Violence Against Women and the Politics of Fear

Last week, Gloria Steinem had this to say:

If you added up all the women who have been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11, and then you add up all the Americans who were killed by 9/11 or in Afghanistan and Iraq, more women were killed by their husbands or boyfriends.

PolitiFact then confirmed the truth of her claim.

How can this be, you ask? How can something that is so dangerous to the population (at least a majority) not galvanize political attention and public policy in the same way that something less dangerous does?

That was a question that inspired my first book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Here’s what I wrote there:

Political fear can work in one of two ways.

First, leaders or militants can define what is or ought to be the public’s chief object of fear. Political fear of this sort almost always preys upon some real threat—it seldom, if ever, is created out of nothing—but since the harms of life are as various as its pleasures, politicians and other leaders have much leeway in deciding which threats are worthy of political attention and which are not. It is they who identify a threat to the population’s well being, who interpret the nature and origins of that threat, and who propose a method for meeting that threat. It is they who make particular fears items of civic discussion and public mobilization.

This does not mean that each member of the public actually fears the chosen object: not every American citizen, for instance, is actively afraid today of terrorism. It merely means that the object dominates the political agenda, crowding out other possible objects of fear and concern.

In choosing, interpreting, and responding to these objects of fear, leaders are influenced by their ideological assumptions and strategic goals. They view danger through a prism of ideas, which shapes whether they see a particular danger as threatening or not, and a lens of political opportunity, which shapes whether they see that danger as helpful or not.

I elaborated this argument in a more recent piece that I wrote for Jacobin.

It is not necessarily a widespread fear of foreign or domestic threats — real or imagined — that compels the state to abridge civil liberties.  When the government takes measures for the sake of security, it is not simply translating the people’s fear of danger into a repressive act of state.  Instead, the government makes a choice:  to focus on some threats and not others, and to take certain actions (but not others) to counter those threats. Merely think of the attention — and money, staff, countermeasures, and air time — the US government has lavished upon terrorism as opposed to automobile accidents or climate change, even in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and a host of other life-threatening weather events.

Even though this power to define the objects of public fear suggests that danger or harm is whatever the state says it is, Hobbes did believe that there were real dangers that threatened a people. The sovereign had every reason to make the proper determination of what truly threatened the people and to act only upon those determinations.  The sovereign’s interest in his own security dovetailed with the people’s interest in theirs. So long as the people were, or at least felt, secure, they would obey the sovereign; so long as they obeyed the sovereign, he would be secure.

Hobbes also assumed that the sovereign would be so removed from powerful constituencies in society — in his time, the church and the aristocracy — that the sovereign would be able to act on behalf of an impartial, disinterested, and neutral calculation of what truly threatened the people as a whole and of what measures would protect them. Because the sovereign’s power depended upon getting these calculations right, he had every incentive not to get them wrong.

The reality of modern state power, however, is that we have inherited some of the worst aspects of Hobbesian politics with none of its saving graces.  Governments today have a great deal of freedom to define what threatens a people and how they will respond to those threats. But far from being removed from the interests of and ideologies of the powerful, they are often constrained, even defined and constituted, by those interests and ideologies.

To cite just one example:  it is a well known fact that African Americans have suffered as much from the American state’s unwillingness to protect them from basic threats to their lives and liberties as they have from the willingness of white Americans to threaten those lives and liberties.  Throughout much of US history, as legal scholar Randall Kennedy has shown, the state has deemed the threat to the physical safety of African Americans to be an unremarkable danger and the protection of African Americans an unworthy focus of its attentions.

In the Hobbesian account, this constitutes a grievous failure; in America, it has been a semi-permanent boundary of state action.  At the most fateful moment of white-on-black violence in US history, in fact, the national government deemed the threat to African Americans a relatively minor item of public safety, unworthy of federal military protection; by contrast, it deemed the threat to employers from striking workers an public emergency, worthy of federal military protection.

