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University of Basel

Call to prayer instead of church bells?

Text: Noëmi Kern

Foreign infiltration, Islamization, economic decline: Political actors use threatening scenarios to exert influence over people. By playing with our emotions, they leave
the rational level behind.

Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul against the light.
The minarets of the Suleymaniye Mosque belong to Instanbul's cityscape. In Switzerland, building minarets is banned since 2009. (Photo: iStock/Yulia-B)

Building minarets in Switzerland is banned under the country’s constitution. In November 2009, the Swiss electorate voted on a people’s initiative to introduce the ban – and 57.5 % voted in favor. The campaign posters showed black minarets piercing the Swiss flag, with a woman dressed in a black veil in the foreground. It feels sinister – threatening, even. The words “stop” and “vote yes to ban minarets” show how people can ward off the threat.

The message is short and clear. It's catchy and bold. It’s designed to trigger our emotions. This is important in politics: “Images and truncated messages often have much greater impact than, say, describing a risk using arguments that are comprehensible and verifiable,” says Alexander Fischer, a philosopher at the University of Basel. One area of his research examines manipulation as a tool that allows the user to harness the power of fear – as happens in politics, for instance.

Showing catastrophic future scenarios is a much-used political method of instilling fear into people. It is a lot more difficult for counter initiatives to succeed in putting forward a rational explanation of why a certain fear isn’t real. “Making a convincing case for this is much more complex and often doesn’t hit home,” says Fischer.

Stronger than the monster

This is why many political campaigns point to threats and use them to stoke our fears. Speaking about the minaret ban, SVP politician Ulrich Schlüer (then a member of the National Council) told swissinfo.ch: “The minaret is a symbol of power. It’s spearheading the Islamification of our politics. We’re opposing this Islamification because it contravenes the principles of our constitution.” These kinds of statement target the affective level; their aim is not to encourage a rational discussion.

“Fear is a difficult emotion. It’s unpleasant, so we want to get rid of it,” says Fischer. For political actors, a key mechanism of fear involves suggesting the monster they have invoked can be vanquished – and that if you just cast your vote in their favor, everything will be fine. It’s a message that exerts a strong pull.

“Playing with what are often abstract fears is a basic move for political actors, who are also responsible for allaying our fears regarding the political realm,” says Fischer. This is why fear is a perpetual feature of politics. The topics that regularly create a sense of threat in Switzerland change over time: nuclear power in the 1980s, then genetically modified corn in the early 2000s. On top of that, fears about Islamist terrorism, “over-foreignization,” climate change, and relations with the EU have long been part of the political agenda. Most recently, the issue was fear that a police state would be installed during the pandemic. And a seemingly timeless topic in Switzerland is the threat of a decline in our wealth.

Playing with fire

Since we are finite, boundedly rational beings, we can be influenced. Politicians know that – and so does the advertising industry. Targeted manipulation is about modulating our affective states so that a certain action, such as buying a certain product, ultimately promises pleasant or unpleasant feelings, and therefore seems more or less attractive than another.

 “When we manipulate someone, we push them in a direction, but we don’t force them to do anything. They still have freedom of choice, even if that choice can be made a lot harder by modulating their affectivity,” explains Fischer. “This is what makes manipulation as a way of exerting influence in our liberal system so immensely interesting.” In a study of online advertising that he conducted with a colleague at Bern University of Applied Sciences, Fischer found that, although manipulation often exists at the edge of what is legitimate, it isn’t fundamentally negative and also isn’t perceived in that way.

A form of manipulation that we view as unproblematic does not bother us – as long as it doesn’t cause us any damage and we manage to distance ourselves from the affective impulse if necessary. In those cases, we don’t question the manipulation; in fact, we rarely even talk about it.

Fischer thinks that we should still be careful because even partially bypassing our rationality can, under certain conditions, become possibly problematic. Deception, however, is seen as unequivocally negative. It’s often linked to manipulation and can go hand in hand with it. “If you realize that you’ve been manipulated because someone presented you with false information to trigger your emotions, you often feel outraged. And rightly so,” says Fischer, noting that this type of manipulation is morally problematic. It can also cause lasting damage to the trust between people..

Unpredictable and individual

Fischer also thinks that using fear to influence others is problematic. It latches on to the irrational nature of people, who sometimes end up not even knowing why they’re acting in a certain way. They are then also incapable of knowing whether something makes sense or not. If fear becomes self-sustaining, it will be very hard to control.

“Fear is unpredictable and hard to manage. We can’t really influence any degree of it – like, ‘a bit of fear is okay,’” says Fischer. “It’s an incredibly creative emotion. People are good at anxiously imagining scary things.”

An alleged “Islamization of Switzerland” could therefore cause people to imagine various scenarios: Arabic becomes more common than Swiss German. Most women are veiled. Church towers are outnumbered by minarets, from which the muezzins loudly issue their call to prayer. Our legal system will soon be replaced by Sharia law. The creativity of our fears knows almost no bounds – and political influencers absolutely exploit this.

Not everyone imagines such concrete pictures, however. Fear can often be nebulous; it takes root as unpleasant background noise in our minds. We want to get rid of it. “Fear has a tendency to become individual, so we each react differently to it,” says Fischer – who alongside his research also works as a psychotherapist. One person might react by becoming aggressive (fight), another might try to escape (flight), and another might be paralyzed by shock (freeze). The snag is that there’s usually no direct exit from the scary situation – especially if the problems are in the future.

Distancing can help

The cause of someone’s fear is, however, selective – and to a certain degree even random. Apparently, we are better at imagining what would happen if we had a few francs less in our bank accounts than if the glaciers all melted. This could be one reason why a CO2 law was rejected in June 2021, but possible declines in our prosperity are a much-used (because promising) scenario on the political stage.

To ensure that we are not at the indiscriminate mercy of our emotions and those who seek to manipulate them, we must look more closely at where our fear comes from and whether it is appropriate. Fischer says that we should try and distance ourselves from a suggestion so that we can assess it with a critical eye. “This is useful if you want to check whether the fears that someone is trying to instill in you are justified and whether you want to be steered in a certain direction as a result.” It’s about taking a step back so that we can move from the affective level to a rational level.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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