The Fear Problem
The media affect-fear-blur-is the direct collective perception of the contemporary condition of possibility of being human.... It is the direct collective apprehension of capitalism's powers of existence. It is vague by nature. It is nothing as sharp as panic. Not as localized as hysteria. It doesn't have a particular object, so it's not a phobia. But it's not exactly an anxiety either; it is even fuzzier than that. It is low-level [background] fear.i
– Brian Massumi
Fear: an innate human instinct or a cultural construction of collective power? Or something that flows, like power, between these too neat categories? Is fear even the big problem so many make it out to be?
"At the root of all war is fear," wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton some 40 years ago, after decades of contemplation. He further lamented the plague of fear that stifles human progress as not merely the ubiquitous fear of death, but a fear of everything, including the self. Are we pre-destined to be such a paranoid species, or has Western civilization made a market out of it so as to reinforce it as the only alternative way of being? To fear, is to be human? As Massumi has insinuated, that position becomes a very toxic ideology.
If Merton and Massumi are correct and we have become afraid of everything, and afraid of capitalism itself – which has helped construct this latest morph of low-grade fear marked $human$ – then might capitalism itself be to blame? After all, capitalism stands to profit greatly from such a construction through all the products it can offer to supposedly allay the fear it has produced in the first place? Beware of anything sold in the name of "for your safety and security”. Yet, surely, not all interest in the topic of fear is capitalist-motivated.
For now, let’s leave aside the many different, often conflicting views of how good or bad fear is, how it is best managed, if not conquered or transformed, and how it is used and misused in human history. Let’s even leave aside the question of whether there is more fear in the world today than in the past. Instead, let’s focus on an indisputable fact: that there is a fast growing international interest from many corners, in fear, its impacts and how we ought best to manage it. The latter interest, particularly after 9/11, is recognized by some academics as a new interdisciplinary scholarship of fear,ii a sub-set of the new scholarship on emotions and affect that began in the early 1980s. A fascinating plethora of studies across disciplines are invoking intriguing topics like "ecology of fear”, "geography of fear”, and "architecture of fear”, to name a few.
Why would such a specialist study as fearology arise in the evolution of human existence? And why now?
To investigate the fear problem, I chose a life-purpose as a fearologist. Which means that I am a practitioner of fearology – the recently dubbed transdisciplinary and postmodern study of the relationship of humans to fear and diverse constructions of fearuality.iii Why would such a specialist study arise in the evolution of human existence? And why now? Perhaps we are getting desperate, some of us anyways, to solve the Fear Problem.
I agree with Merton and many other critics that humans have a big Fear Problem that we've not solved in our evolutionary history. But what kind of fear elixir, spray, or pill could a human being take that would make them impervious to the affects and effects of fear? That is, that would make them "fearless"?
Such a solution – however apparently far-fetched – would be unable to navigate the ethical implications of fearlessness. On the one hand, Adolf Hitler declared his desire for a “brutal, authoritarian, fearless, cruel youth"iv. On the other hand, for some, like Mahatma Gandhi, the desire to go beyond the limits of fear and its tendency to produce violence, was very clear when he wrote, "God is fearlessness."v Not all would agree, and most Western psychologists and psychiatrists today argue that fearlessness is a pathology, and a core factor behind the criminal personality.vi A rare exception comes from the experimental psychology done by SJ Rachman in the mid-1970s. He showed that the most decorated bomb-disposal professionals in the military are not merely courageous, nor over-confident, nor psychopathic, but fearless. And it is a well-suited trait for such high-risk work.vii
In popular and consumer culture, the words "No Fear!" or "fearless" are often used to simply rebel against the culture of fear or, more likely the case today, to sell women's clothing, make-up and an urban chic attitude of "Don't mess with me!"
