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Fear/Courage Interviews

Creators of our destiny

Courage and risk taking to fight the culture of fear.

Interview with Frank Furedi

School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, Emeritus professor, University of Kent

By July 2019July 16th, 2020No Comments

The sociologist Frank Furedi is the author of several essays on the subject of fear, including Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation and How Fear Works: Culture of fear in the Twenty-first Century, where he explains how society is “become estranged from the values – such as courage, judgement, reasoning, responsibility – that are necessary for the management of fear”.

What are we talking about when we talk about “culture of fear”?
A lot of people think it means that people fear more than in the past, but that’s not really the case. Because there is no way you can measure how people feared in the past, if it’s more or less. What it really means is that we certainly talk more about fear that ever before. The most important aspect of “culture of fear” is that everything in life seems to come with a health worry. Everything is seen as a threat. The human experience itself is increasingly seen as threatening in areas that in the past were seen as quite normal. In my last book (How fear works: culture of fear in the twenty-first century, editor’s note), one of the point that becomes very interesting is that with the “culture of fear” you have two important things: one is that the most important value in society is now this concern with safety – everything is about safety –, and secondarily the tendency to medicalize the human experience of problems. What would have been seen as moral or existential problems are now often reframed in a medical language.

When you published your book Culture of Fear in 1997 this concept was something relatively new, while now the concept of fear is at the center of the political and sociological debate. What happened in the last 20 years?
I think the problem began to kick in the late 1990s. Since then the world has become deep politicized and people views of the future have become much more dystopian and negative. We became a presentist society: detached from the past and scared by the future. And I think that the result is that fear has become almost the only cultural perspective that everyone uses. So, if you look at politics, it is interesting that the only thing that binds the left and the right is that they both play the fear card. They may have different fears that they want to bring to your attention, but they are continually refering to fears to obtain some kind of support. Then there is no real difference between them: the right talks about the fear of migration, the left talks about the fear of human extinction. What changed is the view of the future: instead of promoting a message of hope, transformation or reform, it’s really about “don’t do this”. It’s a very conservative call: “don’t take risks”.

Which are the consequences of this approach for science and innovation? 
I think that it basically creates a very empty experimental culture. In Anglo-American language, “experiment” is now a negative rather than a positive term. If you look at most recent films, scientists are not the heroes, they are the bad guys. The idea is that science cannot be trusted, that experiments cannot be trusted, and that innovation is unbalanced on problems. Every time I talk to people about artificial intelligence, genetic therapy, biotechnology, I always get this reaction that highlights the side effects. They use the expression “don’t play God”. I think that this kind of culture is particularly reinforced by suspicion of science. This can be seen in medicine too, so the anti-vaccination hysteria I think is to some extent part of this suspicion.

But our fears are often disproportionate. For example, why aren’t we scared about climate change?
This is very interesting. I led a research project a few years ago on what the European people are scared about, and it turns out that they are not really scared about the big headline fears, like global terrorism or global warming. The only media topic that they are really scared about are crimes, but otherwise it’s all about insecurity to do with money, unemployment, pensions, worries about the children. Very banal things. Climate change have become so politicized and ritualistic that people have been switched off from taking it seriously.

Will the efficacy of politics of fear ever reach a saturation point?
We often say that dictators and national leaders play the fear card to bring people together. But what we have found is that fear fragments people, disunites people, rather than brings people together. For example, after 9/11 in United States of America, George W. Bush talked a lot about how dangerous the terrorists were. For a few weeks people came together, but then a year later a significant minority of Americans were even questioning the government version of 9/11. That’s what happens on the long term. At the end of the day if all you have is this kind of performance of fear, without any kind of intellectual ideological or political vision, it becomes routine. But at the moment this “culture of fear” is gaining stronger and stronger. I see the next ten years as a period where people will be scared of things that they weren’t scared before. I think that politically and culturally we gave up the idea of human agency, of human beings being able to control their destinies. So there is a big problem there.

How can we free ourselves from the “culture of fear”?
My argument is that, first of all, we have to change the way we educate children. Because that is where the problem begins. We educate children to be childish rather than potential independent beings. We basically prevent them from exploring freedom, from fail. We have to reintroduce certain values that have been marginalized: the old values of courage, of risk taking. We have to take these things seriously again. And I think that the key thing at the end of the day is that we have to go back to this idea of agency. Who controls the future? During Renaissance there was this big debate on the theme of “fortuna”. We have to find a way to get the message that humanity has got a tremendous potential for controlling the future. And we should realize that, instead of leading things happen to us, we have to make history ourselves.

Not avoiding risks, then, but facing them…
Yes, because risk taking is actually useful. It makes you aware of your strengths, and your weaknesses. If you don’t take risk you will never become aware of what you are, and you become a passive individual, to whom things happen.

Fabio Ambrosino