When we talk about the politics of fear, this is what we mean.

If you want to learn more, buy my book!


  1. linde4duende October 7, 2014 at 10:15 pm | #

    I really want to buy your book, but I’m disturbed that you don’t seem to critique and its deleterious effects on local businesses and particularly local, independently-owned bookstores:

    How about these folks? or even

    Thanks– I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts, and will get your book as soon as I ever can…but not from I gave up ordering anything from them several years ago, just like I “gave up” shopping at Walmart…

    collegially, Linde M. Brocato

    • Corey Robin October 7, 2014 at 11:08 pm | #

      You’re totally right; I need to change this.

  2. Roquentin October 7, 2014 at 10:37 pm | #

    Two things;

    1) I’m reading Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece 2666 right now and it is fantastic. He discusses exactly this subject. Of the 5 parts of the book, the longest which is titled “The Part About The Crimes” focuses on the murders of hundreds of women in Santa Theresa (a fictionalized version of Juarez, Mexico). While many of the murders are the work of a serial killer, women killed by men for other, random reasons are included alongside them. But it isn’t simply about women either, the women who get murdered are mostly poor and work in maquiladoras (basically a Mexican sweatshop). Women who few people will miss enough to do anything about.

    There’s this great passage:

    I’ve thought about this book a lot recently. His novella, Distant Star, is also very good. It’s an allegory about the Pinochet years (which he lived under) told through the stories of a few poets.

    2) One of the last friends I still retain from the portion of my childhood spent in Illinois called me the other day. He works in insurance now and shares an office with some laughably conservative people. According to him, some of them took 9/11 off out of fear that they would be attacked. I burst out laughing, because I work with people who were in the city then and don’t freak out half that badly. Instead, it was just a testament to the power of propaganda. Another book that really has stuck with me, Jacques Ellul’s “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes” immediately came to mind. At this point, I stop just short of saying it should be required reading for anyone trying to navigate the modern political world.

  3. Hazel Stone October 7, 2014 at 11:07 pm | #

    With respect, sentiments like these make me very confused about why so many lefty men support the sex industry. The objectification and disposability of women in the sex industry, especially women on the margins who make up most of the sex workers, affect women broadly. It is of a piece of the violent misogyny in our culture that brings about partner violence.

    • jonnybutter October 8, 2014 at 1:11 pm | #

      With respect, sentiments like these make me very confused about why so many lefty men support the sex industry

      Yes, nothing says ‘respect’ like swooping in to use someone’s serious blog as an excuse to hammer some of your inapposite ideological nails.

      • Theo October 9, 2014 at 1:08 pm | #

        Yours is a prickly response. Is it an attempt to corral off certain aspects of the lives of of all of as unworthy of discussion? Certainly you don’t mean that.

        She raises a decent point and it is worthy of discussion. I read in the last week and a half that the worldwide violence against women is the cause of approximately $8 trillion in costs per year around the world, yet in our politics it is ignored, especially by conservatives who have a knee jerk response and a negative one to any assertion that violence against women is a real problem (mark the recent uninvitation of George Will by a women’s college for his ridiculous assertion that sexual violence is not a legitimate issue on college campuses. They can just say no or close their legs, don’t you know.

        Neither philosophers throughout time in any culture or the most well known of the people who seek to form the public mind today have found it important enough to discuss and seek remedies for. Given that males are in the overwhelming amount of cases, more violent that females, if domestic violence is not something you think much about, perhaps then think of the violence of wars, not to mention the violence by the rich who prey on all of us, males and females, and do violence as well to our environment, which is all we have to support life on earth. In wars, civilians of all kinds, men, women, and children are the most numerous victims.

        Most males, at least judging by the illiberal comments on even leftist sites and certainly on conservative sites are unwilling to examine this violence as a gender disorder. This also touches on certain strains of pornography that many of us see as profoundly damaging to women. The psychic and physical charge from the watching of it prevents its users from seeing the victims.

