My previous essay Creating the Culture of Fear drew a lot of favourable comment. But on rereading it I felt there was much more I could have said. I will try to fill in some of the gaps in this current essay.
It is useful, to begin with, to look back at our history over the last one hundred and twenty years.
In the early twentieth century the world had to contend with The Great War, The Great Depression and the Second World War in reasonably rapid succession. But despite the privations suffered as a result of these disasters the memories of my childhood in the early nineteen fifties was of pleasant optimism.
My parents told me of the dreadful outcomes of the polio epidemic and how pleased they were that we now had an anti-polio vaccine that would ensure I and my siblings would never suffer from that dreadful disease. They had confidence that science would provide answers to many other human problems.
My father who had on occasion to leave the family home in order to find work during the depression to financially support my mother and my older siblings now had secure full-time employment. He instilled in us the need to train to get along. Because it came from a world he understood, he exhorted his sons to “get a trade” and we would have a job for life. In fact two of my brothers took that path and made reasonable livings for themselves and their subsequent families.
So with the world wars and the depression now behind them they were optimistic about the future. But because they had struggled for many years during those dark times they valued the little things that they had and had no grandiose expectations of the future.
A very welcome treat for us was on pay day in the summer, dad would bring home a watermelon. Or when the melons were not in season he would bring home a couple of blocks of chocolate that were divided equally amongst us all (there were six of us in the household at that stage). It is probably hard for the modern generation to understand this, because of the marked increase in wealth in later generations, but these were lovely moments in my childhood that helped reinforce our sense of family and shared love.
My father worked as a labourer and was consequently not highly paid. But we were fed and clothed well. My father kept a vegetable garden which not only augmented our food supply but enabled him to boast to his friends about the size of tomatoes he grew and such like. My mother was a great cook and right up until my high school years made my school shirts.
As a result of this history my mother was very frugal. She started to provision for Christmas in January. When she had the means she would often buy something and put it aside for Christmas.
But despite my family’s circumstances, and don’t get me wrong I don’t think we were in the least disadvantaged, there was always a sense of optimism. And by and large I think this was true of society generally. Our people had generally weathered a few significant storms and we had confidence, as a result, we could handle the vicissitudes of the future.
However from the 1960’s things began to change.
For many centuries prior to this, the chief source of our fear (as I have previously elaborated) came from religion. As Frank Furedi writes:
To ensure people behaved according to the moral code, the different religions sought not only to inspire righteous behaviour but also to scare people, particularly the wayward into submission. That is why holy texts like the Bible can also be seen as a manual of health warnings. Fear of God, fear of Hell and Damnation, and fear of the Apocalypse provided religious leaders and scaremongers with plenty of material with which to strike terror into the hearts of common folk.
The shift from optimism to fear which occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s came mainly as a result of the Cold War and the stand-off between the USSR and the Western world. All of a sudden we came to the realisation that we didn’t need a God to achieve an Armageddon, we could do it all by ourselves by virtue of our nuclear weapons.
But this shift in the prevailing ethos regarding fear probably had earlier origins. Since the 1920’s, psychologists had been counselling parents to shelter their children from fear. By the 1940’s this was becoming mainstream. By the 1960’s the new rules of fear were starting to emerge in schools where modern pedagogy insisted that children should be relieved of the burden of too much pressure and educationalists began questioning whether children should be subjected to exams and testing. By the end of the twentieth century university students were being deemed so fragile that “trigger warnings” became prevalent so that students were warned in advance of material and opinions that might run counter to their preferred view of the world! And “safe spaces” were demanded where they could seclude themselves secure in the knowledge that their fragile views would not be challenged.
During the 1960’s, political philosopher, Hannah Arendt drew our attention to the breakdown in authority. She pointed out the breakdown ‘of the one form of authority which existed in all historically known societies, the authority of parents over children, of teachers over pupils and generally of the elders over the young’.
In commenting on this development Frank Furedi wrote:
The hesitant and defensive manner in which the task of socialisation is pursued has created a demand for new ways of influencing children. A lack of clarity regarding the transmission of values has led to a search for alternatives and the adoption of psychologically informed practices of behaviour management served as one influential approach. From the standpoint of such expert-directed techniques, the role of parents is not so much to transmit values as to validate the feelings, attitudes and accomplishments of their chidren.
As I have written previously, unduly affirming children and raising their self-esteem, has resulted in generations of children who on becoming adults can’t deal with the difficulties and demands of the real world. Children who have been unduly praised and sheltered by their parents will normally lack the resilience to face up to life’s hardships, which as we will see later, just can’t be avoided.
In the modern world we exaggerate our existential threats. Today we have the likes of Greta Thunberg and others ranting about the existential threat of global warming and our climate activists bemoaning the fact that we are not doing enough to prevent a climate warming cataclysm. Fifty years ago we had teenagers scared out of their minds that one misstep in global politics would lead to the nuclear annihilation of the world. In the context of modern politics the fears of nuclear annihilation probably seem exaggerated. I suspect that in fifty years our fears about the existential threat of climate change might appear likewise.
It seems that from about the latter half of the twentieth century, the human race (at least in the Western world) has decided to give the prophecy of fear dominance over the prophecy of hope.
In general terms one could assert that human beings are motivated to pursue ideals but at the same time to avoid hurt. It seems to me that since the second half of the twentieth century we have suffered from a dearth of meaning and ideals and a surfeit of fear. And my own experience in management and the little understanding I have of psychology suggests to me also that the proactive pursuit of ideals is a far better motivation than the reactive avoidance of hurt.
