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The Only Thing We Have to Fear

By: Frank Furedi
August 27, 2018

nyone who lived through the Cold War knows that fear constituted an important dimension of everyday life. That era’s experiences were, however, less intrusive and more comprehensible than the constant state of anxiety afflicting society today. Fear seems to have become detached from its relation to a specific threat as even the most quotidian aspects of life—dieting, childrearing, the testing of students, bullying, on-line browsing—come with a health warning. The emergence of catchphrases such as the “culture of fear,” the “politics of fear,” “fear factor,” “project fear,” or the “fear of the future” imply that fear lurks constantly in the background, ready to prey on its victims. The quest for a safe space is one novel, if unhelpful response to what has become the fear of fearing.

Some blame media manipulation or organized fear promotion for the prevailing culture of fear. Others insist that the world has become a far more dangerous place due to the emergence of such incalculable risks as climate change, terrorism, or “superbugs” impervious to antibiotics. Alarmist stories of future catastrophes have existed since the beginning of time. But something has changed: western societies find it difficult to process these fears through the medium of a moral imagination.

To be afraid is not simply a psychological response to an objective threat, but also a moral attainment. Ideas about fear are formulated through a grammar of morality. What we fear and how we fear are guided by a prevailing moral code. When in the Bible Jesus says, “Fear not: believe only,” the act of faith is offered as the medium for engaging with a threat. For the Greeks, moral virtues such as courage and prudence served as an antidote to fear. In modern secular times, belief in an ideology or science framed the moral imagination.

Communities throughout history have protected themselves from the threats they faced through the stories and guidance provided by their moral codes. Indeed, fear has always served as one of morality’s cornerstones. Whether or not people felt secure was influenced by their relationship with the prevailing sense of meaning. In many cultures, belief in the immortality of the soul helped people come to terms with their fear of death. Ancient Greek schools of thought—Epicureans, Skeptics and Stoics—developed philosophies that rejected the fear of death as irrational. Human societies sought to construct a web of meaning through which people made sense of the world and developed a capacity to make sense of the threats they faced.

Contemporary society, “non-judgemental” and morally uncertain, lacks conceptions of virtue that can serve to interpret and allay fear. Instead, people are expected to rely on non-moral resources—psychology, therapy, expertise—to guide their response to the threats they face. Though experts can provide therapies and guidance, they cannot offer the moral clarity necessary for engaging the challenges confronting society. Science can render the experience of fearing comprehensible but struggles to make it meaningful.

When fear becomes separated from a system of meaning it becomes disorienting. The volatility of fear today is well captured by the term “raw fear.” Uncoupled from a moral grammar of meaning, raw fear has an arbitrary, free-floating, anxiety-inducing character. Moral confusion and the weak consensus about right and wrong, both sustain and reproduce raw fear.

One of the most important drivers of the Culture of Fear is a lack of consensus and clarity about how to understand and respond to threats. The erosion of a society-wide moral understanding is manifested in the Culture Wars. Such basic questions as the meaning of family, marriage, and sexual identity are deeply contentious. Major differences exist on whether patriotism is a virtue or an outdated prejudice. Ultimately, the question of right and wrong has become a focus of debate. This weakness of our shared values contributes to the creation of an atmosphere of ambiguity and doubt. Not surprisingly, the absence of a solid consensus on moral issues deprives people of the guidelines they need to deal with threats. In such circumstances, confronting the uncertainties of life appears increasingly risky, intimidating, and bewildering.

Life in an uncertain world is hard. Fear of the unknown has traditionally been mitigated by a system of meaning that provided people with guidance and reassurance. Through their systems of meaning, communities develop customs, practices, and attitudes towards engaging with the unknown. But in the absence of a robust system of meaning, fear itself becomes an ominous, ever-present reality, rendering the activity of fearing volatile and directionless. One threat begets another, only to be supplanted by some newly discovered source of fear. Ominous claims that the scourge of obesity is even a bigger threat than terrorism compete with the threat stereotypes thin models pose to teenage girls’ body image. Young people can fear being fat or fear starving themselves to look thin. The proliferation of competing advice on health, dieting, parenting, alcohol consumption, and risk-taking renders the fear response volatile and unstable. In many instances, fear becomes decoupled from its original concern and effortlessly attaches itself to a very different issue.

