315 Culture of Fear

One of the more amazing contemporary phenomena—despite our very evident safety and comfort —is the pervasive insecurity and fragility identifiable in various segments of the West.  As the Norwegian philosopher, Lars Svendsen, says:  “a paradoxical trait of the culture of fear is that it emerges at a time when, by all accounts, we are living more securely than ever before in human history.”  Aware of this, Pope John Paul II frequently encouraged believers to “fear not”—for that biblical phrase, reiterated by the angels announcing Jesus’s coming, indicates the importance of courage in the Christian tradition.  (Indeed, some 365 times the Bible says “be not afraid!”)  But with the waning of Christendom courage seems similarly sidelined.  Thus Alexander Solzhenitsyn said (in his 1978 Harvard Commencement Address):  “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature that an outside observer notices in the West today.  The Western world has lost its civic courage. . . .”  Prophetically, he warned:  “Must one point out that from ancient times a decline in courage has been considered the first symptom of the end?” 

Courage, traditionally understood, enables one to conquer his fears, and most of us admire it—at least in theory.  “But in everyday practice,” Frank Ferudi says in How Fear Works, “we have become estranged from this ideal and do very little to cultivate it.”  It has frequently, in fact, been “downsized” and even extended to assorted self-help endeavors!  Rather than a moral virtue best evident on the field of battle, it has turned into a therapeutic suggestion.  Thus we commend the “courage” of suffering poor health or recovering from romantic distress or speaking in public.  “The classical virtue of courage rooted it within moral norms that emphasized responsibility, altruism and wisdom.  The twenty-first-century therapeutic version is not based on an unshakable normative foundation; it has become disassociated from moral norms and is adopted instrumentally as a medium for achieving wellness” (#3040).

This cultural shift is generally justified by the necessity of “worst-case thinking” and the “Precautionary Principle,” a philosophical rationale “systematically outlined in the works of the German philosopher Hans Jonas, whose influential 1979 text The Imperative of Responsibility advocated the instrumental use of fear—what he calls the ‘heuristic of fear’—to promote the public’s acceptance of a dreadful view of the future.  Jonas offers what he perceives to be an ethical justification for promoting fear, which is that through its application, this emotion ought to be used to avoid humankind’s infliction of an ecological catastrophe on the planet” (#2749).  Jonas propounded “a teleology of doom based on the premise that modern technology threatens the world with an imminent threat of disaster” (#2756).  Among the intelligentsia he is “something of a philosophical saint” revered for his ecological sensitivities.  However, Furedi warns:  “his promotion of the principle of fear, his elitist contempt for people, and his advocacy of deception and tyranny, are rarely held to account” (#2798).

Inasmuch as courage is rooted in moral convictions, the increased fear in our society indicates a loss of moral certitude.  This phenomenon was diagnosed by Frank Ferudi in his 2016 work, What’s Happened to the University:  A Sociological Exploration of Its Infantilisation.  The author began his academic life as a student in 1965 and is now Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in the UK.  In his own student days universities were open to new ideas and touted the virtues of free speech and debating ideas.  As the decades passed, however, they became “far less hospitable to the ideals of freedom, tolerance and debate than in the world outside the university gate.”  They became fearful!   Students now seek to ban books that threaten their vulnerable psyches and protest speakers who might offend a spectrum of sexual and ethnic groups.  The free speech mantras of the ‘60s have morphed into speech codes; the former devotees of free speech have frequently become, as tenured professors, enforcers of censorship.  Many teachers forego the use of red pens to mark papers lest they damage fragile students’ egos, and    “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” “microagressions” and “chill out rooms” (replete with play dough and “comfort” animals to relieve anxieties) indicate how many universities have in fact become infantilized.

