Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Will there be "Freedom from Fear"?

Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" included "Freedom from Fear."
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want--which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.
Frank Furedi thinks we've managed to broaden the definition of "fear" and, in so doing, managed to tighten its shackles even tighter then in Roosevelt's day.
One of the distinguishing features of fear today is that it appears to have an independent existence. It is frequently cited as a problem that exists in its own right, disassociated from any specific object. Classically, societies associate fear with a clearly formulated threat - the fear of plague or the fear of hunger. In such formulations, the threat was defined as the object of such fears: the problem was death, illness or hunger. Today, we frequently represent the act of fearing as a threat itself. A striking illustration of this development is the fear of crime. Today, fear of crime is conceptualised as a serious problem that is to some extent distinct from the problem of crime. That is why politicians and police forces often appear to be more concerned about reducing the public's fear of crime than reducing crime itself.

Yet the emergence of the fear of crime as a problem in its own right cannot be understood as simply a response to the breakdown of law and order. It is important to note that fear as a discrete stand-alone problem is not confined to the problem of crime. The fear of terrorism is also treated as a problem that is independent of, and distinct from, the actual physical threat faced by people in society. That is why so many of the measures undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism are actually oriented towards managing the public's fear of this phenomenon.
What to do?
Although the politics of fear reflects a wider cultural mood, it did not emerge spontaneously. Fear has been consciously politicised. Throughout history fear has been deployed as a political weapon by the ruling elites. Machiavelli's advice to rulers that they will find 'greater security in being feared than in being loved' has been heeded by successive generations of authoritarian governments. Fear can be employed to coerce and terrorise and to maintain public order. Through provoking a common reaction to a perceived threat it can also provide focus for gaining consensus and unity.

Today, the objective of the politics of fear is to gain consensus and to forge a measure of unity around an otherwise disconnected elite. But whatever the intentions of its authors, its main effect is to enforce the idea that there is no alternative.

The promotion of fear is not confined to right-wing hawks banging on the war drums. Fear has turned into a perspective that citizens share across the political divide. Indeed, the main distinguishing feature of different parties and movements is what they fear the most: the degradation of the environment, irresponsible corporations, immigrants, paedophiles, crimes, global warming, or weapons of mass destruction. . .

In one sense, the term politics of fear is a misnomer. Although promoted by parties and advocacy groups, it expresses the renunciation of politics. Unlike the politics of fear pursued by authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, today's politics of fear has no clearly focused objective other than to express claims in a language that enjoys a wider cultural resonance. The distinct feature of our time is not the cultivation of fear but the cultivation of our sense of vulnerability. While it lacks a clearly formulated objective, the cumulative impact of the politics of fear is to reinforce society's consciousness of vulnerability. And the more powerless we feel the more we are likely to find it difficult to resist the siren call of fear.

The precondition for effectively countering the politics of fear is to challenge the association of personhood with the state of vulnerability. Anxieties about uncertainty become magnified and overwhelm us when we regard ourselves as essentially vulnerable. Yet the human imagination possesses a formidable capacity to engage and learn from the risks it faces. Throughout history humanity has learned from its setbacks and losses and has developed ways of systematically identifying, evaluating, selecting and implementing options for reducing risks.

There is always an alternative. Whether or not we are aware of the choices confronting us depends upon whether we regard ourselves as defined by our vulnerability or by our capacity to be resilient.
Roosevelt boldly declared that we could get ourselves free of the fear as he defined it. He believed in American resiliency, to use Furedi's term, and I doubt he would have allowed himself or the U.S. to be "defined by our vulnerability."

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