The Culture of Fear: Coronavirus and the Human Animal
Steve Attridge, Guest
Fear is a weapon. It is also a deadly disease, far more potent than Corona virus. It also tells us much about our society, our relationships and ourselves. Fear inhibits thought, it restricts freedom, it limits imagination and it isolates us from each other and ultimately from ourselves. It is also a useful political and cultural tool to bend and even break people.
A dictionary definition of fear is that it is an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm.
So it is a mental state. An imaginary act, and the key word is threat. There are well over five hundred fears and phobias, and the list is growing as our culture becomes increasingly terrified of itself, narcissistic and neurotic.
There is real fear and there is manufactured fear. If someone is running at you holding a machete and saying they want to kill you then flight or fight kicks in and fear is good. If a suicide bomber jumps at you shouting Allah Akbar fear is good. It will also help the adrenalin to kick in when you run away. To stay put and ignore your fear is just silly.
But manufactured fear is something else altogether. It may be based on something entirely imaginary, such as four years ago if the majority voted for Brexit the economy would collapse overnight. People actually said that. It didn’t. Or it may be based on something real, like coronavirus, but then be distorted. In that case the fear is not a healthy response, it’s kneejerk reaction that paralyses us from proper understanding.
The manufacture of fear has three steps to it; one. Seed it. Two – let it grow. Three – harvest it. Why frighten people? Because frightened people are diminished. They shrink. They eventually lose their humanity. They are easy to manipulate. The holocaust is a terrible example of this.
Just think of the things that have been used to frighten us: Brexit, the Corona virus, financial collapse, political correctness, global warming – all of these things have a currency of fear. Even something like the TV license is designed to create fear. You get a letter from the TV Licensing agency – of course outsourced by the BBC with tax payers money to get someone else to do their dirty work. You’d think if the BBC was so great they’d say – look what amazing things you’re getting for your money – re runs, WOKE dramas and propaganda – who wouldn’t want to pay for that. But no – the letter is a threat, full of words like warning, enforcement, penalty, criminal, which criminalise you in advance and is designed only to frighten you into paying their absurd tax – over five billion a year to supplement ludicrous salaries, exorbitant expenses, and substandard programming that fewer and fewer people want to watch.
The coronavirus is the latest example of fear mongering and it is part of a bigger picture. In a surveillance society and where police are already being used to monitor people, it only takes a few emergency powers to crank up the law telling us where we can go, who we can go with and how long we can stay there. The army is on standby.
In terms of a Fear index this virus also shows how far we have come along the road of expecting others to do our thinking for us.
This virus is nasty but it does not justify the global terror unleashed by constant media fear mongering. In the UK 6,600 people have died of flu and 120,000 people have been hospitalized with it during the 2019-2020 flu season, but we haven’t got our knickers in a twist over that. At the time of making this video 71 have died in the UK of coronavirus. It seems that most people recover from the virus. It is real but it is distorted in how it is presented and perceived. And we must guard against false perceptions. Science is still grappling with this virus so we should be wary of those who espouse certainties.
We live in a world of manufactured fears because in a sense they are easier to deal with than real fears. And so many people think they know best. And they can’t shut about it and themselves. I was in a coffee shop in London’s Soho about a month ago. Next to me was a man wearing expensively scruffy jeans, a little goatee beard hiding a double chin, and talking very loudly. It was clear he was a metropolitan liberal and, I had to smile, it turned out he worked in television. The woman he was talking at, rather than to, nodded furiously at everything he said and constantly furrowed her brow to create the illusion of thought. In fifteen minutes he poured ridicule on Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Brexit, Nigel Farage, global warming – all the usual suspects for metropolitan liberals – as well as Israel, the virus, the Syrian government, racists, fascists – these last two seemed to be everyone who didn’t think like him. He said he found all these things terrifying and only the ignorant wouldn’t be scared shitless by them. As he pontificated he scoffed a panini with ham and lettuce and smashed avocado on the side. He also had a double expresso. The woman held a Pierre Cardin bag.
Four things about this. One. The ham came from a pig. If motormouth with a beard really wanted to experience fear, indeed terror, just visit an abattoir. Two. Avocado farming is causing deforestation, destroying ecosystems, funding drug cartels, and contributing to climate change. In the biggest avocado producing region in the world in Mexico, farmers are illegally razing pine forests in order to plant lucrative avocado trees. Three. Coffee is often used by drug cartels to smuggle drugs. Drug cartels are often used to protect coffee production. Migrant workers are paid poorly and are at the mercy of seasonal variations. Many die. Four. Pierre Cardin has repeatedly come under fire for using suppliers that employ child labour that amounts to slavery. Fear of starvation often forces these kids into slavery, and many become ill. Many die prematurely. So while Motormouth was pontificating his litany of moans the real holocaust of fear and suffering was on the little table in front of him where the ghosts of a thousand stories went unheard.
My point is that people prefer their fears when they can blame someone else and not take responsibility for the actual concrete details surrounding them. That requires real thought and real responsibility.