Artist Jia Lu has said, "Look at Venus, those goddesses, they're all topless. And you know why? Because they're fearless."viii Any Eastern spiritual teacher would tell you that fearlessness comes after years, if not decades, of disciplined practice to overcome fear-based reactions. For serious spiritual disciples, however, taking off one's shirt or blouse to expose breasts is neither indicative of fearless achievement, nor significant liberation from suffering. And we cannot forget that the business world has taken to this new excess performative trope for the 21st century; Google 'counterculture', even at the corporate level, prides itself on its "culture of fearlessness" as the key to its greatness in innovation.ix
Obviously, what is "fearless" to one is not universal to all. It depends on each person's perspective. But how to get fearless or create a fearless societyx is another story. Like the wish to be young forever, the call to be fearless is never far away. The quicker we get it the better – a philosophy that hyper-capitalism is always promoting with its consumer unable to learn delayed gratification. What evidence do we have that such a quick-fix anti-fear pill to the human Fear Problem may actually be closer than we think? And what ideas and experiments for such a quick-fix exist that may guide future research and our ethical framework in determining the just use of such research?
Beware of What's for Sale
Anxiety disorders are now the most common mental health problem in the world (22% of men, and up to 33% of women will suffer at some point).xi Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), meanwhile, affects up to 8% of the world's populationxii The Fear Problem therefore has statistical evidence.
In the real world the demand for 'normal' and/or 'peak performance' humans can come in many stripes, not the least of which is to medically assist those who are, more or less, disabled by fear. The Pentagon last year announced an $11 million US grant for three research institutions in the USA to continue to develop an antidote to the fear associated with PTSD, which still affects far too many military personnel during and after duties in war zones, and has been linked with suicides and mass murders.xiii Fear, it is clear, kills.xiv
Of the various new streams of research on PTSD treatment efficacy, one is the pharmaceutical anti-fear pill consisting of D-Cycloserine (DCS).xv It is taken just before the patient enters exposure therapy (a proven therapy for PTSD) in order to improve its effectiveness. Both treatments are more or less effective in extinguishing fearful memories of past traumatic events, and disabling the repetitive restimulation of those memories of which even the memory is re-traumatizing. DCS is not on the market yet and researchers warn that it is no panacea.
Debates around DCS go on. Does the erasure, for example, of negative/traumatic memories (and fear with them) somehow "alter something that makes us all human"? Or might people try to use the DCS pill to forget the horrible harms they have done or may contemplate doing?xvi One ad on the internet describes DCS as "A small little blue capsule that takes away fear.... this pill is life changing, you can get it completely for free!" The name of the website? Howtobeanalphamale.net.xvii
The moral implications of anti-fear serums/pills, including propanol, cortisol, lorazepam, and an inhibitor of the kiase enzyme (Cdk5)xviii among others, are real. One study showed that the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam actually made participants more willing to harm others.xix Is fear essential to being human and maintaining moral guilt and anti-violent social behavior as many people and theorists believe? Well, that depends on how you define "fear" and vice versa how you define "being human" – large philosophical questions we'll have to deal with sooner or later as these anti-fear drugs hit the markets in more effective and affordable forms.
Resisting the Culture of Fear
Even in our well-intended critiques of the "culture of fear"xx (especially post-9/11), how can we resist promoting yet more paranoia? It's not easy. Both Merton and Massumi can inadvertently be interpreted by anyone, especially if a conspiratorial tendency exists, as encouraging us to be more afraid of the producers of low-grade fear. A sincere "wild thinking" author wanting to help liberate us, legitimately asks: "Did they plant in your mind lately poison ivies of fear, so they could sell you an anti-fear pill?xxi
Worst case scenario: the attempt to resist the culture of fear leads only to more paranoia. And yes, "paranoia chic" is now a sexy item in advertising, according to Eric Howeler:
The paranoid state is not the exception, but the norm. Its claims of conspiracy and persecution seem ever more justified in the Postmodern, post-contemporary, post-millennial world. There is a re-emergence of a new kind of [highly profitable] paranoia in fashion photography, design and advertising: Paranoid Chic, or the aesthetics of surveillance.xxii
Howeler found Paranoid Chic aesthetics on contemporary billboards, in books advertising wallpaper, fashion and characteristically in the beauty industry. Estee Lauder's ad for futuristic lipstick showed the women "anxious and overexposed" by lights and camera, hinting with open mouth and raised eye-brows of surprise to threat, to shock – supposedly, he asserts, "the glare is sexy," desirable, purchasable. A decade earlier, a critically conscious activist group of designers, artists and architects (United Aliens London) subvertised the just-beginning trend of Paranoid Chic aesthetics and the culture of fear generally, in a series of large mainstream newspaper "ads". One ad caught my attention as also playing on the desire for a form of 'fear pill,' which United Aliens created as an Anti-fear Spray (which of course does not exist, yet).
