Why are we so afraid?

We were afraid long before 9/11.

As so many have observed, fear causes us to trade freedom for security, real or perceived. Fear makes us sheep, a lesson that’s not lost on those who seek to acquire, retain and extend power. Fear causes us to follow not those who’d deliver us from fear or its causes, but rather those who profit from it.

But why are we so afraid?

This is a question I’ve been thinking and studying on for some time – longer even than I realized. As it turns out I did a good bit of research in the ’90s that bears directly on the issue, and while I don’t claim to have a definite answer nailed down, I do believe I have a theory, and maybe it’s one we can leverage as we try to infuse the Republic with a bit more reason. It’s longish, but bear with me – hopefully the payoff will reward your patience.

My dissertation looked at the evolution of science and technology throughout Western history – literally I worked as far back as Genesis 1. What I discovered was that progress ebbs and flows, and as it does society also endures the upheavals associated with change. Moments of major technological advance (and I use the term “advance” advisedly – one person’s Heaven is another’s Hell) are always accompanied by significant social upheavals. The Industrial Revolution in Europe, which gave rise to the Luddite Rebellion, serves as maybe our best example of this. Even when the progress looks like its more or less obviously a good thing, it’s still attended by social dislocations as economies, political systems, social practices and ideologies struggle to adjust. To note a lesson I like to teach my business and PR students, even good change can result in crisis.

If we might abstract for a moment, let me get some posits and assumptions on the table:

  • I’d assert that over history there’s been something like a default progress curve – gradual increases over time, building to critical mass moments that drive periods of explosive innovation and change.
  • My research suggests that change and the need to compensate and adapt inherently foster stress.
  • Further, I’d posit that societies have a default “coping curve” – we’re wired to manage and adapt to a certain degree of change over time. It’s important to understand that it requires energy, at both the personal and societal levels, to manage stress. The coping curve isn’t a freebie – perhaps if we understood the dynamic completely it might lend itself to a sort of three-step analogue to Newton’s third law – progress leads to an equal amount of stress which requires an equal amount of psychic energy to balance.
  • There’s a “normal” equilibrium level where X progress/stress is assimilated and managed by Y coping mechanism. That is, in most cases X = Y.

So let’s illustrate some of this graphically.

Here you see the hypothetical equilibrium, where the progress/stress curve advances moderately and is paralleled by the coping curve. If we see the time frame as a century, then 100 years brings X progress resulting in Y stress, all of which is managed by the default coping curve Z.

However, technology doesn’t always advance in a steady, linear fashion. At various points the curve shoots upward, as seen here.

At this point we have a system out of balance. But why can’t the coping curve match the steepness of the stress curve? We need to examine the relationship between the evolution of our intellects and that of our non-intellectual faculties. A few years ago when England’s Prince Charles (of all people) delivered the commemoration address at Harvard University’s 350th Anniversary celebration, he lamented that humanity’s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by.”

I think Charles has only scratched the surface here. On the one hand our minds present us daily with wonders so incredible we have to pity science fiction writers – things they imagined might decades down the road might just be reality by the time they get the manuscript to the publisher.

At the same time, how rapidly have our ethics, our spiritual capabilities, our moral abilities advanced? Well, the dominant moral principle in Western society is Christianity, a theology born thousands of years ago. And while its ultimate message is hotly contested, it’s worth noting that literally millions of its adherents seem to believe that we’d be better off if we rolled the spiritual clock back to those ancient origins.

If you want to engage the nuances of this debate in more depth, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Read them, then hit the Net for an avalanche of rebuttals. At this point, conclude whatever your conscience dictates, but it’s unarguable that the accomplishments of our minds are evaluated on 21st Century criteria while our souls are being contested on belief systems that are more than two millennia in the past.

It seems uncontroversial at this juncture to observe that the intellectual progress curve moves more quickly than our ethics and morality. This conclusion is more than supported by our own experience – by the time we come to terms with a technological marvel, that technology is old hat. The Catholic Church, for instance, is still waging battle against contraception, and the pill was introduced some 45+ years ago.

So, what happens to a society in times of rapid technological innovation? The progress curves shoots up, and along with it the stress curve. Perhaps we experience a century’s worth of progress in a decade – that, of course, means that we have to somehow process a century’s worth of stress in that same timeframe. This requires an equal measure of psychic energy, but the coping curve is unable to match the advance of progress. What results is a massive imbalance between the intellectual and spiritual, a crisis of compensation.

In short, we have what I’ll call a fear gap.

