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How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century   
by Frank Furedi   
London; Bloomsbury, 2018, 306 pages    

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 judgment.

Psychologists tell us that uncertainty is a very difficult mental state because it means that we cannot be certain which coping mechanisms we need to employ and that can leave us not using any and 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. It covers complex topics and multiple disciplines. People such as myself with an interest in post-1960s changes in the societal Zeitgeist, especially changes in shared values, will find the author’s insights fascinating and useful – an unusual combination.

Frank Furedi is a retired sociologist and social commentator who often features in the British media. The content of this 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 that 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 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.”

Instead of protecting us, excessively high levels of fear are seriously harming us as individuals, communities and societies. “A less fearful future” is to be intensely desired.

How Fear Works contains many important observations and insights. Here is a random, non-comprehensive assortment of some of its messages:

  • What we fear matters to how we live our lives.  For example, people used to fear judgment by God after death, but now they fear suffering while dying. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia can be seen as a response to this fear. 

    Euthanasia can be characterized as a “terror management device” or “terror reduction mechanism”. Deep fear elicits free floating anxiety which the person seeks to control, often in post-modern societies with a technological solution. To use such a solution we need to find a focus for our fear. Death elicits, as Furedi says, 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 they have no powerful trusted protector. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt’s research in The Righteous Mind that millennials reject authority and, consequently, might be more fearful than previous generations.
  • There is little scepticism among many people regarding scientific pronouncements. Furedi observes that it can be in the interests of scientists, governments and policy-makers in gaining public support to emphasise risks and 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, it is treated as irrelevant. This is consistent with the secularist attitude that religion is a purely personal private matter and has no place in the public square.

  • Furedi correctly identifies the powerful impact of the phenomenon of the medicalization 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, especially diminishing the risk of suicide. Furedi argues such medicalization results in medicine replacing morals and physicians replacing priests as sources of authority.
  • It follows from the above two points that the post-modern 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. This is a source of the increase in fear in society. For instance, although post-modern 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 over-estimate risks. They are not willing to let their children engage in any activity they see as risky — to the serious detriment of their children’s development. Over-protected children miss opportunities to develop resilience to adversity or to learn to deal with failure.
  • 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.”

* * * * * * *

Paradoxically, our increase in uncertainty results from the immensely increased range 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; we even 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 that “[t]he 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.”

The renowned Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s last words were Noli timere, “Be not afraid”. Anglican Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright commented on these 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 be richly rewarding. Don’t be afraid to explore it!

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Margaret Somerville

Margaret Somerville is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor Emerita in the Faculty...