Fear will drive our actions, our choice is the direction

By Nguyen Phuong Mai   December 3, 2018 | 11:09 pm PT
Fear has always shaped human history. It can beget violence and apathy, or it can be the strongest force for good.
Nguyen Phuong Mai, an author and lecturer based in Amsterdam, Holland

Nguyen Phuong Mai, an author and lecturer

Last week, a secondary school student in the central province of Quang Binh was slapped 231 times by his classmates under their teacher’s orders for "using foul language." While many see the incident as a classic case of school violence, I don’t.

From my point of view, this has more to do with fear than violence.

In the 20th century, American psychologist Paul Ekman said humans have six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Of these, fear is the most primal, the most powerful and also the most important one, as it is the precursor to all other negative emotions.

Criminological studies also found that the reason murderers murdered was because of fears they never even knew they had; fears that were etched too deep within one’s psyche to ever come into awareness. These could be fear of rejection, failure or being ridiculed; products of unhappy childhood - toxic parental figures or abusive peers. It is these subconscious, unexpressed emotions that later manifest into malicious, destructive behaviors found in killers. For the criminals, violence is their answer to an unjust world that failed them.

In everyday life, violence can stem from even the most mundane, ordinary fears. Parents beat their children as a last resort when they fear their children no longer respect them. Authority figures oppress when they fear their position of power is being challenged. The common mass gets into an uproar when they fear their rights are being trampled on.

In the Quang Binh slapping case, too, it all boils down to fear: the fear of authority, which causes people to blindly obey authority figures even if they don’t want to.

After the incident made headlines in national newspapers, excuses started pouring in. The teacher said she ordered the slaps because she feared her class’s academic performance was the worst in the entire school, while school administrators claimed the reason why they compared class performances was to promote competition and therefore help the school get better results, which, in turn, would enhance its reputation.

It is not difficult to understand why the students slapped their classmate without objection. They simply followed the order of the only authority figure present at that time: the teacher.

In 1961, a series of social experiments were conducted in the basement of Yale University by a psychologist named Stanley Milgram to answer a popular contemporary question: "Could it be that the Nazi soldiers who helped kill millions of Jews in the Holocaust were simply following orders?"

To do that, the experiments measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.

In two adjacent rooms, one person, called the "teacher," would be able to press a button to send electric shocks to another person, called the "learner," in the other room, every time the "learner" answered a multiple-choice question wrongly. The shocks would increase in 15-volt increments for each incorrect answer, until it supposedly reached a lethal voltage of up to 450 volts.

But here’s the catch: there was no actual electric shock, and all "learners" were only actors. Whenever a fake electric shock was administered to the actor, a pre-recorded tape would play various audios indicating that the supposedly shocked "learner" was writhing in pain, banging of walls, crying, screaming, and so on.

If at any time the "teacher" wanted to stop the experiment, the experimenter would insist, four times, that they continue. The experiment would end when either the "teacher" wants to stop it or the maximum 450-volt shock was administered three times in succession.

The result? 65 percent of the participants continued the experiments until the very end, supposedly killing the person on the other side of the room.

Vietnamese students attend the annual new school year ceremony at Doan Thi Diem secondary school in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 5, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham

Vietnamese students attend the annual new school year ceremony at Doan Thi Diem secondary school in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 5, 2018. Photo by Reuters/Kham

It turns out that a person could kill a total stranger, albeit reluctantly, when an authority figure tells them to do so. Fear begets blind obedience, the experiments’ result showed.

So should we just accept that it was human nature that made those secondary-school kids physically assault a classmate?

Obviously, the answer is no. While fear will always be a natural part of life, it is how much we let it control us that needs to be discussed.

In the Milgram experiments, there were still 35 percent of participants who refused to do what was against their conscience. But in the slapping incident, no student dared to disobey their teacher.

Could that be an indication to how much fear permeates our lives? To how much it dictates our choices?

Could that justify our decisions to stay silent before oppression, to break ourselves to fit the mold, to compromise our values for fear of rejection, to not be able to separate authority from tyranny?

What we should do is not to eliminate fear, but to redirect it. The same fear that makes us turn a blind eye to our fellow human beings’ suffering could also be the clarion call that jolts us into doing what’s right, to fight for the weak and stand against injustice.

No matter what we do, fear has, is and will always be fuel to the flame that drives the engine of human society. But whether that flame lights up our path to prosperity or consumes all of us in its blaze, is up to each one of us.

*Nguyen Phuong Mai is an author and lecturer at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. The opinions expressed are her own.

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