The Need to Resist Institutionalized Fear

Fear is an involuntary reaction to a specific situation, and can often be an indispensable survival mechanism to an organism.  Even if the fear itself yields an irrational response, such as being afraid of heights when standing only two feet above the ground, the fact remains that being afraid of heights (in general) is not an unreasonable mindset to hold (seeing as how the avoidance of great heights altogether will also reduce the occurrence of great falls, and the possible injury or death that may result from them).  The nature of these sort of fears are perfectly sensible when reduced to their core impulses; however, our tendency to allow for our fears to be overgeneralized to more situations than can be rationally justified, is anything but.

The strive for safety is a consequent in the greater pursuit of peace of mind; a goal that is largely unattainable in a modern society, due to the sheer number of unknowns (whether people or places) most of us are forced to interact with to make a living.  As an example, in the course of the past 1,825 days (that’s five years total), I have been mugged walking home in my neighborhood twice.  Now, 2 days of life-threatening fear (of which only a few moments in either of those days are even relevant in this discussion) compared to 1,823 days of mostly undisturbed solace (at least as far as not being robbed at gunpoint goes) is a danger-ratio that should be called too statistically negligible to even warrant a concern.  Knowing this does absolutely nothing to ease my mind when it comes to taking the extra precautions to reduce the chance of such an event happening for a third time.  The reason for this is that we–as a people and as a society–are much more likely to shape our lives around our bad experiences than the good ones, because the bad experiences hold more risk to harm the delicate nature of the personal ecosystems we nurture around ourselves.  And the primary goal of each person’s instinct in this topic is to keep the conditions of her/his ecosystems as controlled and predictable as comfort allows.

On an individual level, this is an understandable development, and as I said before can serve to inform and protect a person when dealing with any future dangers that might come up in her/his life.  However, when dealing on a broader societal scope, our collective sensitivity to (more often than not) respond to dire events with impulsive fear creates something more dangerous than personal panic or an awareness for greater precaution–it creates an unwarranted paranoia, where patterns are concocted to explain a relatively rare phenomenon as compensation for our collected feeling of helplessness in averting a tragic situation.

Very, very bad things happen; very, very bad things will continue to happen; a decent probability exists that very, very bad things will occasionally happen to you.  Yet, a higher likelihood exists that, if you live in the industrial world, the vast majority of your life will not consist of such bad experiences (more than likely, your life be mostly made up of danger-neutral events).  And an even higher likelihood exists that you will ignore this simple fact whenever the next attack, disaster, tragedy, or chaotic event makes the national news.  Moreover, an even, even higher likelihood exists that you will misconstrue my words here as an indefensible call for irresponsible inaction in the face of danger, rather than a warning not to allow institutionalized fear to dictate the means by which we evaluate the world and the people around us.

The reason I care about this topic is that fear–socially appropriated fear touted out as a response to a heinous/disastrous event–is the default tactic used by authorities to endear themselves to a person’s desire for safety to cement their own political interests, while effectively silencing any reasonable opposition or nuance that may be raised to question the merit of these interests.

Fear is the means by which we assess the observable threat in our surroundings to help us avoid suffering and/or death.  Despite the fact that the existence of fear (as a bodily/psychological response) appears to be largely innate, it is also undeniable that many of the specific fears of particular things we have are learned through experience in our interactions with the external world.  My position is that in our pursuit for greater safety, for us as individuals, as well as society at large–especially in the face of tragic events–we don’t make the mistake of adopting fear as the guiding principle from which we argue for social and personal improvement.  Instead, I’d argue that sincere introspection and critical self (and social) scrutiny would make for a more productive means by which to deal with the more frightening facets of social life, and never to forget how, despite their hold on our consciousness, these facets are far almost always less prominent and less absolute than our fears would have us believe.  But that’s just my two cents.

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