Two decades ago Ferudi published Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations, arguing that moral confusion had hollowed out Western culture, making persons both increasingly less able to deal with risk and uncertainty and less positive about human nature and man’s ability to aspire and adventure.  Now he has revisited the subject in How Fear Works:  Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century (London:  Bloomsbury Publishing, c. 2018; Kindle Edition).   To illustrate his thesis Ferudi notes:  “Even an activity as banal as forecasting the weather has been transformed into a mini-drama through adopting a rhetoric that inflates the threat posed by relatively normal conditions.  Routine occurrences like storms, heavy snowfall or high temperature have been rebranded as extreme weather by the media.”  Indeed:  “The term ‘extreme weather’ is a paradigmatic culture of fear expression” and is, strangely enough,  “often interpreted through a moralistic narrative that presents it as the inevitable outcome of irresponsible human behaviour” (#338).  Summing up his study, he says “society has unwittingly become estranged from the values—such as courage, judgement, reasoning, responsibility—that are necessary for the management of fear” (#580).

In the past, many of our fears were restrained by religious faith, the confidence that some things were eternally true and worth risking—or even giving—one’s life to secure.  “Religion has always been interwoven with guidelines about what and what not to fear. Secular fear appeals concerning health, the environment, food or terrorism continue this tradition and are also often conveyed through a moral tone.  However, in the absence of a master-narrative that endows the unknown and the threat it poses with shared meaning, people’s response to threats has acquired an increasingly confusing and arbitrary character” (#1875).  Thus as we enter the 21st century “a pessimistic teleology of doom pervades the public deliberations on this subject” (#1202).  Every hurricane elicits warnings regarding climate change—as do arctic cold fronts, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes!  No solid evidence or logical analysis is required to stoke the fears of folks immersed in our media world.  Think for a moment about the current Socialist superstar in Congress, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who solemnly says we only have 12 years to save the planet!  Such somber predictions of environmental collapse (following the pattern cut out by Rachel Carson 50 years ago in Silent Spring) are often accompanied by warnings of a global demographic time bomb (confidently decried by Paul Ehrlich in his now thoroughly discredited Population Bomb). 

Consider the outlandish rhetoric of many social justice warriors!  Former President Jimmy Carter, for example, recently published a book entitled A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power and grandly declared that right now (today!) slavery is “a ‘serious problem in the US’” and is even “‘more prolific now than during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.’”  It is, however, invisible!  Somehow Carter just knows it’s there, unseen and insidious.  “Like the hidden toxins ‘playing their tricks’ . . . modern slavery is not visible to the eye.  Typically, its hidden victims are said to be invisible and, therefore, the number of cases that have been actually detected are only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’”  To the former president “the transatlantic slave trade, which was responsible for the brutal enslavement of 12 to 15 million Africans, is merely a less prolific version of the ‘modern’ variety of the twenty-first century” (#1932).   This mantra is also recited by Jeff Nesbit, a former White House communications director, who said:  “‘No one knows the numbers.  That’s what’s so scary!’” (#1940).  To which Furedi retorts:  what’s scary is the fact that highly influential men such as Carter and Nesbit knowingly spread baseless falsehoods!

Then we’re fed alarming reports of rampant obesity and of children facing a barrage of threats to their well being.   “In most Western societies, the population is healthier and lives longer than in previous times.  The latest generation of young people is likely to live 20 years longer than their grandparents.  Yet there has never been so much propaganda warning the public about yet another danger to its health” (#1736).  It’s apparently even risky to drink tap water!  “There was a time when people did not walk around holding different brands of bottled water in their hands; they drank tap water unless they lived in areas where tap water was considered to be unsafe, in which case water was boiled.”  But we now see people everywhere “clutching their bottles of water,” gripped by fears of contaminants of some sort.  “In 2016, bottled-water consumption in the US reached 39.3 gallons per person.”  This is done despite the fact “that the fears directed at tap water are not based on an objective evaluation of the risks of drinking it.  From a health perspective, the consumption of bottled water makes little sense.  Unfortunately, the sensible message that tap water is in most places safe to drink and that paying for the bottled variety is unnecessary is often distorted through a narrative of fear.  Instead of merely stating ‘Let’s get real and drink tap water’, opponents of the bottled-water fad frame their argument through the perspective of fear.

As one might expect from a sociologist, Furedi is most helpful when compiling data and describing problems.  He clearly demonstrates the pervasive fears stalking contemporary society.  And he clearly shows how the lack of courage contributes to their currency.  But while he recognizes the need for the moral virtues, courage included, he fails to acknowledge the necessarily deeper philosophical or theological foundations necessary to establish courageous persons. 

