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The culture of fear and the fetish of security

The culture of liberalism transforms into a culture of fear, which manifests in the notion that individuals exposed to social interactions are in a state of constant threat. This is why it is so often the case that we seek security – going to absurd lengths to find it.

The Polish version was published: 2.4.2019

The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise

– Publius Cornelius Tacitus, Annals, Book XV

Publicists and pundits claim that we live in the age of anxiety. Numerous studies have shown that mental health is declining globally, and that constant restlessness and anxiety are some of the more common dysfunctions. The origins of this state of affairs can be found in our culture, which values security above all else.

Anxiety in a liquid world

In the second volume of his magnum opus, On the Process of Civilisation, prominent German sociologist Norbert Elias notes that fear and anxiety form the principal mechanism which generate culture, through which the conceptual categories and structures functioning in society determine the psychological functioning of individuals, who absorb and experience anxiety-generating stimuli in a way which cannot be explicated using their own experience, and is rather a reflection of their relationship with the rest of society. This lends anxiety tremendous political potential, bringing together the power of one’s own imagination and the generational memory crystallised in the form of myths and cultural patterns. Unspecified existential dread easily creeps into our lives if there is no strong, multi-dimensional foundation in the form of established rituals, institutions and procedures which have proven time and again their effectiveness with regard to combating threats.

The modernist promise of eradicating suffering via the “rule of reason” met its demise in a world steeped in obsessive anxiety and a complete lack of faith in human ability

As early as in the 19th century, Emil Durkheim pointed to the special significance of individualisation processes, which, in a society undergoing modernisation processes, frequently lead to individuals becoming alienated, experiencing an increasing sense of being lost and their life being meaningless. In his analysis of the psychological origins of National Socialism, Erich Fromm points to the profound disturbance in the sense of security caused by a “fear of freedom”, primarily affecting the lower middle class in capitalist societies. What these analyses have in common is that they identify the growing significance of enlightened liberalism as the ideological foundation of capitalism, which has gradually deconstructed all key elements of the traditional social order rooted in Christian values.

It was not until the post-war era of postmodernism, however, especially its stage of increasing globalisation, that the unsettling nature of liberalism was finally revealed, earning itself the name the culture of fear. In his 1997 book Culture of Fear: Risk taking and the morality of low expectation, which is fundamental to understanding the phenomenon, Frank Furedi, a sociologists and philosopher of Hungarian descent, who is professor at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, describes the collapse of the Enlightenment’s optimism in the era of late-stage capitalism and the development of the now-dominant sociopsychological construct in the 1980s. The culture of fear manifests itself in the form of the notion that individuals exposed to social interactions are always vulnerable. Furedi considers it distinctive that this state cannot be permanently improved in any way. Constant threats are in principle directionless and result from the complexity of the modern world, which is chaotic and being constantly destroyed by drives unleashed by liberalism. The uncertain, “liquid” (Bauman) postmodernity offers individuals no point of reference, channelling the resulting disorientation into a compulsive pursuit of maximum security, transforming the entirety of Western culture to match the “neurotic personality of our time” described by Karen Horney in her 1937 book. It is striking that the modernist promise of eradicating suffering via the “rule of reason” met its demise in a world steeped in obsessive anxiety and a complete lack of faith in human ability.

Unknown unknowns

The paradox of modernity lies in the enigmatic structure of this constant anxiety – after all, it is generalised and eludes all attempts at rationalisation. This type of anxiety is best exemplified by the statement given by former United States Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld during a news briefing which took place on 12 February 2002 in the Pentagon: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones”.

It is these “unknown unknowns” that seem to be the key to understanding certain phenomena occurring around us. The 1982 World Charter for Nature adopted by the UN adhered to what is known as the strong form of the precautionary principle: “Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to Nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to Nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed”. This radically pessimistic formulation of the precautionary principle was reaffirmed during the Wingspread Conference of 1998, and then was similarly formulated by the European Commission in 2000 and in the Cartagena Protocol of the same year.

The burden of proof that “something does not cause damage” lies on the subject attempting to implement a given technology. It is not difficult to realise that this task is, in principle, impossible

Since then, the burden of proof that “something does not cause damage” lies on the subject attempting to implement a given technology. It is not difficult to realise that this task is, in principle, impossible. Science can only prove that, based on our current knowledge, no significantly damaging effects of a technology have been observed. It cannot ascertain, however, that no damaging effects will ever reveal themselves in the future. At the same time, the strong form of the precautionary principle makes it possible to indefinitely demand new study results proving that technologies such as genetic engineering, nuclear power and agricultural chemistry “do not pose risks”.

Everything can be harmful

On the other hand – the pervasive threats encountered by individuals in the postmodern liquid reality are always a result of somebody’s negligence or active aggression. This means that the notion of “accident”, that is a random occurrence which happens seemingly unprovoked, as a consequence of circumstances impossible to predict, begins to disappear from public discourse. If something cannot be identified with certainty, it should not happen at all – particularly all activities which can have dangerous consequences should be prohibited or the risk involved should be clearly communicated in advance, even if the risk in question is completely trivial. In a world where “accidents” do not exist, “exposure” to any kind of risk entails criminal liability, and even if something bad does happen, we ourselves are to blame for not taking the necessary precautions, the best of which is to abstain from “risky” activities. It should thus be no shock to anyone that we are increasingly surrounded with warning signs such as “Caution – certain objects may not be visible in the dark!”.