Massive stress, but no tools are available to assimilate these changes. It’s only natural that this engenders fear, especially among those least given to intellectual pursuits. So how do we cope in a world where our minds have completely outpaced our souls?

Well, the common response seems to be to grasp onto any fixed point available like we would a life preserver in stormy seas. In times like these appeals to easy answers, to organizations that offer “eternal wisdom,” to things that are familiar, to traditions, to leaders who pander to those uncertainties – these are bound to be successful.

The tech curve above doesn’t begin to do justice to the past few decades – it often seems like it should be nearly vertical. Here are a few things to ponder:

  • Nuclear weaponry
  • In-vitro fertilization
  • Contraception
  • Cloning
  • The Internet (and all the Frankensteinian possibilities associated with it)
  • Satellite photography (we can see you from space)
  • Data mining and consumer tracking (Big Brother knows exactly what you’re up to)
  • DNA fingerprinting (privacy)
  • RFID (think “Mark of the Beast” here)
  • Stem-cell research
  • Space flight and exploration of other planets (what happens if we find life on Mars?)
  • Broadcasting (inability to control flow of “indecency” and unwanted messages into home)
  • Nanotechnology (powerful, invisible)

And what has been the cultural response?

  • Religious fundamentalism (in the US and abroad)
  • Growth of reactionary political ideologies and empowerment of demagogues
  • Dynasties – by the time our next President is inagurated the White House will have been governed for two decades by two families. There is a very real chance this era could expand to 24 or 28 years – and given the apparently endless supply of politically-minded Bushes, perhaps even longer.

Clearly we are grasping for the familiar, for something we recognize and believe we can count on. It’s worth noting how many of our most contentious advances lie in the area of reproductive technology. Sci-tech continually seeks new ways to create, terminate and modify life – an arena that most directly challenges the assumed dominion of god. And of course, so much of the reactionary conservatism that defines our present culture war centers on these and related issues – abortion, stem cells, gay marriage and gay rights, etc.

If my theory is accurate, there’s a fairly linear flow: technological advance breeds cultural stress, which engenders resistance. When exceptional degrees of advance outstrip the possibility of productive resistance, potentially violent backlash ensues.

So, if the theory enlightens us as to what’s happening, does it predict the future? Maybe, to some extent. We’ve had rapid progress fueling strong reactionary backlash in the past, and we know that progress always wins in the end. Technological advance seems to be the unstoppable force of human history, at least so far. Over time our moral capabilities catch up a bit, new practices and mores emerge, and in true Darwinian fashion those communities and ideas that can’t adapt go extinct. The forces of traditional morality negotiate a space for themselves.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that wars claim casualties, and while progress might triumph it won’t necessarily be a rout.

Conclusion: the fear we’re now experiencing is a normal feature of human progress – growing pains, if you will. It may be violent and it may last awhile, but there’s ample hope for a brighter future.

I’m sure some of my readers have things to add and others no doubt have challenges. I look forward to hearing them.

26 replies »

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  2. Sam, if you haven’t read it yet (I just finished it – on to The End of Faith), you positively must read The World is Flat by Friedman. It talks about the the things that are changing the world from a vertically dominated power structure among nations, corporations, economies, technologies, politics, etc. to a horzontally-structured collaborative economy.

    Excellent read, even if you don’t agree with a lot of it for various reasons. It was nice to have someone put so much of what we’re living through right now into a single location for (relatively) easy access.

  3. This is, essentially, Toffler and I think there’s a fair bit too it.

    But I think a lot of specifically western fear comes from the way most people have been dissociated from life and death. When you live in a farm you can’t avoid it. When you live in extended family households, you can’t avoid it. We can, and do. Combined with smaller families there’s real fear of death, and I think much more so than those who grew up in different circumstances had. We think we’re supposed to live forever.

    I would also suggest that as modern life pushes us towards more and more anomie; towards more and more alienation, that fear increases as well. We all live on the edge in a world where almost all of us work for someone else, have large credit card bills, know people who have been bankrupted by medical expenses etc… The middle class, especially, has a great deal of unexpressed fear of dropping out of the middle class and never coming back…

  4. or maybe its as simple as we don’t want anyone else to infringe upon our stuff. We can almost handle it when someone ridicules what we believe in. We are almost mature enough to face basic traumas of daily life. Then you throw in the idea that all we have striven for materialistically is threatened by whatever “unwashed masses” are the flavor of the day, and you get honest to god fear.

