HOW FEAR WORKS: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century
by Frank Furedi
Bloomsbury Continuum, Sydney
Hardcover: 320 pages
Reviewed by Margaret Somerville
I currently teach bioethics to medical students and in the past have also taught law students. A theme of the first class I give them is that as members of the professions they are entering they should try to learn to live comfortably with uncertainty if they are to avoid errors, including ethical errors, especially errors of judgement.
Psychologists tell us that uncertainty is a very difficult mental state to experience because it means that we cannot be certain what coping mechanisms we need to use, which can leave us feeling unable to cope.
Living comfortably with uncertainty is the polar opposite of uncertainty eliciting fear. The latter causes problems because people who are frightened by uncertainty tend to convert unavoidable uncertainty into a false certainty – they are certain, but they are wrong – and that in turn leads to mistakes, including ethical ones.
How Fear Works is not difficult to read, in fact it’s very engaging, but it covers complex topics and multiple disciplines and Professor Frank Furedi articulates many important insights. People, such as myself, with an interest in post-1960s changes in the societal zeitgeist, especially changes in shared values, will find these insights fascinating and useful – an unusual combination.
The content of the book is so rich and varied that I cannot do justice to it in a short review. That said, an excellent summary of How Fear Works can be found on the inside flap of the dust cover. Here’s what it says:
“In How Fear Works, Furedi seeks to explain two interrelated themes: why has fear acquired such a morally commanding status in society today; and how has the way we fear today changed from the way that it was experienced in the past?
“Furedi argues that one of the main drivers of the culture of fear is the unravelling of moral authority. Fear appears to provide a provisional solution to moral uncertainty and is for that reason embraced by a variety of interests, parties and individuals. Furedi predicts that, until society finds a more positive orientation towards uncertainty, the politicisation of fear will flourish.
“Society is continually bombarded with the message that the threats it faces are incalculable and cannot be managed or contained. The ascendancy of this outlook has been paralleled by the cultivation of helplessness and passivity – all this has heightened people’s sense of powerlessness and anxiety. As a consequence, we are constantly searching for new forms of security, both physical and ontological.
“What are the drivers of fear, what is the role of the media in its promotion, and who actually benefits from this culture of fear? These are some of the issues Furedi tackles to explain the current predicament. He believes that, through understanding how fear works, we can encourage attitudes that will help bring about a less fearful future.”
To the extent that, instead of protecting us, excessively high levels of fear are seriously harming us as individuals, communities and societies an understanding of how fear works is to be intensely desired.
How Fear Works contains so many important observations and insights that it is not possible to refer to them all. One needs to read the book. But here is a random, non-comprehensive assortment of some of the messages to be found in this book:
What we fear matters to how we live our lives. For example, people used to fear judgement after death, but now they fear suffering while dying. Legalising physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia can be seen as a response to this the latter fear.
Euthanasia can be characterised as a “terror management device” or “terror reduction mechanism”. Deep fear elicits free floating anxiety which the person seeks to control, often in postmodern societies with a technological solution. Death elicits the “most primal fear”. Euthanasia converts the mystery of death to the problem of death and presents a lethal injection as the technological solution to that problem.
Furedi sees the breakdown of authority as a cause of fear because it causes people to feel that they have no powerful trusted protector. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s research finding that Millennials reject authority (Haidt, The Righteous Mind) and, consequently, might be more fearful than previous generations.
Few people have any scepticism regarding scientific pronouncements and, says Furedi, it can be in the interests of scientists, governments and policymakers in gaining public support for their work or interventions to emphasise risks and thereby engender fear. Furedi notes that science has replaced God as the ultimate authority at the societal level. So, if science doesn’t support a belief, that belief is treated as irrelevant. This is consistent with the secularist attitude that religion is a purely personal matter and has no place in the public square.
Furedi correctly identifies the powerful impact of the phenomenon of the medicalisation of decision-making in 21st-century societies, including in relation to public and social policy decision-making. For example, the same-sex marriage debate in Australia became a question of protecting the mental health of LGBTQI+ people and preventing psychological harm to them, especially so as to diminish their risk of suicide. Furedi argues that such medicalisation results in medicine replacing morals and physicians replacing priests as sources of authority.
It logically follows from the above two points that postmodern sin is failure to follow the dictates of medicine and science.
Words matter: the media use language to create and sustain fear. It benefits them by attracting viewers and readers.
At a macro or societal level, our attitude to risk has changed from risk as a possibility to risk as a probability, and this heightened perceived level of risk is a source of the increase in fear in society in general. For instance, although postmodern Western democratic societies have much lower levels of crime than in the past, many people believe the contrary.
Furedi suggests that parents are overprotective of their children – “helicopter parents” – because they overestimate risks and are not willing to let their children engage in any activity the parents see as risky, to the serious detriment of their children’s development. . Over-protected children do not have opportunities to develop resilience or to learn to deal with failure, Furedi explains.
Furedi proposes that, because we can’t agree on what the risks are, we can’t agree on the values that should take priority when not all values can be honoured.
But we can’t even agree on what legitimately constitutes a value. For example, Furedi writes about “the significance of a crucial development in the moral outlook of society – the transformation of safety into the fundamental value … [This was] paralleled by the dramatic demotion of the status of personhood. Since the late 1970s, pessimistic cultural attitudes towards the capacity of people to deal with adversity have become the norm. Everyday language reflects the shift through the regular use of terms such as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘at risk’ to describe people.
“The corollary of this emphasis on the emotional fragility and powerlessness of individuals is the constant inflation of the range of experiences defined as risky. The definition of harm and of its impact has also expanded to encompass experiences that in previous times were regarded as unexceptional and normal. Drinking water from a tap, or eating a large cheeseburger, are now targets of health alerts. In fact virtually anything that you eat has been associated with cancer! A study of 50 common ingredients, taken randomly from a cookbook, found that 40 of them were the subject of articles, reporting on their cancer risks.” (p7)
As can be seen from the above examples, Furedi identifies a broad and rich spectrum of examples, from individuals making decisions about their children to dealing with environmental threats and climate change, that show that we now have more difficulty dealing with uncertainty than past generations had; and, as noted, uncertainty is a cause of fear.
Paradoxically, our increase in uncertainty results from the immensely increased spectrum of knowledge provided by our explorations of vast outer space with astrophysics and deep space research, and of vast inner space with genetics and molecular biology. We have exponentially expanded our perception of the unknown – we now know so much more than we knew in the past that we know that we know hardly anything. But, instead of viewing the unknown with amazement, wonder and awe, we look at it with great fear.
Furedi advises: “The most effective way of countering the perspective of fear is through acquainting society with values that offer people the meaning and hope they need to effectively engage with uncertainty. The problem … is not fear as such but society’s difficulty in cultivating values that can guide it to manage uncertainty and the threats it faces.” (p259)
Renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last words were Noli timere – “Be not afraid”. Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright commented on these same words:
“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think – ‘Be Good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t Sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid’.”
How Fear Works is an important book and a thoughtful reading will richly reward those who undertake it. Don’t be afraid to explore it!
Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney and was the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.