Fifty years ago, the psychiatrist R.D. Laing said that we are becoming frightened of our own minds. Psychophobia. That the medical profession is constantly coming up with new illnesses, new phobias, new forms of depression, so that eventually everyone is ill, just as in WOKE thinking everyone is a victim or an oppressor. So, everyone is frightened of something. But what they are actually frightened of is themselves – of the body that harbours disease, of thoughts that are no longer allowed, ideas that are frowned upon, or even outlawed, of speech that dares to criticise and articulate uncomfortable truths. So this is the real virus – the manufacture and dissemination of fear. And it’s deadly.
Social media narrows our field of vision and experience too by placing us in discrete groups of like-minded people – and of course we collude in this – so that people start to feel the whole world thinks like them. Then when differences do strike , people either get ‘triggered’ or terrified or abusive.
The supermarket is full of murderous intentions. The person who last week was a good liberal is now considering hacking an old man to death to steal his toilet roll. The woman who last week was delivering meals on wheels is now thinking of battering her neighbour with her shopping trolley because she’s taken the last 23 tins of baked beans. At my local hospital people have ripped the hand sanitisers off the walls and stolen them and filched toilet rolls from the hospital toilets. In America there are queues outside gun shops as people panic buy weapons because of the virus. This is a culture that has been fed on fake news, news as propaganda, partial science, WOKE thinking and a popular culture that is addicted to zombies, invasions, virus stories, and an arts culture that has been sanitised to the point of banality. Walk into a crowded room and say you’ve got corona virus and sneeze and then see how long before people are smashing each other to the ground to get out.
We are so used to living in our little bubbles that we have lost touch with the real, with each other and with ourselves. We are slaves to fear. We are paralysed by it, from small nagging anxieties to full-blown pathologies. Peoples imaginations have become shrunken receptacles for fear.
The lion doesn’t fear attacking the antelope. The mosquito doesn’t fear biting. The hawk doesn’t fear flying or hunting. These creatures are simply being themselves and their natures are acting through them, that they may survive.
People will say – Oh but we have bigger brains. We’re top of the pile. But the question is not how big the brain is but how much of it is used. To judge by the behaviour of many, about one per cent, so in reality we may be on the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder.
It is also impossible to separate the idea of fear from religiosity. Is the coronavirus some sort of punishment by something greater than ourselves, of retribution, of being judged, of something supernatural out to get us, of hell. And traditionally of course religions use fear to control people. If you think there is something out there that knows every thought you have then you might start to fear your own thoughts. In a largely secular society those primitive, animistic, religious fears leap into all kinds of strange territories – why doesn’t the government (i.e. a god substitute) save us? Is it a judgement and punishment from nature? And so it gets complicated and messy.
During this virus, there is much talk of communal solidarity, as in certain communities in World War Two. People helped each other. There will be cases of that, but it’s a bad analogy. During that war there was a perceived common enemy out there and a common purpose. With the virus the enemy is our own biology, our neighbours and the strangers around us. So there is fear everywhere, inside and out. Is he or she a disease on legs? Am I?
Fear weakens and diminishes us. Many have forgotten how to imagine the big picture. To join up the dots. I used to teach a course on Leonardo Da Vinci. The whole purpose of the course was to help people, including myself, to reawaken Renaissance thinking. Focus on detail but always be aware of the big picture. To put apparently isolated events and facts into the larger map. Like the elephant in the land of the blind, where one person touches the trunk and thinks that is an elephant, another the tail and thinks that is an elephant. But it needs someone to see that it is the sum of the parts that makes something what it is. To make connections, not based on wild speculations, but on what is there. And if people laugh at what you discover, or hate you for it, then too bad. Because it is more important to think fearlessly in the hope that you can then live fearlessly.
A few possible ways out of this (there are others, of course):
Magical thinking and Life Writing. Using language to explore and liberate rather than to inhibit or control or punish.
Imaging fear in order to control it, and not the other way round. Image making as a positive route through life. I carry a notebook and if something scares me I make a doodle of what I think the fear looks like. Pretty soon I’m smiling at it.
Reclaiming the unconscious as a journey full of delights and dangers and a place where ideas and thoughts and events can be rehearsed and explored. I think many of my books attempt this, and often fail, but at least I try. I do the same in my teaching.
Related to the unconscious is jettisoning the taboos surrounding certain words and thoughts. Reclaiming free speech, and therefore free thought. Then the world starts to crack open rather than shut down.
Understanding that orthodoxies invariably become corrupt and controlling, in religions and in politics and culture. The way to correct this is by teaching critical thinking – i.e. how to think and not what to think.
Refocusing on the individual as the prime focus for collective action.
About the Author
Steve Attridge (PhD) is an award winning writer in TV and film, having penned over a dozen Children’s drama series, including The Queen’s Nose, Harry’s Mad and The Boot Street Band. These gained RTS, BAFTA and Writers’ Guild awards. Feature films include GUY X and The Shadow of the Sword. TV docudramas include In Search of the Brontes and George Eliot: a Life. He has had 23 books published – novels and history books. He lectures on Film, Literature and History and has taught across Europe, North America and Asia.