Other areas in popular culture positing a public resistance to fear have included the NO FEAR! slogans popular in the 1990s, and musicians naming their bands and activism in resistance to fear: like Sonia Rutstein of Disappear Fear or Lizzie West and Anti-Fear Movement Agency. There's even an "Anti-Fear Pill Musical”.
Endless creativity is going into making statements about the culture of fear and the Fear Problem, and offering quick-fix solutions. A Google image search for "fearless" gives a good indication of what resistance to fear is being advocated, for good or ill. It's there in abundance, in forms the like of which history has never seen before.
These are uniquely fuzzy and not-so-fuzzy fear-times consisting of a veritable tsunami of unregulated contesting investments going into doing something about it. There is intense motivation (driven often by $fear$ itself) to "win" the market-advantage and sell, for example, the T-shirt promoting "the best" way to salvation from fear.
Endless creativity is going into offering quick-fix solutions to the Fear Problem.
And in stark aesthetic contrast, images of the Fearless One, in comic books or extreme sports promotions, for example, usually look more like this image from Fearless, a four-issue limited series written by Mark Sable and David Roth, with art by PJ Holden, which tells the story of Adam Rygert, a superhero who must depend on an anti-fear drug to keep his crippling anxiety at bay.
Each image, a type of fear pill itself, perhaps a fear vaccine, is part of a visual cultural representation, real or imagined, that brings us face-to-face with what it means to be human, to suffer, and find relief from the suffering that fear itself brings. There is something powerful, that we know in both fear and being fearless. Who wouldn't want to capitalize on that potential power?
For the fearologist the concern is: How do we critically assess the fear pill and its discontents, without ourselves becoming implicated in the driving economic and aesthetic imperatives of hyper-capitalism and its commodification of fear and fearless? First step: Don't believe naively anything anyone (especially authorities) tells you about fear and how best to manage it. Second step: Do the first step without being paranoid (not easy). Third step: Get your information from many diverse sources, of which the good fearologist is dedicated to provide – no strings attached.
My own journey on the path of fearlessness has been one that skirted the seductions of quick-fix anti-fear pills and strategies, although I wouldn't rule out their future potential. The fearologist, however, approaches the Fear Problem holistically and integrally with a transdisciplinary meta-perspective on all the other perspectives on fear and its management or elimination. That distance I believe helps me maintain the critical lens to ensure I don't fall into reductionistic and narrow simple truths about fear and its solution, which many want to sell to us.
Whether playfully or seriously, as a professional fearologist-in-training be prepared for criticism from just about everybody, especially when you decide that maybe we don't know as much about fear as we think we do. That may be a greater fear in our society than even the fear of dying. I say: ask more questions and be less confident about answers at this stage of the game. The Fear Problem is, in my estimate, barely understood and far from yielding all its mysteries. And, they don't teach that in Sunday school, public or private school, or anywhere in higher education, or on your national TV news!
Dr R Michael Fisher is a fearologist, integral human development consultant, independent scholar, and public intellectual, based in the USA.
i. Massumi, B. (1993). Everywhere you want to be introduction to fear. In B. Massumi (Ed.), The everyday politics of fear (pp. 3-37). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 24.
ii. See for example, Brisset, W. N. (2003). Bibliographical essay on fear. The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture, 5, 115-23.
iii. Most everyone uses "fearology" in popular cultural ways to refer to someone who "spins" a lot of fear and drama in everything they do, and others have tried to dominate the term by arguing it is about the "science of fear" only. Both such strategies are far too reductionistic (simple) for my liking and for the kind of complex realities of our times. I have suggested humans would benefit by a construct like fearuality (analogous to sexuality) that would prevent that scientific reductionism. We need a holistic-integral approach drawing on all ways of making meaning of fear, including the sciences but also the arts and humanities and from popular culture.
