Fear is a fundamental feeling of every aspect of our lives. It gets opposition, dispel, sometimes acceptance, in the public and private sphere. It’s used to shape society.
Scientifically, fear is a biological reaction to danger, so it’s precious for survival of humans and animals. It’s useful because, being an answer to an unknown sensation, it can have a cognitive purpose, connected to learning mechanisms. In a proper amount, it leads to finding solutions, studying difficulties and considering alternative options.
Our organism, when exposed to a menace, produces adrenaline. This hormone, a chemical mediator, puts us in front of a simple choice, summarized by Walter Bradford Cannon in “flight or fight”. You can escape from a risk or face it. Excessive fear, on the other hand, can make you freeze. We know that some animals pretend to be dead to trick predators, for humans isn’t the best case scenario though.
Socially and culturally, fear has been treated with a dual approach. On one side the rhetorical epic of the fearless hero and all the things that repress a so called negative emotion, which distract us from our goals: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said; or all the self-help books (how can something written by someone else be “self”?), aimed at the destruction of weaknesses.
On the other side fairy tales taught us how to go deep in our unconscious and deal with fear, without avoiding it. Metaphorically, it’s the stomach of the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. It’s crucial in our growth, from children to adults.
That concerns the private sphere. At a social and public level, fear tend to be an instrument of political or religious control. The Italian sociologist Guglielmo Ferrero, between the XIX and XX century, gathered fear together with the building of a civil and political society. We respond with it to natural worries, such as death and security, in order to guarantee a community life.
Ferrero (partly) retraces Thomas Hobbes positions, but he is more optimistic. According to Hobbes, power is above any law, supported by strength and fear. Ferrero puts limit to the power in a legal frame, giving it legitimacy.
George Simmel, German sociologist and philosopher, in the end of the XIX century said that fear is a psychological force which keeps people together and makes a geographical territory into a political space. Individuals can’t do without protection against unknown, superior forces. Fear is an essential tool for governments, even better when it works as a glue to unite against a common enemy.
Mass society didn’t stem control based on fear, despite an apparent rationalization. Actually, the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli stated that we discovered a new form of primitivism beyond progress. Fear socializes throughout a multiplier made up by mass communication.
“Media construct social imagination”, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote. According to him, some communication networks are guilty of “organized irresponsibility”. News have a psychological influence which generates anguish and dismay, but also a morbid interest. Otherwise some topic couldn’t have success.
That’s not all. The ones who instill fear are the same ones who present themselves as the solution, a vicious cycle which differs just a little bit from the past. The French historian Jean Delumeau explains that back in time preachers did their best to make people understand not to rely solely on God’s goodness, giving them a perspective projected into the future.
In a present-oriented society, fear prevents from the lost of significance of the daily routine and the lost of focus. It’s a way to create consensus and legitimacy, keeping an unstable order just to avoid to consider new social forms.