Culture of Fear

Dealing with cultural panic attacks.


Earlier this week, the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, held a remarkably interesting conference titled "Panic Attack: The New Precautionary Culture, the Politics of Fear, and the Risks to Innovation." It was interesting not only because I was a participant, but because it looked at how many Western countries are losing their cultural nerve, as evidenced by the increasing cultural acceptance of the so-called precautionary principle.

The strongest versions of the precautionary principle demand that innovators prove that their inventions will never cause harm before they are allowed to deploy or sell them. In other words, if an action might cause harm, then inaction is preferable. The problem is that all new activities, especially those involving scientific research and technological innovation, always carry some risks. Attempting to avoid all risk is a recipe for technological and economic stagnation.

At the AEI conference, University of Kent sociologist, Frank Furedi, summed up the danger of this loss of cultural nerve in a talk based on his new book Politics Of Fear: Beyond Left And Right. He identified five trends fueling the rise of risk aversion in Western cultures.

First, Furedi argued that there has been a shift in moral reaction to harm. People no longer believe in natural disasters or acts of God. Today, people suspect that someone is behind a disaster—an irresponsible corporation or a cowardly bureaucrat. Indeed, accidents don't happen anymore; they have been redefined as preventable injuries.

Furedi argued that many of us now assume that every negative experience has some inner meaning. For example, when a teenager dies in a car crash, grieving parents regularly tell television reporters, "There is lesson to be learned from Johnny's death." The lesson usually is not that bad things randomly happen to good people, but that our roads don't have enough guard rails, or that we should enact laws to prevent teenagers from driving with friends and so forth.

Furedi sees this kind of thinking as a return to pre-modern days of higher superstition, where every event has a deeper meaning. In the medieval era, the hand of God or the malevolent influence of Satan explained why people suffered misfortunes. Today the malevolent hand of government or corporate America is to blame for every catastrophe.

A second factor that Furedi sees contributing to our culture of risk aversion is that the nature of harms is represented in increasingly dramatic fashion. People are no longer expected to rise above adversity or encouraged to get on with their lives after they experience a hard knock. They are instead victims who are "scarred for life" and perpetually "haunted" by their misfortunes. Even the timescale of disaster has expanded. Anything that happens now produces consequences that you can never predict. Thus you have to be very careful about what you do today and worry about what might happen decades down the road. Treating people as permanent victims and constantly speculating about possible future harms is a recipe for social and economic paralysis.

The fear that actions like inventing new medicines, chemicals, and energy sources might have unknowable, irreversible, and ultimately catastrophic effects in the future leads to Furedi's third factor. Even as more people are living longer and healthier lives, life is perceived as a very dangerous thing. The boundary between analysis and speculation is eroded as worst case scenarios proliferate. What if an asteroid hits us; what if biotech wheat gets out of control; what if Iraq is giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists? Worst case thinking decreases our cultural capacity to deal with uncertainty. Risk becomes something to avoid, not an opportunity to be seized.

The fourth trend that Furedi sees is the increasing treatment of safety as in end in itself. Furedi is not opposed to safety as a technical issue, of course, but he is against treating safety as a moral principle. Today, safety often acquires a "pseudo-moral" connotation as in "safe spaces," "safe medicine," and "safe sex." Furedi offered a personal story to illustrate what he meant. When he took his son to his new school, the principal told him, "Don't worry, our number one priority is your child's safety." Furedi responded, "I was hoping it was teaching him to read and write and do maths."

A fifth trend that arises from our increasingly precautionary culture is a radical redefinition of personhood. People no longer believe that we have the capacity to cope and to act. We no longer really believe in the idea of individual autonomy. People are helplessly addicted to sex, alcohol, or shopping. People are represented as weak and vulnerable. More and more groups—children, women, minorities—are defined as "vulnerable." Policy is focused on reassuring and supporting people, and risk taking is stigmatized.

Despite these trends, Western countries still manage to innovate and take risks. Furedi acknowledges that in the physical world we still create all kinds of new technologies and are going ahead in a dramatic and positive fashion. He was advised to go to Silicon Valley to find real risk takers and he did find driven creative people working hard to create new technologies. But Furedi pointed out that the refrigerators of these same swashbuckling techno-entrepreneurs are chock full of pesticide-free produce; they abhor tobacco; drink just half a glass of wine with dinner; and wear knee pads, elbow pads, and helmets to go bike riding. "In terms of their lifestyles, they are very very precautionary, pussycats basically," said Furedi.

"But in the world of meaning, however, we've become very very confused," he argued. Furedi pointed to corporate advertising, which is seldom overtly about business or profits. Instead ads show blue skies and an interracial mixture of babies frolicking happily together. Corporations find it difficult to affirm culturally what they are really doing, that is, creating products, providing services, and making profits. To be called a risk taker used to be considered a compliment; it now carries generally negative connotations. Risk taking is just short of pedophilia in provoking social opprobrium. "Today, no one is criticized for not taking risks," said Furedi.

In the end, Furedi was very good at diagnosing what is wrong with our contemporary culture of fear, but he had very few concrete suggestions about how to restore people's belief in progress and the power of human creativity.

In 1982, the superbrilliant thinker Herman Kahn published The Coming Boom in which he pleaded for the reestablishment of "an ideology of progress." Kahn warned:

Two out of three Americans polled in recent years believe that their grandchildren will not live as well as they do, i.e., they tend to believe the vision of the future that is taught in our school system. Almost every child is told that we are running out of resources; that we are robbing future generations when we use these scarce, irreplaceable, or nonrenewable resources in silly, frivolous and wasteful ways; that we are callously polluting the environment beyond control; that we are recklessly destroying the ecology beyond repair; that we are knowingly distributing foods which give people cancer and other ailments but continue to do so in order to make a profit. It would be hard to describe a more unhealthy, immoral, and disastrous educational context, every element of which is either largely incorrect, misleading, overstated, or just plain wrong. What the school system describes, and what so many Americans believe, is a prescription for low morale, higher prices and greater (and unnecessary) regulations.

Kahn turned out to be right about the boom, but most of the intellectual class is still burdened with an anti-progress ideology that remains a significant drag on scientific, technological and policy innovation. As Furedi and Kahn point out, overcoming the pervasive pessimism of the intellectual class is the major piece of work left for us to do in the 21st century.