Psychology of the PM's Obama critique

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The psychology of the PM's Obama critiqueJohn Howard has captured everyone's attention with his startling comments linking a victory for Barack Obama with a victory for Al Qaeda and terrorism.

The reason proffered for his wading into the early stages of the American election campaign are subject to some debate. They range from a type of blindness, borne out of his personal friendship with President George Bush, conviction that he was correct to proffer his opinion, through to a focus on his brilliance as a strategist who has focused attention away from weakness in his domestic policies. Whatever motivated him, the question that must be asked is why does he think attacking Obama is to his own political advantage?

For an answer to this, one may turn to psychological literature on group thinking, which shows that the surest way to unite a group is to find a common enemy. Furthermore, fear is the most powerful motivating factor.

The literature available on prejudice and discrimination shows that fear is fundamental, more than anger, hatred or even envy. The price of uniting a group through fear is an increase in stereotyping and prejudice towards a group seen to be the 'other'. In the Coalition’s last term of office, we have seen an upturn in racial and ethnic tensions in Australia. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the upsurge in fear that has been fostered by near-apocalyptic thinking with regard to the 'terrorist threats' that we are facing.

Furthermore, this fear is directed at something amorphous; a ubiquitous threat, some time in our future. The 'threat' we face is not grounded in the present, and cannot be dealt with in the moment. We are agitated towards a state of constant alertness, our physiological systems primed to deal with danger; we are made ready to fight, or for flight.

It is little wonder that gang and group based attacks are more common. The mob mentality is returning. People are needing to discharge some of their excess of emotion. No wonder, too, that we are more disinclined to offer hospitality to strangers than ever before, as evidenced by our lack of generosity with Sudanese refugees in Tamworth, who represent the 'other.'

The psychology of the PM's Obama critiqueFurthermore, the spread of this hermeneutic of suspicion works through subtle psychological mechanisms including association. As one contemplates the issue of 'otherness', and the current American presidential candidates, Barack Obama is perhaps the candidate that lends himself most to being cast in the role of the 'other' by those of us in the West.

Obama is the most 'other' to us Caucasians, at least in regard to appearances, and while it cannot be said of him that he is of 'Middle Eastern Appearance’, his appearance could lend itself to a certain associational guilt, especially as his step-father is an Indonesian Muslim and his own middle name is Hussein (a fact already being highlighted by some Republicans, who also erroneously claimed he went to a fundamentalist Madrassa school while living in Indonesia, as a boy.)

Association is the mechanism used by the advertising industry to sell its products, and we are all susceptible to its influence. It is not just a focus on the words and wiles of politicians that is needed, but also a focus on ourselves. In responding to a particular politician’s opinions and views, and most especially as we cast our votes, it is vital that we understand the psychological processes that may inform us as we come to judge not only parties and policies, but individual politicians too.

Before we cast our vote, we should try to ascertain what it is that we have come to associate these politicians with, both knowingly and unknowingly, and how this has come to be. In the final analysis, it is the subtle, unspoken associations that often carry the most weight. Exposing these associations to the light of day is one way of helping us to make more informed and freer choices, and we certainly need such choices at the current time.



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An interesting article. I think that the filtering of just about everything through the prism of 'post-modern' thought can be quite tendentious, a bit of an over-reach, on occasion, but considering the day to day bash and crash of politicking through this lense can at times be quite illuminating.
John Sellars | 20 February 2007


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