        In saying this, I am not letting the females of the species off the hook for their share of psychological and sometimes physical violence against spouses and of course children nor for their sometimes blood lust for war and authoritarian solutions of all kinds. Getting violence under control and working to educate us all will result in healthier human beings, unwilling to visit the violence they experienced on the next generation and so on down the chain of life. That would include our leaders as well.

        So one of the points of all this is that leaders and governments may be the main designers of the fears of the populace in the political world and those fears are aimed at men, women, racial minorities, immigrants, foreigners, dissenters, others and their relationships with one another and in that way influences our relations with one another. But human beings themselves, irrespective of their government, daily visit violence on those around them in order to instill fear, and women and children are an easy target for such violence. That violence has many causes but the damage it does should be by this time understood to be profoundly damaging to women, men, children–to all of us.

      • jonnybutter October 9, 2014 at 1:44 pm | #

        Mine was a prickly response, Theo, because the comment I was reacting to has almost nothing to do with the original post.

        And I found it irritating, too, because I have seen a bunch of this ‘lefty men have a rape problem’, ‘lefty men have a violence against women problem’, etc. online – particularly on twitter, which is the perfect medium for flinging poop because you can fling your slander and..oops, out of characters! Sorry! No time for rational discussion! It has a hashtag therefore it’s true!

        I don’t doubt for a second that some ‘lefty men’ – a very vague term, btw – do have a misogyny problem. But I think to pretend that the actual anglo-american left (such as it is) is, on a theoretical basis, no different in this respect than it was in 1968, is just willfully wrong.

        The comment was also irritating because its implication is that anyone who doesn’t have the same opinions about sexwork as the author is probably betraying their humanity, but at least their lefty-ism. The author chooses to ignore the many women who have
        differing opinions.

        I don’t like scolding authoritarianism, whoever it comes from.

  4. dcrawford October 8, 2014 at 6:46 am | #

    I’m still not sure quite what your point is here. I assume it’s that Steinem, like many others before, is using the politics of fear that you describe so eel in your book and articlel. In this case it is to encourage women to believe that they are very likely to be killed by a spouse or partner. (The comparison with US troop deaths is obviously meaningless, because the populations exposed to the risks are almost entirely distinct from each other). In practice, even in the US where violent death is very common, vastly more women will die in car accidents, accidents at home, medical malpractice, or heart attacks than violently at the hands of a partner. This is essentially the argument used by politicians forever: that the world is dangerous, that terrorists are out to get us, and that more and more laws are required to keep us safe, meanwhile neglecting both major preventable causes of danger (from suicide to bad diets) and also diverting attention away from policies (notably neoliberal ones) which can statistically be shown to have produced increased suffering, illness and death.

    • Theo October 9, 2014 at 1:13 pm | #

      About your point that vastly more women will die in car accidents, etc.: According to the same piece in which I read the $8 trillion figure, no, the greatest violence and death to women are from men, this is true in America and everywhere on earth.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant October 10, 2014 at 6:15 pm | #

      “I’m still not sure quite what your point is here.”

      Let me help you.

      Corey’s post is considering two forms of violence against innocent persons, domestic violence and political terrorism, and the social responses attending thereto. For each a case can be made that a species of political, social, and economic mobilization may be needed to organize actions to obtain the physical protection of such persons. That some mobilizations are considered and deployed and others are not is revealing as regards the existence of the political interests and of the social relations that are themselves organized and historically reproduced to pursue and sustain such interests.

      The diversion from the matter at hand by the strategic use of a deliberate category error by citing certain types and sources of bodily injury (bad diets, car accidents) when the discussion surrounds willfully acted violence (terrorism and domestic violence) is itself suspect in that it uses physical harm to confuse the categories referenced such that their collective marker is physical harm. Thus, it serves to obscure the reality that some types of physical harm are quite, and quite knowably, distinct from others. Is it really so hard to distinguish the nature of the violence of a car accident from the nature of the violence of rape or battery?