    Truth is, there is plenty to fear, but it’s almost never what we are told it is

    good post. well thought out, lucid. all the things i’m not…color me green

  5. I am recalling Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind and thinking his description of schismogenesis is the kind of reaction we ought to most hope to avoid, that is the division of societal factions into essentially a binary position. After all, that’s what the Cold War was, and we’re lucky (in fact it’s probably more by accident) that civilization wasn’t already incinerated.

    Thomas Friedman doesn’t help with this because his assertion that the world is flat is a lazy assertion and has already been challenged, in the spirit if not in the letter, by the Islamists. Not saying I agree with their challenge, but it is there nonetheless.

    Of course it helps to view how a technological innovation actually shifts power, through what means and bodies and so on, it just so happens that much of the dirty work in this field, at least up until 1980, was already done by Foucault, so anyone interested in it has to acknowledge his influence, and if the person interested is homophobic in any way, their investigation tends to halt.

    That said, obviously if we can all share in at least this forum then we are far from doomed. There is possibility for cooperation with seemingly-unlikely partners, such as the MLKs of the world, who let’s not forget was he himself part of an institution that largely viewed the world in binary good/evil positions.

  6. I’ll go you one layer deeper: I would posit that this technological advance isn’t the stress factor, it’s the comfort zone it creates that ultimately triggers our species-wide psychosis. We are wired to forage, hunt, confront, fight, and kill. We need adversity. When we engineer a world that doesn’t require us to deal with adversity for basic comforts, and create cultural mores that frown on it to boot, we can’t deal.

    Superstition and religuous hocus pocus fluctuate in popularity depending on how many people are having trouble dealing with their own mortality at any given point, but some of it might be attributable to people looking for a free ticket to join a thinly disguised hate group. No I’m not jaded or anything 🙂

  7. I think you should consider the difference among human beings to cope with the gap/stress is also resulting in an infight. The infight will grow further as the scientists would come with more and more innovations and the debates will be going on their ethical implications.

  8. 5. Rocky – have you actually read the book? Friedman posits, correctly IMO and with significant support, that the Islamists are both a reaction to the flattening of the world and a full-power user of the very disrupting technologies that enabled the world to flatten in the first place.

    Also, Friedman points out that the world isn’t entirely flat, just significant portions of it, and he says that how the flat parts deal with the unflat parts and the people who want to use the technological flatteners to unflatten the world again is one of the biggest social and political challenges the world will face over the next decade or three.

  9. Sam,

    Awesome work. You’ve clearly and succinctly articulated theories I’ve had for years, in a way that makes me green with envy and full of admiration.

    Humans spend their whole lives trying to get back to the feeling of security and safety they perceived in the womb. The drive to be “safe” collides with the aggressive imperatives to propagate and reproduce, and for all of our veneer of civilization, we’re still very much animals. And just as animals shy away from threats, we, too,shy away from the implications of our own desire to progress.

    Our ability to innovate, invent, and imagine is so amazing that even things that should be mystical seem commonplace. Just look at this–how awesome is it that I’m speaking to you now across hundreds of miles, and that this is being read by people around the world?

    Progress always wins in the end. Even if we have to go through a terrible Dark Age to get there, the human desire to be more than we are always trumps the animal need for protection and safety. That’s what separates man from beast.

  10. Addressing the fear:

    Thanks, Sam, for another insightful article (like I’d expect any less!).

    I don’t know that there’s a way to put brakes on tech/stress (not to say you suggested that or that I’d think it’s a good idea). In terms of leveraging your theory, it seems to me that there are two primary ways to address that fear gap, both of them aimed at adjusting the coping curve on average.

    The first is one of your personal faves, IIRC…education. If we can find a way to remove indoctrination of any flavor from publicly-funded education and instill critical thinking skills from an early age, I believe we would have a populace better equipped to assess, prioritize and redress the coping challenges with which they contend from day to day.

    The second is relaxation, as overly simplistic as it sounds on the surface.

    I’d far prefer meditation as a suggestion, but the word is enough to drive a wedge into reasoned debate in many quarters. That, and I don’t advocate any particular form of meditation or esoteric philosophy to justify it or inform its methods.

    While I don’t dispute an individual’s inalienable right to freedom of (and from!) religion, the “religious” solution to our current social malaise, which would be perceived as spiritual from the religious perspective, is inadequate to the task due to the stress added by the cognitive dissonance it engenders. One man’s binary good is another woman’s binary evil and let Hym/Hir with the bigger nuke win, right? But within the last century there have been such magnificent psychological and sociological interpretations of man’s “religious instinct”, that for those ill-disposed to adopt a practice filled with mumbo-jumbo (I’m one to talk, erratic/eccentric quasi-pagan that I am), there are plenty of psychological models to explain the same observable effects in the human organism.