In the extremely individualistic society of the West, the category of goods which should be specially protected from exposure is also constantly expanding. The category which has seen the largest growth is “harm”, which is one of the foundations of risk. After all, we can be “harmed” in many ways. In the neurotic culture of postmodernism, all subjectively perceived discomfort becomes “harm” that someone is “guilty” of causing. The post-Marxist critical theory trends which dominate the public discourse are in principle expansive and unprecedentedly detailed theories of “oppression”, which utilise the pervasive language of grievance and victim discourse to prove that almost every instance of inequality in the world is a result of unjust oppression by the privileged. American philosopher and social scientist Peter Boghossian refers to this leftist trend of cultural critique as “grievance studies”. Expanding the oppression category applies to all areas of life without exceptions. Oppression can apply even to such completely subjective experiences as mood. After all, our mood can worsen significantly if we encounter views which contradict our own – in such cases, according to the proponents of this theory, we have the right to demand that the authorities which govern public spaces organise safe zones free from such oppression. In extreme cases, entire university campuses can be declared “safe zones”, in which liberally-minded students will not be exposed to conservative opinions which could threaten the integrity of their world view. What is more, the discomfort experienced as a result may not even be related to particular words or actions. Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue claims that damaging signals from the environment may be generated by trivial everyday interactions, which may appear humiliating to particular minorities because of their group identity. It was the discomfort resulting from thus perceived “microaggressions” which sparked the May 2017 riots at Evergreen State College, during which minority students demanded that the school’s authorities establish a “Day of Absence” for white people – finding tremendous support from the left-aligned members of the college administration and professors.

The strong form of the precautionary principle makes it possible to indefinitely demand new study results proving that technologies such as genetic engineering, nuclear power and agricultural chemistry “do not pose risks”

Seeking security at all cost can also be observed in other areas of life. Politicians are eager to exploit this drive to their own ends, fearmongering and offering an illusory sense of safety from threats. What follows, however, is often drastically different than what was promised. A Polish example is the hasty actions of the Tusk administration against designer drugs. The ban imposed by the government resulted in the criminal underworld taking over their distribution, and the number of poisoning cases is still remains high. In addition, the plant kava-kava, which is traditionally used by the inhabitants of Fiji and Samoa in making a drink with a sedative effect, was banned by ricochet during that period. This safe and beneficial substance was treated almost like heroin for years, even though it was not prohibited in most countries around the globe (fortunately, the absurd ban was lifted in August 2018).

The legal crackdown on vaping is another such example. The Act on the protection of health against the consequences of tobacco use, which was supposed to serve as the implementation of the EU tobacco directive, in fact oversteps its bounds, making life harder for sellers and buyers of e-cigarettes. For example, Art. 5 of the act equates the vapour coming out of an electronic cigarette with regular cigarette smoke. As a result, users of safe e-cigarettes are confined to smoking rooms together with those who use regular cigarettes. Several other limitations, including a curtailed right to information (Art. 8 of the act prohibits points of sales from using visual communications related to e-cigarettes and liquids) result in a “behavioural pressure” favouring traditional tobacco products, which are significantly more dangerous. This, however, seems to be of no interest to the lawmakers.

A hypersecure world

Fundamental civic freedoms are becoming increasingly difficult to defend in our hypersecure world. In such a culture, exposing someone to unjustified risks is a terrible transgression. Parents who allow their children to play without proper supervision risk being considered extremely irresponsible and forced to deal with state interventions, and those who take “unjustified” risks are ostracised by society. In his 1992 book Intimations of Postmodernity, Zygmunt Bauman wrote: “With fears privatized, the temptation to run for cover remains as potent as ever. But there is no hope left that human reason, and its earthly agents, will make the race a guided tour, certain to end up in a secure and agreeable shelter”.

The American Psychological Association, in its recent publication titled Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, considers certain traits characteristic of male personality, including the propensity for taking risks, as medical issues which require proper treatment. The male risk-taking tendency was considered a very detrimental inclination, along with other characteristics such as being goal-oriented, suppressing emotions, competitiveness and love of adventure. As noted by one of the authors, Ryon McDermott, “if we can change men, we can change the world.” An unprecedented change in how reality is perceived can be observed here: masculinity, with the added descriptor of “toxic”, is now a harmful condition which should be urgently eradicated to make the world a better place. It is the male rejection of seeing oneself as vulnerable, as well as seeking internal motivations for self-control, perseverance and discipline, which are key to success in life, are a source of great worry for modern avant-garde psychologists in America. Traits such as courage, mental self-sufficiency and dislike of easy compromise are especially reprehensible to them, and Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, who extols these characteristics in his famous book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has nearly been considered a “fascist” by the global liberal left as a result.

It should thus be no shock to anyone that we are increasingly surrounded with warning signs such as “Caution – certain objects may not be visible in the dark!”

The liberal culture of the West is evolving at an alarming rate and in a way which is difficult to predict. It is also surprising how “social change” ideologues, so risk-averse and closely adherent to the strong form of the precautionary principle, seem indifferent to the dangers posed by such rapid changes. The insistence of the liberal elite on rapid “progress” with regard to societal rules seems to be without bounds – as evidenced by the guidelines of the American Psychological Association, which will after all serve as the basis for developing “modern” educational programmes outside the US as well. Liberalism is transforming into a culture of anxiety before our very eyes. Is it spiritual enslavement that awaits us in the future?

The translation was financed by the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development from the funds of The Civil Society Organisations Development Programme 2018-2030

Tłumaczenie sfinansowano przez Narodowy Instytut Wolności – Centrum Rozwoju Społeczeństwa Obywatelskiego ze środków Programu Rozwoju Organizacji Obywatelskich na lata 2018-2030

ur. 1966. W latach 1993–2010 związany z przemysłem chemicznym. Pracował jako kierownik projektów wdrożeniowych w Solvay i GE. Od 2011 związany z IT. Aktywista laicki, członek zarządu stowarzyszenia Koalicja Ateistyczna oraz członek-założyciel Kongresu Świeckości. Publicysta Post-Radia, niezależny komentator życia społeczno-politycznego.


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