I know the title of this technically breaks the rule for how I title BTAS entries, but I couldn’t resist.
It’s still November 1, 1997, so no new headlines or charts.
Batman has, of course, essentially always been about fear. As we have unpacked at length, he is Bruce Wayne (age eight)’s fear weaponized, turned outward to terrorize the criminals of Gotham and protect him and its denizens. (Eliding, of course, that it’s the criminals’ home, too.)
But here we get something deeper, that fear is not just Batman’s tool but all of society’s. Fear, we are told–and given every reason to believe is the episode’s positionality, not just the characters’–is the source of social order, and only fear keeps people from abusing one another. Stripped of fear, one man sows chaos by swinging around the city, unperturbed by the terror of the people he is dropping debris upon. Another commits sexual assault on Bruce Wayne’s assistant. Batman attempts murder, twice.
This is, not to put too fine a point to it, bullshit.
Fear has its functions. It is an alarm system, literally: we become alarmed, afraid, as our brain’s way of processing apparent danger. That can indeed steer us away from such dangers, but it is far from the only thing driving our decisions, nor is it what holds society together. A wide spectrum of emotions and learned behaviors inform our actions, and the two interact in complex ways. It is impossible to say how much of, say, giving money to a homeless person is compassion, the desire to be thought of (or to think of oneself as) a good person, emulation of an admired figure, or a host of other reasons that could influence one to charitable action. The answer varies not only from person to person, but instance to instance, and not even the person doing it necessarily knows all their reasons why.
A man with no fear might well go swinging through the city. But it seems unlikely, at least for most people, that he would stop caring about the people below to such an extent that dropping tons of rubble on them–or pulling Batman down to his death–wouldn’t bother him. It’s not, generally speaking, fear that keeps us from murdering each other. Most of the time, we just don’t want to; and when we do want to, it is as likely to be disgust or the desire to be seen as good, or simply that we’ve learned and internalized patterns of behavior that exclude it, that holds us back. (We generally call these internalized patterns of behavior “morality.”)
But if fear is not the only thing holding society together, whence the idea that it is? If fear is not the sole preventative of anti-social behavior, why are we told that it is?
The first answer is that in some people’s eyes, the only kind of order is the kind maintained by fear: authoritarian rule. There is research showing that people become more authoritarian–more inclined to defer to authority figures, more hostile to outsiders and the unfamiliar, more protective of the in-group–when frightened. People who are not afraid find it easier to be open to outsiders, to embrace difference, to trust themselves and each other. Fear really is what keeps authoritarians in power, so if your idea of order is an authoritarian hierarchy, and you regard everything else as chaos, then it’s true, fear is the only thing maintaining social order.
The second, related, answer is that the belief that only fear can maintain a social order is used to justify the existence of powerful institutions. The racist, toxic, broken American criminal justice system is, we are told, the only way to maintain society. If people do not fear the police, do not fear prison or other punishments, we are told, then there is nothing to stop people from raping, pillaging, and murdering each other. The police are militarized slave patrols maintained by a gang of racist bullies and murderers, and black and indigenous people of color must live in fear of them no matter if they’ve engaged in crime or not? That, according to this argument, is justified by the necessity of fear to create order. Most of our prisons are for-profit slave camps, the treatment of prisoners is tantamount to ongoing torture, and imprisonment increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood of future crime? Again, we are told, this is justified by the necessity of fear to create order.
There’s more than one kind of deference to authority–not just the surrender of one’s own capacity and responsibility for moral decision-making to a singular leader, but acceptance of a hierarchy that seems insurmountable, as well. The racist murders committed by police aren’t a side effect or a regrettable consequence of a necessary evil; they’re the point. When cops murder black people and the courts fill prisons with nonviolent, black offenders, that helps maintain the racist hierarchy of our culture. When the rich can buy their way out of trouble and the poor cannot, that helps maintain the classist hierarchy. When rapists and domestic abusers–the majority of whom are men, and the majority of whose victims are women–walk free, but a woman who kills her abusive spouse is treated like a monster, that helps maintain the sexist hierarchy.
Cops and prisons exist to terrorize the population into accepting the social hierarchy, and are sold to us with the claim that no other way of ordering society is possible. They exist to terrorize criminals and protect denizens, and even more so, they exist to elide that those are the same thing.
That’s the order that fear brings–the order that Batman maintains.
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