    That said, stripped of religious and esoteric overtones, replaced as necessary with psychological and/or medical terminology, meditation rather quickly resolves itself to “relaxation” (oh, I can imagine I’ve twisted some knickers with that one, sorry). I submit that the things that differentiate meditation from relaxation fall entirely under the rubric of esoteric philosophy, which is what necessitates its removal if it’s to be proposed as a coping tool for society at large. Individuals would remain free to re-load their chosen relaxation techniques with whatever theology, mysticism or pet theories float their boats.

    As for the benefits of relaxation, a combination of personal experience and a cursory search on the web should be illustrative enough, I think.

    A person equipped with the ability to defuse tension using the body’s natural response to things as simple as intentionally changed breathing patterns and visualization as well as the cognitive skillset necessary to actively and positively engage modern information overload and technological advances would, IMHO, be far better able to cope with modern societal stresses. Extrapolate from individual to populations and deal in percentages and it seems apparent to me that your coping curve would then more closely approximate the tech/stress curve, thus reducing the fear gap. Who knows, it might even be a self-sustaining cycle as a decreased fear gap may pose less of an obstacle to coping, accelerating the improvement in the coping curve, etc.

    2 cents/538 words. That comes to $0.000037174721189591100000000000/word. There’s gotta be a better racket 😉

  11. Brian,

    The problem with Friedman is that he couches even his smartest insights in the most tortured, laborious, simplistic language imaginable. I read “The World Is Flat” last year and was astonished at how facile his analyses were–it read like a naive college student’s thesis, not the work of a New York Times columnist and best-selling author.

    An interesting point is that many of the most prominent leaders of the Jihad are cultured, Western-educated, and wealthy–not from the low classes by a long shot. Benjamin Barber explored this in “Jihad vs. McWorld” (a much better book, IMO), and to him it was example of tribalist and cultural values trumping economic station–a good example of people not acting rationally.

    Friedman is right on many points regarding the necessity of globalism (as opposed to globalization), but he’s wrong on so many other points, and is such a terribly bad writer, that it’s hard to stomach any insight he offers.

  12. I’m depressed. I’ve always instinctively understood this, because, as a virtue of vice of age, I’ve seen virtually all of the technological stressors mentioned.

    Sometimes I think what you posit is why it’s so difficult for an older generation to teach a younger one. We’ve seen the stressors; we’ve devised coping mechanisms. Here, kids, use ours.

    Yet previous generations of kiddies seemed to devise their own. But my current students, methinks, have designed not a coping mechanism but a blind to shield themselves from the need to confront fears they do not understand — or care to.

    This, this (wagging my finger) is the media’s fault. 🙂

  13. With greater lifespans than ever before, there is less to fear than ever before. The Soviet Union had some talented scientists, and hence the ability to destroy all life on earth. By comparison, the current crop of murderous thugs is locked into the dark ages, which prevents them from developing a meaningful threat. Though they must be put down like the mad dog they closely resemble, (to protect the children!) the notion that they present a meaningful threat is laughable.

    Cowards always blame their fear on others, assuming that their character flaw, the inability to act bravely in the face of fear, is shared by all others. Cowards can’t face their fear (denial) or blame others so they may be absolved.

    Brave men (and women) face their fear, recognize it, and then act appropriately despite their fear. Often the actions of the brave can protect others from war, famine, pestilence, and death, to their great credit.

    Fear is something to face and defeat, to allow us to take action against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

  14. When I had you in class, I always thought of you as a cynical SOB. Don’t take that as an insult because it’s not meant as one.

    If you believe moral ability can progress, however, than you’re clearly more optimistic than I.

  15. I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain.

    Dune, Frank Herbert

  16. “Fear is the mind-killer” – F.H. ( a favorite quote of mine)

    What does this mean, how does it happen?
    When the fear hits, it’s followed by shock and paralysis as contexts change, and one’s sense of basic facts and the relationships between them shift. This is the initial stage of coping- reassessing one’s basic understanding of the world, and one’s place in it, with the fear influencing all. Paralysis is the first reaction. Before flight or fight comes freeze.

    Then anger comes. While this may first appear to be an empowering reaction to the fear, it just reinforces the strong negativity. Anger may seem to bring a relief to the paralysis, it may seem like the action antidote, but it does not overcome fear – it rides it like a wave. So now we are angry and afraid, yet in motion (which is very dangerous).