      What of this: “In this case it is to encourage women to believe that they are very likely to be killed by a spouse or partner.” I daresay that such encouragement is likely to seem reasonable if the safety of women is to take a back seat to the effort of getting them feel a little less nervous around persons of intimate (presumably romantic/sexual) familiarity. That passage reads more like a concern that access to women (or securing their cooperation in interpersonal relationships, again presumably romantic/sexual) will become increasingly difficult for heterosexual men if women – and anyone who cared about them – had to look out for women’s physical safety.

      I have read Corey’s book “Fear: The History of A Political Idea” when it first came out in hardback (I bought the hardback edition) and it is not immediately available to me ready at hand – but it is quite marked up due to my slow and close reading of it. Maybe he addresses it there (its been a while, so forgive my forgetfulness) but I will note here that another factor to consider is that what will dominate political interests’ attention in mobilizing political fear is hinted at in existing social relations at the moment such mobilization obtains.

      The refusal to protect African Americans from official (or even criminal) violence or the female portion of America from domestic/gender-based violence is reflective of the fissures pre-existing in American social relations. These populations can’t get protection because their vulnerability is hard-woven into our social fabric, so one cannot mobilize political fear of violence against THEM to ensure THEIR protection. Indeed, to do so is to invite the mobilization of the political fear that society is falling apart and that further mobilizations to continue the vulnerability of certain populations (and not others) will be deployed. To some (who may amongst themselves sustain diametrically opposed worldviews) the vulnerability of these populations to violence is what defines America. To some, it is this vulnerability to violence which must be protected and it will not do to officially mobilize any change that may disincline such violence.

      Hence, my only quibble with Randall Kennedy takes the form of my claim that anti-Black violence IS actually quite remarkable. This is because that violence is a structural feature of American social relations. This is what accounts for its historic persistence, and what accounts for reactionary projects to blunt any efforts at its melioration.

      Ultimately, anti-terrorism is not deployed to protect Americans from terroristic violence since such terrorism is a feature of the lives of many members of certain demographic constituencies within America: women, persons of color, LGBTQ, the poor. Real and/or manufactured political fear entirely notwithstanding, the truth is that anti-terrorism, in fact, DOES NOT EXIST IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The wars conducted abroad and the abrogation of rights at home, each undertaken in the name of anti-terrorism, indeed more than prove the point. The role of political fear is not, therefore, to mobilize for public safety. Its real purpose is the reproduction of social relations and the protection and advancement of certain entrenched socio-economic and political interests.

      In spite of governments’ official claims (and their media amplifications) and in terms of their actual current and historical policy practice, there is no such thing as “anti-terrorism”. Again: the mobilization of political fear entirely notwithstanding, its deployment strategically serves an entirely different purpose than anti-terrorism.

  5. Lynne October 8, 2014 at 11:45 am | #

    I’m just reading a book you might like (speaking of the politics of fear) by a friend of mine, Graeme MacQueen. It’s called The Anthrax Deception and it’s about the months following 9/11.

  6. Lynne October 8, 2014 at 12:04 pm | #

    As someone who has lived with domestic violence in a previous relationship, I am not surprised by this news, and I would love it if Gloria Steinem’s words were widely heard.

  7. delia ruhe October 8, 2014 at 1:34 pm | #

    I think it’s time for the second edition of Fear. Just look at all the interesting examples of it that have presented since Fear came out. It’s an excellent book, and I made good use of it in conference papers during Dubya’s administration.

    In a second edition, you could also work on making it sound a little less like a doctoral dissertation.

  8. gstally December 9, 2014 at 7:22 pm | #

    Dr. Robin,

    Like all emotions, fear is merely love in a peculiar context. As Epicurus says “[N]o joy is greater than the escape, let us say, from imminent shipwreck.”

    • gstally December 9, 2014 at 7:23 pm | #

      God is one after all, n’est pas?

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