Sunday, 18 November, 2018

France elections: does anxiety separate our society?

06 May 2017, 08:20 ( 06 May, 2017) | updated: 07 May 2017, 10:51 ( 07 May, 2017)

By Tom Koppe
The Writer Tom Koppe.

As Le Pen and Macron go to the second round of the French elections the difference between both candidates cannot be bigger. Le Pen wants to ‘get France back’ by dropping out of the Eurozone and closing borders. Back to the ‘good old days’ in order to make life understandable and controllable again. Sociologist Oliver Bennett described this certain fear for the future as cultural pessimism. All over the world we see tendencies akin to this: Brexit, Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and currently, Le Pen. At the same time an opposite movement of optimism has arisen. Green, pro-globalist parties are gaining electorate. We can call this cultural optimism. A new dividing line in our societies has become between pessimists and optimists. How can we explain this growing gap in Western countries? The answer will be intricate but anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Terror Management Theory can give interesting insights.

Becker postulated a paradox that terrorize humans. Humans are conscious that they exist, but realize in the same time that they will die. To defeat this instinctive anxious knowledge, we invented culture. Culture is everything that gives meaning to our lives. We gain reassurance in the idea that important elements will continue after our death. Religion is very successful in this case. More research is necessary, but several studies showed that people who are confronted with their mortality grasp stronger to their existing cultural worldview. Thinking about mortality increases polarization between groups. We defend our own ideas by bolstering these ideas and defeat opposite ideas.

Currently, through mass- and social media we are faced with our mortality even more than ever. Especially terrorists are very effective in influencing the public opinion due to a fear loving media. We are facing many challenges like raising inequality and climate change but there is much more attention for terrorism. In fact, how big is the chance we will be affected by terrorism? Our stress-reactive brains respond readily to this fear and this catalysis thoughts about our own mortality. According to Becker’s theory therefore, thinking about our mortality increases extremism and polarization.

Although the Western world is nowadays safer, wealthier and healthier than ever, we do not see this. We are confronted with continuous looming threats which activate our stress-reactive brains. This makes us unsure, lets us grip on to our existing ideas and reject others. Former US President Barack Obama’s spoke recently at the University of Chicago and argued that it looks harder than ever to find common ground. Parties moved further and further apart. Let’s see what will happen on May 7 when France will vote in the second round. Charles de Gaulle, who introduced the two-round system said: ‘You vote first with your heart, then with your head.’

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