    If one accepts the anger reponse to fear, and the fear is not really specific, then there is no real focus for the anger, and nothing to be done with it. Our motion stalls. This leads to depression, and back to paralysis. A cycle that we are currently suffering as a society, and on a personal level for a great number of us. We are stuck in a rut.

    The cure for fear is laughter. we have to seriously jump outside the cycle of negativity. Honestly laughing at the source of the fear allows one to approach the situation with one’s own personal agenda, operating freely. Do not accept the fear – laugh at both the truth and the illusions.

    Laughter leads to freedom, while anger reinforces fear. This reinforcement is the reason why anger is not a legitimate response to fear, even if it is common to the point of seeming natural.


    I find myself getting into trouble sometimes because I do tend to laugh at truths that are absurd. Like the crap that comes out of the mouths of our “leaders” and their minions.

    But the fact is that these bastards have us all figured out. They know that fear will keep us quiet. Who is willing to stand up to their boss, and risk their career, their food, home, and children’s future? Who is willing to contradict the fear-mongers, knowing this will cast them as the enemy in the eyes of their colleagues and bosses?

    I believe that there are a good number of people in high places who depend on the fear of the masses as an aid to the promotion of their own selfish agendas. No conspiracy here, just think school yard bully. We must root out the fear-mongers, expose them, and then LAUGH at them, and their pathetic attempts to reduce us all to puppets for their personal gain. Ridicule is what drives away the bully and steals his power. Only love can overcome hate.

  17. “Ridicule is what drives away the bully and steals his power.”

    And this is why satire was reputedly held in such high esteem in ages of yore. Alas, satire is a generally languishing art form in “official” media circles.

  18. I had hoped to spark some intelligent comment with this post, and I succeeded. Thanks for all the thoughtful ideas, comments, criticisms, and addenda. Let me work through and reply to some of your thoughts.

    Brian and Martin:: Friedman is on the long and growing list of things to read.

    3. Ian Welsh: There’s certainly a legion of intelligent sociologists who’d agree with you. I think the thing that might be worth exploring in even more depth is the degree to which “modern life,” as you term it, defines or redefines the dynamics I’m talking about. Certainly the curve isn’t linear – the default levels I’m talking about are ever higher, and that would seem a function of what you’re saying.

    4. criminyjicket: Absolutely – and of course, the “stuff” factor = consumerism which would be an inherent part of it all (and would be a key element of Ian’s “modern life”).

    5. rocky rigby: And while we Westerners are inherently given to binary “either/or” thinking, there’s something about stress that makes it worse, then?

    6. stickyboy: Interesting theory. It actually runs almost directly counter to my own sense that Marx missed the boat because he saw the defining dynamic of culture as class struggle. In fact, I have argued, the only assumption of human cultural activity that would allow the costruction of a realistic political/economic system would be pursuit of leisure. But your “animal” argument is compelling – is there a way these ideas are more friendly to each other than I imagine?

    7. Diganta: What qualities do you think define the difference in how humans react?

    8. Elaine: And this is why I’m currently an independent here. I skew progressive on average, but at the core I simply don’t think our current way of viewing political issues reflects the realities of the world. Well, that’s maybe not right – it’s a perfect manifestation of how a couple major groups are vying for power and control. But none of it seems productive. My own views are sort all over the accepted map.

    10. Martin: That and opposable thumbs. 🙂

    11. DMV: It didn’t take you long to peg the thing underlying what I think the solution is – yes, education is the hedge here. The smarter the culture is, the less painful these dislocations are. As for medicating society, I can’t wait to see the Senate debate on that one….

    17. Don Meaker: Relatively engaging comments here, but then you slither over to NewsTrust and do a cheap little hit job on me. So what’s REALLY going on here? Trolling for Cheney, I guess?

    18. ldiotkid: I believe we can progress and I believe that we DO progress. Obviously it’s a slow, slow process. It’s hard to see if you compare 2007 to 1967, but if you compare 2007 to 1400 you can see that we’ve ticked forward a bit. The trick is to enculturate the things required to speed that pace up. Dramatically. But don’t lose hope – I AM a cynical bastard….

    20. Old Tom: As I’ve long said, it’s either laugh or cry. The trick is to understand ridicule and laughter as viable tools promoting social action. If they’re allowed to become release valves and nothing more then they serve the corrupt power elite. If they inform the intellect and drive reform, though… This is why I think Jon Stewart is one of the most important people in America right now.

  19. What qualities do you think define the difference in how humans react?
    – openness, adaptibility and quick understanding.