On Fear

„One cannot capitalise on the opportunities provided by democracy in that chronic state of fear that believes that liberty is a threat to the national cause. To be a democrat means first and foremost not to be afraid: from those with different opinion, language or race, from revolution or conspiracy, from the evil intentions of the enemy, from enemy propaganda, not to fear from being disparaged, and all the other imaginary dangers that become real exactly because we start fearing them.” (István Bibó)

It is probably not necessary to recount of the role of induced fear in the marketing of any government measure. The usual suspects are terrorism, crime or pedophilia, but one should keep an eye on existential fear (from loss of economic standing) as well, since it serves the very same function.

All that is Fear

Fear should be discussed in all its incarnations, such as worry, anxiety, terror, and uncertainty of the future.

During a recession, for instance, the number of things out of our control appears to grow. It induces a sense of uncertainty and helplessness. The gradual loss of economic standing (status anxiety) leads to an ever increasing level of anxiety about the future. Aversion of further losses undermines innovation, risk-taking and thus progress. Survival-mentality takes over and stifles risk-taking and the desire to grow. This can further undermine the economy by focusing on stagnation and preservation.

If this cycle can be artificially induced, the results are the same: there will be reasons to fear.

The political reaction in societies socialised under authoritarian regimes is expecting that that someone (else) do something to fix the situation. When social capital is weak, people ignore the possibilities in cooperation.

Frustration and fear is a fertile ground for authoritarian aggression. It also deteriorates decision making (see conditional stupidity) and shortens the time horizon for planning.

Finally, and most importantly, it serves as a justification of immoral behaviour, pushing everyone into a downward spiral of distrust fuelled by immorality, moral relativism and cynicism.

As even the enhanced interrogators of Guantanamo are aware, “Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression. On the other hand, materialization of the fear is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out and his resistance is strengthened.” (C.I.A. Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983)

A near-miss experience with the source of our terror also strengthens our resolve and makes us more resilient.

People tend to associate cautious, problem-seeking attitude with wisdom while optimistic, ‘let’s try it’ behaviour is associated with dangerous negligence of possible obstacles ahead, or sheer ignorance. Being scared is thus a proof of one’s foolishness.

But plenty of ‘smart’, over-cautious people add up to a risk-averse society – sticking with the status quo and dismissing innovation as a luxury for when it will be safe.

Questions to be asked during the research:

  • People consider certain types of fear (worry, anxiety, etc.) a necessary evil. They dismiss their negative impact on their daily lives, thinking patterns, and decisions, as negligible. Being fearful in anticipation of something bad to happen is considered erring on the safe side. But wrong fear is just as harmful as the absence of it. When does fear cease to be a useful signal (for survival purposes) and start being an obstacle to everyday life, freedom, and prosperity? How can we make that distinction?
  • Can methods used for anxiety management be applied more broadly and serve to strengthen the resilience of a society?

(This chapter is a work in progress.)


7 thoughts on “On Fear

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