August 12, 2012

Big Question: What Are We Afraid Of

This is a companion post to several other posts I'm working on. I want to try and construct kind of inventory of what we want and don't want in a society in order to build a narrative that makes sense to everyone. Yes, everyone. In order to do that we must have some common ground to stand on. Or in this case, ground we don't want to stand on.


Fear serves a purpose. It can help us make decisions by serving as a shortcut through statistical or rational analysis. But it also makes us defensive and mean, and it limits us by cutting off that rationality. Many psychologists (such as Jonathan Haidt) would argue further that it and other emotions can drive our rationality as well.

Because of all this, fear is a potent political factor--it is a tool used by political actors, but it is also a constitutive element of how we understand the world and in many ways independent of anyone's conscious action. Fear was a main theme of one of the original works of modern political science. If we are to escape the terrible clutches of rhetoric (see what I did there?) and our unconsciousness and engage in meaning political or economic debate we need to understand our fears. I have two goals in doing this: helping avoiding (solely) fear-based decisions, and helping us understand what we actually are, and should be, afraid of.

To start with, I brainstormed a list of fears and then grouped them into overarching types. Some of these fears are more influential or more universal than others; they are not in any order other than the categorization.

-losing things we feel entitled to
-loss of hope
-losing authenticity
-losing morality or values

-lack of opportunity
-not being able to choose what we want to
-feeling that we failed
-lack of self-determination
-being forced to do things we don't want to
-arbitrariness of other people's power

-not knowing what we want
-lack of identity
-missed opportunity
-lack of morality or values

-not having enough to eat
-bad health

-being alone
-be excluded
-being worse off than other people
-being judged
-not being included
-losing people we love
-not being loved
-other people's anger
-found out if we do something bad/punishment
-fear for other people's welfare (and avoidance of all fears)

Did I miss anything important?

Although fear is ultimately just an emotion inside your head, it does reflect external circumstances. Most of these fears depend on both our own choices and perceptions and the choices and perceptions of other people: humiliation is something that others create but it is also something that we allow ourselves to feel; other people can take things from us but they cannot make us fear or regret the loss.

Beyond other people, fears are also created by circumstance. We may feel boredom or stagnation not because of our internal state or because of other people, but because we are trapped alone with one palm tree on a cliched desert island.

It makes sense then that fear is so closely tied to politics and political economy, because there are many fears we can only face together, through cooperation or at some least organization. We need politics and other social structures (including markets) overcome our fears on a large scale--our fears of other people and of circumstance. By having a public police force, we reduce our fear of being robbed; by having a public fire department, we reduce our fear of our house burning down.

While all types of fear play a role in contemporary political rhetoric, fears of loss and fear of powerlessness are often central. Their importance is a product of technology--government can control our bodies better than our minds--and it is a product of several millenia we've had to theorize and experience what government should be about. Government has evolved complex limits on its own power and restrictions on power usage between individuals; concurrently we have developed intricate systems of property rights and ownership to deal with our fear of loss. The way we view these structures and how they create or dispel our fears is fundamental to our political views and what vision we have for our economic system.

Future posts will examine fear loss and powerlessness in more detail.

1 comment:

  1. To add to the powerlessness list. The oppositie of aging, youngness, also can make people powerless.