I RECENTLY read Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century (2018). Despite only being a couple of years old,it is already in sore need of an update.
This is no criticism of the author. Even the most prophetic of writers would have struggled to predict the scale of the panic seen over the course of this year. Indeed, the book’s next edition will surely have a chapter dedicated to 2020 alone. Furedi’s thesis, that society is increasingly governed by a secularised, omnipresent sense of fear, is surely now all but impossible to refute.
Fear is a constant. Fear of the unknown – ultimately of our own mortality – has shaped every society. In the past, cultures transmogrified fear into a potential source of virtue, harnessing this unavoidable feeling and utilising it for the greater good. Bygone eras immortalised courageous acts that laughed in the face of fear and instilled in people the benefits of leading a moral life as a God-fearing Christian.
Today, we live in the most secure conditions ever achieved by mankind. You need not fear that toothache may lead to your untimely demise. Nobody in the UK fears the perils of unclean drinking water – a luxury even by modern standards. Yet perhaps counterintuitively, we are now more than ever a society governed by fear.
Every action is distorted through the prism of fear. Politicians are decried as peddling the politics of fear. What, in eras gone by, was merely a bad storm has become an extreme weather event. Every interaction has become a risk: stranger danger must be countered with the ubiquitous safe space. Every company is equipped with departments dedicated to risk management. Looking recently at a carpentry course, the first bullet point under ‘What you’ll learn’ is ‘health, safety and welfare’. Even for aspiring carpenters, woodwork has become secondary to the dominant cultural narrative of safetyism and fear.
Freedom from fear is sought in the warm embrace of safety. Yet this trade-off does little good in the long run. Fleeing from and endlessly analysing fears only makes us more keenly aware of the ubiquity of the dangers we face: life, after all, is a deadly affair. Rushing to manage all possible fears can only necessitate further rafts of measures as new, previously unknown or underappreciated fears are brought into focus.
Nor should we forget how fear can be weaponised for political ends. While living in China, it became apparent to me that ‘safety’ was used to justify every onerous government intervention and every restriction on one’s liberty. Across the country, every underground station has airport-style security. Asking a Chinese friend why this is, the answer was merely ‘anquan diyi!’ – ‘safety first!’ Asking why China has such stringent internet restrictions met with the same answer. This, at least in my mind, raised the question of whose safety, from what? Ill-defined fears can justify every kind of power grab.
Not that we are much better, of course. As a nation, we Brits only too readily imbibe safetyism. Apparently, one sixth of parents wish to prevent their children from returning to school due to fears over Covid-19: the threat of a virus that has not killed a single healthy child in the UK is apparently a greater concern than months of missed education. Those children who do make it back to school may be forced to wear masks, herded around and treated like carriers of plague.
As ceaseless months of Covid panic go by, it is all too clear how readily we have traded in our ancient, hard-won liberties to fear. To an extent this is not surprising. I have for a while suspected that the overreaction to this pandemic is the consequence of many in our society realising that they are, rather inconveniently, mortal. At the same time that our modern false idol, science, has proved wanting in its omnipotence, the unavoidable fear that the ancients tamed and made sense of through religion and the glory of self-sacrifice has very inconsiderately reasserted itself with gusto into a society which no longer has any immunity against it.
Perhaps this is understandable. In a world obsessed with the present moment and without religious convictions, in a world where fear is wholly without merit, cowering away from our fears and kicking that can down the road makes sense. After all, in the purposeless modern world, what good could come from doing otherwise? Consequently, death has become the great taboo of our time: something that happens to other people, but certainly not to us.
Fear is natural but it need not govern our lives. In a world only too keen to reject the wisdom of the past, we would do well to embrace the antidotes that soothed our forebears. Increasingly reduced to the state of passive victims of forces outside our control, we can find strength in the fact that overcoming fear is a proactive choice to be made. Fortune favours the brave, after all.
This is not a call to recklessness or to cavalier disregard of the manifold threats that exist in our everyday lives. Let us instead exercise prudence and wise judgement, and treat fear not as our master but as something to be tamed and given meaning through its subordination to things greater than ourselves.
We will all die. But for now, let us remember that we live. Let us do so unencumbered by fear.