Culture of Fear

Frank Furedi. The Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation. Cassell, 1997. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson. From Magonia 65, November 1998.

While on the face of it this critique of the contemporary culture of caution, vulnerability and fear may not appear to have much connection with the main topics of Magonia, the discussion is in fact very relevant, for the fears that we are studying are in many ways the (il)logical extension of the fears of wider society. Furedi sees a society whose icons are no longer heroes, or examples of courage, endurance and fortitude, but 'the vulnerable' and 'the victim', a world in which both nature, technology and other human beings are seen not as sources of strength and joy, but as risks and dangers. Even the sun, which virtually all previous human cultures have seen as the source of life and hope is seen primarily as a bringer of cancer, and human beings are seen simultaneously as both weak and dangerous, in need of custodianship.

In this climate we are never perceived as safe. Furedi notes that neighbours, once seen as a source of strength and comradeship, are now seen as a danger, particularly to children. The home and family, once refuges from the insecure world, are now themselves seen as a source of threat. We can see that in this climate the fantasy threats of Satanic abusers and alien abductors and feral strange beasts, are a distillation of these fears. The ordinary hides the nameless threat; if the home is no place of safety, then not even being alone behind locked, padlocked doors and shuttered windows can protect you from the grey meanies The users and abusers can come through the walls for you.

This climate, in which all human motivation is suspect, provides a fertile soil for the growth of the conspiracy theories which we have studied. THEY are all liars, trying to do us down, hiding things from us, being in league with the terrifying forces of change.

Furedi argues that as social consensus morality fractures, medicine becomes the new morality; instead of conduct being described as immoral or wicked, it can be condemned and restrained by being described as 'risky' or 'unsafe', while whole ranges of human behaviour are medicalised. Differences among human beings can no longer be accepted or indeed celebrated as part of the natural human condition, instead departures from an idealised norm become syndromes to be treated. Human beings are no longer seen as morally autonomous beings, but as passive victims of either past trauma, or of their genes and hormones.

Ultimately these fears will consume even themselves. The cult of the therapist leads inevitably to the therapist becoming one more threat. Thus people in the false memory debate, have never, you understand, made up tales of 'abuse' to get back at parents they at whom they feel inarticulate anger because their lives are not the wonderful happy ones seen in adverts. Oh no, they said these things 'because a therapist made me do it'. Once again they can become passive victims.

Some idea of where this sort of thing will end is shown in the recent advice given by the Local Government Association to teachers, that they should not rub suncream on children's arms and legs for fear of being accused of child abuse. The fears that children cannot go out in the sun without being covered in creams which add to the profits of the multinational pharmaceutical companies come in direct collision with the fear that any one who touches a child must be a paedophile. Our fears cancel each other out and reduce us to impotence.


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