An absence of a consensus on moral issues has profound consequences for the way that communities interpret and respond to the threats they face. This is one of the most important drivers of the culture of fear.

Demoralizing Fear

Despite the weakening of shared values, society needs to find a medium through which it can manage people’s fear and provide guidelines for dealing with threats. In recent decades the relationship between fear and moral norms has become rationalized through the institution of risk management. Risk is frequently recast as a quasi-moral norm that must guide the human response to uncertainty. In the past, risk related to the domain of probable outcomes—the term “risky” carries the connotation of danger and evil. Risk management demands that individuals and communities subject themselves to its core value, safety.

Risk-management, and its celebration of safety, offers itself as non-moral and value-free. From this perspective the response to fear ceases to be a moral issue and instead becomes a psychological one.

During the 1920s America began a gradual shift from a moral orientation toward fear to a psychological one. This development was paralleled by new diagnosis of fear. Increasingly, the interpretation of fear was cast in the language of psychology rather than morality. And it was only a matter of time before fear was diagnosed as a health problem, a threat to psychological wellbeing.

Many of the distinctive features of the 21st-century culture of fear can be understood as results of trends that gained momentum in the era between the two World Wars. The shift from the moral to a psychological interpretation of fear also altered cultural norms regarding how individuals were expected to deal with their fears. Previous rules of feeling, which provided people with religious or philosophical guidelines about how and what to fear, helped endow the experience with meaning. The new psychologically informed rules of fear that emerged in the interwar era treated this emotion as a meaningless and debilitating.

Though the medicalization of fear proclaims its neutrality regarding moral norms it often uses the rhetoric of science to convey its own values. Value judgments once conveyed in moral terms are often expressed, instead, in the apparently neutral language of health. The statement that smoking is bad for your health frequently serves as a prelude to condemning a smoker as a bad person. Similarly, expositions of the health risks of junk food are often connected to denunciations of “bad parents” who feed their children an unwholesome diet. The health problems associated with obesity can become pretexts for implicitly questioning the moral worth of the unhealthy people responsible for their weight problem.

The displacement of the moral by the narrative of health for making judgements of value is most striking in the domain of sex. The widely used term, sexual health, recategorizes a domain of human life that was for thousands of years, a central focus of moral concern and regulation. Instead of applying concepts of good and bad or right and wrong to the sphere of sex, this medicalised concept uses the language of health. Instead of judging sexual behaviour as such, it focuses its criticism on what it terms as “risky” sex. Fears about sexual behaviour have become medicalized and de-moralized.

Though fear is no longer accepted by many as the foundation for morality, it still plays an important role in moralizing the problems of everyday life. Thus, the disassociation of fearing from the grammar of morality has not reduced the significance of this cultural force in public life. To the contrary: in the absence of a script offering a perspective on how to fear, fear itself has become a perspective through which life is interpreted. Its emergence as a perspective is one of the most important features of the contemporary fear culture.

As a perspective, fear is not merely a response to a threat but a viewpoint or disposition towards the world in general. It often sets the tone for deliberations about high-profile existential global threats—such as flu pandemics, global warming, or terrorism. But this perspective plays a more significant role in influencing ordinary forms of personal behavior. The performance of fear played out on American campuses is paradigmatic in this respect. The representation of triggering novels and traumatizing words as threats to students’ well-being, evokes a world where fear has enveloped the collegiate experience. That a leafy campus, one of the safest places in society, has turned into a laboratory for fear-mongering serves as testimony to the corrosive impact of the raw, morally unmediated fears of our time. The ritualistic invocation of “Safe Spaces” evokes a world where young people struggle to find meaning. In such circumstances, even the most banal or routine features of life can turn into a potential target of fear.