In my mind this gradual transition from optimism to pessimism, the shift from hope to fear, has resulted from the exhaustion of belief in the principal ideologies and causes in the twentieth century. In the absence of inspiring ideals and the positive aspirations that once inhabited our prospective futures we can seem now only to imagine disaster. Consequently our predominant motivation is not to pursue hope but to avoid hurt. It seems that in this postmodern world more and more of us lack a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. This results in the sort of despair that drives people to suicide.
In line with this our public figures have largely become proponents of the politics of fear. Their experience has taught them that drawing on people’s insecurity is a far more effective way of garnering popular support than painting exciting visions of the future.
In politics, political leaders now seem to eschew any notion about painting a picture of how they might produce a more attractive future, concentrating on how their opponents will inevitably lead us to disaster!
Some of our philosophers and influencers of ideas don’t shy away from this approach. They argue it is eminently sensible to mobilise the population to counter the evil influences that cause our fear. But that effort seems so successful in garnering support that we have few resources left to promote the pathway to joy and love and hope!
Unfortunately the politics of fear has promoted a philosophy of risk avoidance. Some commentators have suggested that the politics of fear unite people in order to reduce perceived threats. But there seems little evidence of this. This is partly because there are few fears that we can all agree with. Consider the following issues which seem to dominate current public debate:
- Climate change
- Unrestricted immigration
- Chinese expansionism
- Radical Islam
- Natural disasters
And so on.
The populace at large seems only to have the capacity to place one or two of these issues front of mind. And then they often obsess about them. And of course the pursuit of some of these obsessions can lead to contradictory outcomes.
- Avoiding bushfires is aided by clearing the fuel load in our native forests but environmentalists are outraged that this destroys native habitat.
- Coping with drought would be easier if we had more water storage but environmentalists adamantly oppose the construction of dams.
- We could reduce CO2 emissions by using more gas-fired generation which would provide despatchable electricity and augment renewable energy sources but restrictions to gas exploration and extraction and the fear of “fracking” prevents us from doing so.
- Measures taken to curtail radical Islamism are criticised as racist or Islamophobic.
- Fears of paedophilia have created the notion of “stranger danger” whereas most offenders are known to the victims. It has also discouraged displays of affection and benign, loving physical contact by males towards children.
In addition to this, our obsession with fear devalues courage.
We frequently read in the press about how courageous people are for doing relatively insubstantial things. We hear such statements as:
I was courageous for fronting up for my job interview.
I was courageous for embarking on a new diet.
I was courageous for restricting my child’s use of social media.
I was courageous for sitting with my dying mother.
I was courageous for signing the petition to stop the development of a new supermarket.
I was courageous for speaking up at the P&C meeting to advocate for healthy food in the school tuckshop.
None of these activities seem particularly courageous to me.
When we propagate the notion of fear, we diminish ourselves. When fear dominates our thinking our only response can be self-preservation (both physical and psychic). As a result we construct little cocoons to hide ourselves away in so that we don’t have to confront the world at large.
So how should we respond?
To begin with we need realistic expectations about life.
Let me remind you of the oft-quoted words written by M Scott Peck in his famous book The Road Less Travelled.
Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult.
Or remember the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
Life is suffering.
We need to expect that we will encounter suffering in our lives. Instead of sheltering from the world we need to venture out in the world aware that we will sometimes get bitten. Consequently we need to work on enhancing resilience. As I have intimated above, how we treat our young people seems more inclined to promote their vulnerability rather than enhance their resilience.
I am not advocating needless suffering. If you get a splinter in your finger you remove it. If tooth decay causes you toothache you go to the dentist to remedy it. But much of life’s suffering doesn’t come from actual harm but from the fear of what might harm us.
Secondly, we need to re-engage hope.
In my previous essay I made reference to the work of Stephen Pinker. On many objective criteria Pinker shows that the world is getting better. In that essay I wrote:
It is strange that while most of us fear the future, Stephen Pinker has been demonstrating that on most objective criteria like longevity, poverty, exposure to violence, levels of literacy and numeracy, and so on, the world has been progressing well. It would seem on this basis, the future is likely to be better than the past. But our obsessive fear of the future renders us blind to the opportunities that the future may bring us.
When we were engulfed in Malthusian gloom in the 1960’s (referPaul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb )we didn’t understand that scientific advances in agriculture might bring us the “green revolution” which vastly enhanced our ability to feed ourselves. But our scientific progress over the last few centuries has never stopped. And yet we give in so easily to the harbingers of doom who extrapolate our current woes into the future without any relief from advances in science.
Today the climate alarmists project a future where, due to global warming, the world is barely habitable by human beings. Yet we know in the past that the earth has been hotter than it is today and indeed some of those warming periods coincided with some of Mankind’s greatest advances.
And we often underestimate the capacity of technology to come to our rescue. Renewable energy technologies, although not the entire solution to decarbonising electricity generation, have reduced in cost significantly since I was in the electricity industry. There are more esoteric technologies now showing promise. Recent press reports underline promising developments in fusion technologies, for example.
But our greatest handicap is our attitude. As Peck rightly said, life is indeed difficult and it is futile to believe we can avoid all of life’s difficulties. But on the other hand we have the capacity to deal with most of those difficulties. And every difficulty we confront and overcome makes us more resilient. Every difficulty we hide from makes us more vulnerable.
How often do we hear people say for example, “Isn’t old Joe a nice guy, despite of all that has happened to him?” I encourage you to think that old Joe is probably a nice guy because of all that has happened to him. Life experiences shape us and those who can transcend the suffering that is inevitable in life, in my good friend Dr Phil’s words, “come out better and not bitter”!
So in summary then, I would urge that we face up to life acknowledging that suffering is inevitable. I am not suggesting we should actively seek out suffering but we should foster resilience so when suffering inevitably comes we can best deal with it and hopefully learn from it. In the process we need to diminish our fears and make more room for hope in our lives.
The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.
― Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams