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Philosophy and Rhetoric 40.2 (2007) 216-237

Who's Afraid of Fear Appeals?
Contingency, Courage, and Deliberation in Rhetorical Theory and Practice
Michael William Pfau
Department of Communication
University of Minnesota—Duluth

Fear is an influential emotion whose history reveals its impacts not only on individuals, but on entire communities, economies, and political systems. Fear has been particularly important politically, and the history of republics reveals a political discourse rife with appeals to fear. But the discourse of fear has animated a great deal of controversy and debate that reveals a recurring uneasiness and uncertainty among scholars, citizens, and policymakers about the compatibility of this emotional state with effective political deliberation and policy making. Especially among scholars in the humanities, one finds frequent expressions of concern about the effects of fear and its role within communities and discourses. At least since Plato, philosophers have often condemned emotions in general, and fear in particular. Such states of mind, many have suggested, run counter to the reason and logic that ought to guide the rational human being. Accordingly, from the perspective of the philosopher and informal logician, appeals to fear have been regarded as fallacious, as attempts by immoral rhetors to sidestep the standards of logic and reason in order to manipulate their audiences.1 Alongside philosophers and rhetorical scholars, political theorists too have long debated the political role of this emotion. Although occasional political thinkers are associated with theories that posit a constructive political role for fear, most political theorists have expressed an extreme skepticism regarding the relationship of fear to a healthy political system. Too often, they suggest, fear has a corrosive effect on citizens' freedoms, and is used as a means to stifle dissent and to maintain the potentially repressive power of the state.2

However long academics have debated the desirability of fear appeals, and however forceful their denunciations of such base rhetorical tactics, at the dawn of the twenty-first century fear appeals nevertheless have reached a new peak of intensity. Writing in 1999, Barry Glassner spoke of a pervasive "culture of fear," promoted by various political and economic interests, that had resulted in a political community whose fears were both excessive and often misplaced.3 [End Page 216] In the wake of the September 11 attacks, appeals to fear have come to dominate U.S. political discourse to an extent that is unprecedented in recent history. Legislators, government officials, political candidates, interest groups, lobbyists, and numerous elements of the private sector have sought to use the fear of terrorism as a means to pursue a variety of agendas. As one might imagine, this recent upswing in terrorism-related fear appeals has been especially disturbing to those scholars and citizens already predisposed against fear appeals. These critics cite numerous examples of instances in which fear appeals have been utilized in order to stifle healthy democratic dissent or crack down on civil liberties, and they bemoan the ease with which political leaders have arguably abused fear appeals in order to gain public support for allegedly unnecessary and counterproductive military actions.4 Particularly troubling to these critics are events like the passage of the USA-PATRIOT Act—a controversial piece of legislation that was passed, almost without deliberation, largely on the basis of fear appeals directed at Congress and the general public.

Corresponding with this culture of fear has been an embrace, or at least acceptance, of fear appeals by some members of the academic community. Within the larger communication discipline that has been the outgrowth of rhetorical studies, the rise of the social scientific paradigm brought a renewed interest in how to maximize the persuasive influence of fear and fear appeals. Informed by the rhetorical tradition and the work of psychology scholars, a number of persuasion scholars have taken a more detached view to fear appeals that has asked questions about how they work, rather than about their ethical status. These social scientists have been concerned, in particular, to understand how fear functions within the...


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