I think that this will probably end up as a series instead of a single post. This will serve mainly as an introduction and outline.
What is fear? Fear is natural response to dangers. From an evolutionary perspective this means flight or fight. We evolved with a known danger with a predictable likelihood and outcome. These factors get calculated and we decide whether it would be in our best interest to flee the danger or to fight it. This decision also depends on other factors. Are you alone? Are there others that need your protection? Do you have backup if things go badly? How fast is your pursuer likely to be in comparison to you?
All of these situations need a lot of adrenaline to assist in either path, so the body produces more. This is why we sweat, get tense, and other thought processes fade into the background. In the natural world, these threats arrive, and are dealt with, and we move on.
Today there are a lot more things that cause us fear. As humans we are living in a world completely foreign to our ancestors. Our fears vary according to where we live, but many of them we cannot solve as quickly as a situation in the wild would be. We are afraid to lose our jobs, our homes, our families. We fear disease, economic hardship, terrorism, rape, kidnapping. We fear police, politics, the poor, the rich, other races, our families, each other, and even ourselves.
What does that mean for us? As individuals it creates a state of constant stress and anxiety that is so common in our society. It leads to increased use of anti-anxiety medications. It also can lead to a feeling of despair, which explains our epidemic of depression. Our bodies were not built to deal with constant stress, and that may lead to the type of chemical imbalances that we are finding.
As a group, humans are drawing more lines between themselves and others. We do this in our daily lives. We refuse to make eye contact with strangers as we hurry through crowded streets wary that anyone we pass could be a pickpocket, or worse. On a larger scale we do it with entire cultures. America has broken all ties with Islamic nations because we are terrified that they are out to get us. Extremists of all types rationalize their actions using fear. Homegrown terrorists are afraid of the government, religious zealots are afraid for the continuation of their way of life, politicians are afraid of the people. In order to make themselves feel safer, people will resort to making others afraid. This is the source of the threat, including the demonstration of power.
Why are we so afraid today? Many people will tell you that it is because of our human ability to anticipate, but that leaves out the distinction between our ancestors’ fears and our own. I do not believe that we would ever have begun building permanent settlements if people obsessed over fears of wild animals in the same way we obsess over our fears today. Others will say that it is because of our global society. This is also part of the story. We are able to see the horrors going on in far flung parts of the globe. The images of 9/11 that are scarred into the minds, certainly of anyone who remembers the event, are mostly those images that were shown on television. People can describe this scene even though they may never have been to New York.
I believe that while these points contribute to our societal fears, the main cause is fear mongering. People who gain by the public’s fear do everything they can to manipulate our fears. This includes not only those who use violence to make others fear them, but also those who use the violence of another to create a solidarity between victims. What does that mean? It means that scared people are easier to control. It means that through manipulation of our fears people become predictable. It means that by convincing people to be afraid of one thing, they can be forced to overlook other things. It means that when people are afraid they make alliances with others who are also afraid. Politics took this to a whole new level when the color coded terror threat level system was created. This is used as a way to tell the people exactly how frightened they should be on a given day. I was reading about yesterday’s attacks in Paris, when I came across an interesting juxtaposition. In two back to back sentences we were told that there is currently no indication of an attack on the U.S., and then told that none of our prediction methods saw the Paris attacks coming. They know that at this moment our fear is already heightened so much that if they told us to be afraid they could lose that carefully crafted control.
Fear is a great way to get people to give things up. If you are afraid of attacks on your home, keeping your protection is important. This is why the same people who garner fear of people outside of the country attacking are the same people who create the fear of having guns taken away. If you are afraid that you will not be able to protect your family, your personal privacy is less important. If you are afraid that a certain type of person is out to get you it makes you less likely to protect their rights. If you are afraid that your child will be hurt by a stranger it makes you less likely to let them be alone.
What can you do? Recognize when someone is using fear to control. Look behind the words to figure out what the speaker gains by having you believe them. The less self-interest, the more likely the story is true. The more they have to gain, the more they will stretch the truth. The more followers they have, the more credence the story gains, and the more it can be bent without breaking.
People in America today have given up a lot of freedoms in the name of safety, many of which we still take for granted. We need to learn to take a step back and figure out why people tell us certain things so that we can truly protect ourselves.