Hope and fear


It is normal for human beings to fear the future because, by definition, the future is the unknown. That is why almost all futuristic books, film and TV are so grim and frightening. It has been that way since people began making art out of imagining the future, from Jonathon Swift, H.G Wells, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley through to Blade Runner, Oryx and Crake, and the Alien trilogy. Even the comic Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy begins with earth being destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. Yet, when I test the emotional wind today, I sense an intensity of fear that is greater than it has ever been.

Perhaps that is because we are in transition from one kind of society to another. We know the world we are leaving, warts and all, but have no real idea about the world we are entering. Hence the turning back to the certainties and rules of the past, the resurgence of fundamentalisms of all kind, and the exaggerated discomfort we feel with people and things that seem alien or different.

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

I sense this fear of the future in parents, whose nervousness about what it may hold leads them to over-protect and over-parent to a sometimes ridiculous degree.

I sense it in business, now so enmeshed in risk avoidance and cost cutting that many companies are locked into a continual cycle of re-structuring leading to a cynical and disaffected workforce.

I sense it amongst almost everyone I meet. A malaise, a fear that we may have peaked, that this may be as good as it gets, because, paradoxically, life is pretty good, better perhaps, than it has ever been. Maybe human beings haven’t evolved far enough yet to know how to handle ease and comfort. We desire it, but we don’t know how the hell to handle it when we get it. All our previous worries may have been replaced with one big one; the fear of losing what we’ve got.

What did that Janis Joplin song from my youth say? ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.’ We have a lot to lose.

Of course, a population that is uneasy about the present, anxious about the future and terrified of losing what they’ve got, is a gift to governments. Fear of the future is, in my view, one of the major contributors to the extraordinary stability of western governments since 11 September 2001.

The advertising and marketing world, my primary source of income for more than twenty years, has long understood that there are two fundamental emotions that lead to changes in behaviour; hope and fear. People do something different (in the marketing context; buy this brand over that brand) because they either hope for something better, or fear they will lose or miss out on something if they don’t; revealing, of course, that these two emotions are flip sides of the same coin.

So it is, I’m afraid, with governments. Regardless of the details of individual election campaigns, governments need to market themselves using fear. At its simplest, their pitch can be expressed as; in these dangerous times, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Oppositions, whatever their political complexion, should market hope. John Howard, a master political strategist, whatever else you may think of him, has followed this strategy precisely. Remember his pitch against Keating in 1996? He wanted us all to feel ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Of course, the minute he took office that was the last thing he wanted us to feel. A relaxed and comfortable electorate, citizens who by and large, feel hopeful and optimistic about the future “ as we did in the sixties and seventies “ are more likely to take risks, like changing their leaders. An anxious electorate is much more likely to cling to the devil they know. Even, as is absolutely clear in Tony Blair’s case, if they really don’t like him very much.

What is also fascinating about the current political landscape is how the oppositions who are fighting the uphill battle against incumbent governments reflect this trend. Almost without exception, oppositions seem to put up either dreary or inappropriate candidates just when they should be doing the opposite. But is this reality or perception? Are these individuals “ and I’m thinking Beazley, Latham, Kerry and Michael Howard here “ really the no-hopers they seem, or do we merely think they are because of the tenor of the times?

Just when we feel hungriest for the vision thing, when we are desperate for a new light on the hill, it seems furthest away. Oppositions, and Michael Howard may have made this mistake, cannot out fear governments. If they fear monger they run the risk of simply increasing the feelings that advantage the government they wish to unseat. Yet the reason the battle to win government is so hard in times of fear and anxiety (fears and anxieties that are being assiduously fanned by the government at every opportunity) is because that’s precisely when hope is hardest to sell.

Nevertheless, hope is an opposition’s only, well, hope. The government cannot offer it because if they were going to deliver a better future, they would have done so already. Governments can only warn you that with the other guys, the future will be even worse. Governments must market negatively, if you like, oppositions positively.

There is nothing new about this theory, but recent history has brought it into even sharper relief. I do not believe that it is simply co-incidence that almost all the western governments that were in power when the planes hit the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, are still in power, Spain being the obvious exception.

The shockwaves from that event continue to ricochet through the world. Not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but in the lives and psyche of every single one of us. That day, we all saw our worst nightmares made real, we watched a mini Armageddon unfold on our TV screens, we saw and heard things which haunt us still, we saw what we had to lose and how we might lose it, and we’re nowhere near over it yet.

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