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In The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York:  Penguin Publishing Group, c. 2018; Kindle Edition), Greg Lukinoff and Jonathan Haidt stress the harm done children by teachers and parents excessively fearful for their safety.  The authors had become increasingly distressed by the onerous “speech codes” hindering free thought and expression on university campuses.  “Something began changing on many campuses around 2013, and the idea that college students should not be exposed to ‘offensive’ ideas is now a majority position on campus” (p. 48).  The “rationale for speech codes and speaker disinvitations,” once limited to racist or sexist declarations, “was becoming medicalized:  Students claimed that certain kinds of speech—and even the content of some books and courses—interfered with their ability to function.  They wanted protection from material that they believed could jeopardize their mental health by ‘triggering’ them, or making them ‘feel unsafe’” (p. 6).  To address their concerns Lukinoff and Haidt first wrote a widely-discussed article for The Atlantic Monthly and then, subsequently, this book to unmask three fashionably propagated “Great Untruths”:  1) “The Untruth of Fragility”—the notion that stress or discomfort harms you; 2) “The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning”—the injunction to disavow reason and “always trust your feelings; and, 3) “The Untruth of Us Versus Them”—the warning that evil people continually seek to damage you.  Consequently the authors say:  “We will show how these three Great Untruths—and the policies and political movements that draw on them—are causing problems for young people, universities, and, more generally, liberal democracies” (p. 4). 

To illustrate the falsity of fragility, Lukinoff and Haidt point out how parents trying to protect their youngsters from peanut allergies actually endanger them by prohibiting children’s powerful immune system from properly developing.  A careful study revealed:  “Among the children who had been ‘protected’ from peanuts, 17% had developed a peanut allergy.  In the group that had been deliberately exposed to peanut products, only 3% had developed an allergy.  As one of the researchers said in an interview, ‘For decades allergists have been recommending that young infants avoid consuming allergenic foods such as peanut to prevent food allergies.  Our findings suggest that this advice was incorrect and may have contributed to the rise in the peanut and other food allergies’” (p. 21).  Indeed, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:  “Just as spending a month in bed . . . leads to muscle atrophy, complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.  Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions . . . which do precisely this:  an insult to the antifragility of systems.  This is the tragedy of modernity:  as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most’” (p. 23). 

That human beings—homo sapiens—should renounce reason and trust their feelings is similarly untrue.  Though pop psychologists and media personalities may urge it, trusting your feelings flagrantly contradicts “much ancient wisdom.”  Whether pondering Epictetus or Buddha or Shakespeare or Milton, the best philosophers have inisted we think rather than feel.  Consult, for example, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, once one of the basic texts for the liberal arts, wherein he praises “Lady Philosophy,” who “chides him gently for his moping, fearfulness, and bitterness at his reversal of fortune” before helping  “him to reframe his thinking and shut off his negative emotions.  She helps him see that fortune is fickle and he should be grateful that he enjoyed it for so long.  She guides him to reflect on the fact that his wife, children, and father are all still alive and well, and each one is dearer to him than his own life.  Each exercise helps him see his situation in a new light; each one weakens the grip of his emotions and prepares him to accept Lady Philosophy’s ultimate lesson:  ‘Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it’” (p. 35).  Wise words for all ages!

The “us vs. them” untruth has gained currency to a large degree because of identity politics.  When race becomes the key to your identity you easily suspect racism in anyone who differs from you.  When sex defines you, you easily accuse others of sexism when you feel dissatisfied.  A widely-discussed incident at Yale illustrated this.  Erika Christakis, a lecturer at the Yale Child Study Center responded to an administrative edict regarding Halloween costumes.  She approved concerns for “avoiding hurt and offense,” but “she worried that ‘the growing tendency to cultivate vulnerability in students carries unacknowledged costs.’”  Rather than issue behavioral rules, she suggested:  “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society’” (p. 57).  Her rather mild email aroused angry students who protested and denounced her for racial insensitivity.  The university president sided with the aggrieved students, and in time Erika resigned from her position.  So goes “academic freedom” in modern America!

As was evident at Yale, intimidation and violence are manifestations of the coddling of the American mind!  Defining speech they find objectionable as “hate” speech, it is easy to then insist it is a form of violence.  And in response to violence self-defense is justified.  So conservative speakers on university campuses are not only shouted down but physically attacked.  Witch-hunts are employed to root out dissenters on campus.  When a liberal mathematics professor at Evergreen College refused to approve a campus shutdown to show solidarity with people of color, students demanded he be fired.  Successfully intimidating the college president, “students chanted, ‘Hey hey/ho ho/these racist faculty have got to go’’ (p. 117).   “President Bridges, who at the beginning of the school year had criticized the University of Chicago for its policy protecting free speech and academic freedom, agreed to many of the protesters’ demands.  He announced that he was ‘grateful’ for the ‘passion and courage’ the protesters displayed, and later, he hired one of the leaders of the protests to join his Presidential Equity Advisors” (p. 119).  Most everything that’s wrong with the modern university stands starkly revealed at Evergreen College!

Having described the “coddling of the American mind,” the authors turn to explaining how it came to be and set forth “six interacting explanatory threads,” beginning with “rising political polarization and cross-party animosity.”  Political positions no longer reflect a positive agenda, rooted in traditional and reflection; rather they are too often fueled by angry disdain for perceived enemies.  Secondly, they point out the importance of “rising levels of teen anxiety and depression.”  An alarming, and very recent, increase in teenage depression and suicide clearly constrict the passage from adolescence to adulthood.  Data recently collected from 139 colleges indicate that “half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns” (p. 156).  Importantly, some persuasive studies especially stress the negative role electronic devices play in the lives of our young. 

Thirdly, “changes in parenting practices” or “paranoid parenting” clearly contribute to the malady.  The “permissive parenting” associated with Dr. Spock has morphed into the “intensive parenting” now dominant.  Responding to perceived threats to their children—such as being abducted by strangers, something that happens less than 100 times a year—parents overreact.  Though seat belts and bicycle helmets have certainly made children’s live safer, “efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience—such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors—are different.  Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment” (p. 169).  Fourthly, there has been a “decline of free play,” something absolutely necessary for childhood development.  A child’s brain needs “thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop.  Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults” (p. 183).  Unfortunately, school children are less likely to have physical education classes or recess.  And rather than learning to play ball with neighborhood kids—and to choose teams and referee the game—kids are shoved into organized leagues with uniforms and trophies and assorted adult paraphernalia irrelevant to healthy personal development. 

Fifthly, once in the university students face a burgeoning “campus bureaucracy” devoted to insuring their comfort and security.  Thus we find the president of Louisiana State University declaring:  “‘Quite frankly, I don’t want you to leave the campus ever.  So whatever we need to do to keep you here, we’ll keep you safe here.  We’re here to give you everything you need’” (p. 199).  Such protective “safetyism” increasingly extends to emotional as well as physical well-being.  Students must be shielded from “microaggressions,” given “trigger warnings” when scary subjects are be breached, and supplied with “safe spaces” suitable for children.  Finally, students are immersed in “a rising passion for justice in response to major national events, combined with changing ideas about what justice requires” (p. 125).   They then become “social justice warriors” determined to eliminate inequalities and inequities wherever possible.  Little concerned with distributive or procedural notions of justice, they are increasingly devoted to “equal-outcomes social justice,” even if they trample on important concepts such as “innocent until proved guilty.” Concluding their treatise with a section titled “wising up,” Lukinoff and Haidt first proffer advice for parents who want to rear “wiser, stronger, and antifragile” kids who will become self-reliant adults.  Giving them lots of time for “free play,” encouraging them to walk or bike to school, placing limits on the time they spend with electronic devices, including television, are important aspects of their prescription.  And for “wiser” universities they urge a return to the vigorous pursuit of truth once considered essential for liberal arts education.   Rather than promoting “social justice,” universities should urge persons to freely think and speak, embracing Benjamin Franklin’s commitment to founding the University of Pennsylvania:  “‘Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of a state: much more so than riches or arms, which, under the management of Ignorance and Wickedness, often draw on destruction, instead of providing for the safety of a people’” (p. 269).