it enough to oppose legislation that you believe doesn't help the problem? Or does there need to be something in its place that works to assuage the fear?

Jodee McCaw: The problem with just opposing the legislation is that you're not making any better suggestion. If I'm afraid, and some snake oil salesman tells me his snake oil will keep me safe, you better have a better plan if you want to convince me that I don't need that snake oil.


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