iv. Cited in Blumenthal, D. R. (1999). The banality of evil: Moral lessons from the shoah and Jewish tradition. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 62.
v. Cited in Seshagri Rao, K. L. (1978). Mahatma Gandhi and comparative religion. India: Motilal Banarsidass, 69.
vi. E.g., Raine, A., Reynolds, C., Venables, P. H., Mednick, S. A. and Farrington, D. P. (1998). Fearlessness, stimulation-seeking, and large body size at age 3 as early predispositions to childhood aggression at age 11 years. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 55(8), 745-51.
vii. See Rachman, S. (1978/1990). Fear and courage. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co., 312-13.
viii. Cited in Rodriguez, E. (2006). Time to be fearless. Retrieved from http://evelynrodriguez.typepad.com/crossroads_dispatches/2006/12/the_ti….
ix. Goo, S. K. (2006). Google's culture of innovation. Retrieved from http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2006/oct/29/googles_culture_innova...
x. Fisher, R. M. (2012). Do we really want a fearless society? Technical Paper No. 40. Carbondale, IL: In Search of Fearlessness Research Institute. [available ERIC ED537337 pdf]
xi. See "Anxiety disorders are more common in women." Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-anxious-sex.
xii. See Norman, E. (n.d.). 'No fear' pill on it's way. Retrieved from http://www.null-hypothesis.co.uk/science/straight-talking/item/enzyme_k….
xiii. See for example, Raimondo, J. (2012). Robert Bales: Mass murderer and PTSD poster boy. Retrieved from http://original.antiwar.com/justin/2012/04/10/robert-bales-mass-murdere…. See Liebert, J., and Birnes, W. (2013). Understanding and solving the growing menace of post-traumatic stress disorder. NY: Skyhorse.
xiv. Many have documented medically how people die of acute and chronic fear and this can be exacerbated under terrorizing political regimes. See Lechner, N. (1992). Some people die of fear: Fear as a political problem. In J. E. Corradi, P. W. Fagen and M. A. Garretón (Eds.), Fear at the edge: State terror and resistance in Latin America (pp. 26-35). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
xv. Cycloserine, a TB drug, aids the transmission of a crucial protein to a brain receptor for unlearning fear(s). The drug is sold by Eli Lilly and Co. under the brand name Seromycin, and has proven efficacy in small trials with people afraid of heights (acrophobics). See McConnaughey, J. (n.d.). Pill may help people overcome fears. Retrieved from http://cognitiveliberty.org/dll/fear_pill.html.
xvi. Drummond, K. (2011). No fear: Memory adjustment pill gets Pentagon push. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/12/fear-erasing-drugs/.
xvii. Anonymous (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.howtobeanalphamale.net/approach-anxiety-the-little-pill-that….
xviii. Nauert, R. (2007). Scientists work to develop a fear pill. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2007/07/16/scientist-work-to-develop-a-fea…
xix. Perkins, A. M., Leonard, A. M., Weaver, K., Dalton, J. A., Hehta, M. A., Kumar, V., Williams, S. C., and Ettinger, U. (2013). A does of ruthlessness: Interpersonal moral judgment is hardened by the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (publication ahead of print). Retrieved from Journals@Ovid Full Text.
xx. One of the most prolific scholars, sociologist Frank Furedi in the UK, who identified the basic dynamics of the "culture of fear" in America and the UK, has written many articles and books worth reading, as well as the American sociologist Barry Glassner, and others like Noam Chomsky and documentary film-activist Michael Moore. For a brief but thorough overview of this work and its implications for how we teach fear management/education in the 21st century, see Fisher, R. M. (2006). Invoking 'Fear' Studies. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 22(4), 39-71.
xxi. Grutter, T. (2013). Thinking wild, the gifts of insight: A way to make peace with my shadow. Newbury Port, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, p. 25.
xxii. Howeler, E. (2004). Paranoic chic: The asethetics of surveillance. Loud Paper, 3. Retrieved from http://loudpapermag.com/articles/paranoia-chic-the-aesthetics-of-survei….