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One tenet of management theory that I learned many years ago is that people are motivated in differing degrees by either praise or fear depending on their basic psychology. And while we all prefer both giving and receiving praise, fear often plays a beneficial role in improving performance – as long as people have an honest understanding of what negative consequences are possible and what they need to do to avoid them. Fear can also lead people to do incredibly stupid things when the threat is not well understood and when there is no rational way to respond effectively.

For example, in Sunday’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch there was a story about how the town of Waterloo is collecting unused prescription drugs in order to prevent people from flushing them into the water supply where they pose a growing environmental hazard that threatens aquatic life and, potentially, humans. Folks in Waterloo are justifiably frightened about verifiable, destructive consequences of flushing pharmaceuticals like valium, vicodin, percocet, etc. down the toilet, and they have taken sensible steps to do something about it.

Leonard Pitts also wrote about the motivating power of fear in the same issue of the Post-Dispatch. But the situation that he described was a far cry from the rational response to a proven hazard that the citizens of Waterloo have demonstrated.

Discussing some of the more questionable statements that Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer has made about criminal behavior on the part of undocumented immigrants – they are, according to Brewer, almost all drug mules, and many are regularly beheading defenseless Arizonans – he pointed out her total unwillingness or inability back up her claims with facts and figures:

… note the lack of proof. The statement is quantifiable, yet the governor doesn’t bother to quantify.

But then, you only quantify for the benefit of the head. You toss the raw, red meat of emotion for the benefit of the heart. In this case, the emotions being appealed to could hardly be clearer: nativism, xenophobia, and that old standby, fear. And they don’t ask any questions.

In this case, we have an elected official who is willing to whip up the fear of her constituents for what we can only assume are political reasons. It is, though, easy to understand Brewer’s decision not to fight the nativist surge, but to go along for the ride. Telling people the truth has little effect when the problem lies deeper than the wild stories used to justify rash actions.

Just consider the trump card that many of those worried abut undocumented immigrants almost always pull out when stories like Brewer’s are exposed as unfounded: “what part of illegal don’t you understand.”  Annoying, sure, but also a desperate gambit on the part of folks who really do understand that the debate actually involves questioning the legal status quo, and rejecting or confirming it, rather than invoking it. But they just can’t give it up.

Consider, for instance, red light cameras, about which many, usually conservative, Missourians make serious if flawed arguments about how the status quo, in this case a camera that photographs cars that are illegally in intersections during red lights, does not meet social needs or even constitutional requirements. They would rightly respond with exasperation to “what part of illegal don’t you understand” as the final justification for the cameras.  

So if people aren’t really as dumb as they pretend,  why can’t we get beyond exaggerated or false claims about the dangers posed by undocumented immigrants, and put aside red herrings abut what is legal or not legal now? Reuben Navarrette may be on to something when he observes:

… what’s the real reason so many Americans are increasingly anxious about immigration and want to cut back on it? It’s all about changing demographics. Folks in the South have experienced in the last 10 years what those of us in the West experienced a generation or two ago. They see immigrants changing their surroundings and impacting the culture and it scares the daylights out of them.