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Our Culture of Fear

Our Culture of Fear

Humans take the struggle for survival we learned for animals and blend it with the circumstances of a particular environment, then add to that the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and security, and from this blend of factors evolve a culture. In the history of human civilization, thousands of cultures have evolved and passed away while many have survived to the present time. The hundreds of different cultures around the world today make up the diverse human society we live in.

The successful cultures have been able to do what is necessary to keep viable. Perhaps they were fortunate to have formed their first communities in areas where food was plentiful and the environment not too cold or unbearably hot. If conditions were favorable and the people adapted to their environment, the original community could grow into a culture that included many similar communities sharing the values or religion and covering a large geographical area. Those that were able to move beyond the basic physical needs established such things as a strong government, a viable economy, and a means of securing the communities against intruders. The most successful of them in time grew into nations.

However, whether the culture survived or went extinct, all of them had one thing in common: they had to learn to cope with the emotion of fear. In the early communities it was fear of predatory animals from tigers to cave bears. As more communities sprang up, people began to have fear of attack from other communities over such things as resources or hunting territory. Thus, each community operated under two influences: symbiotic cooperation within the group where each person contributed to the well-being of the group, and fear and caution when interacting with people outside the community…

Although cooperation among the citizens was essential with every person contributing a skill that helped the community prosper, it was generally the political structure that united the assemblage of people into one citizenry, a citizenry loyal to each other and to a central government. And in time, as communities grew and interacted with each other, some of them established cooperative trade relationships, while others became competitive to the point of belligerence. Unfortunately, all too often, ill feelings between government entities led to fear in the citizenry which prompted them to rely on their governments to raise armies to keep the enemy communities away.

Thus, the emotion of fear which humans had inherited from animals became a driving force in human relations. Fear has resulted in at least two unfortunate conditions. Fear stifles creativity by keeping people apart who would otherwise work together for the betterment of all people. Secondly, fear has become a tool of ambitious politicians as well as some religious advocates.

When a politician stands in front of a crowd and promises to protect them from enemies and improve their economic circumstances, gullible people listen and pledge their allegiance. When a religion advocate stands in front of a crowd and tells the people that no matter how bad their lives are now, if they adhere to the dogmas of the religion when they die, they will go to heaven and live in eternal bliss. Both the earthly and the heavenly messages are powerful because they alleviate fear. The politician and the preacher prey on the fact that many people are fearful of the future and of things they do not understand. Both have learned to use fear to gain power.

It is unfortunate that we humans still allow fear to be our controlling emotion. While we evolved with fear, we also evolved with love. But fear is stronger. A person can experience fear while alone in a dark forest or among dangerous predators. Love occurs when more than one person is involved. In that way love is a social emotion instead of an individual emotion. Fear protects the individual while love protects the group. The two emotions must be in balance for a community to prosper.

It seems that throughout our history, and especially in the fear-driven world of today, we have allowed fear of crime, fear of belligerent nations, fear of political parties, fear of war, and a plethora of other fears to dominate our thinking. Sure, these are legitimate problems, and we seem to be obsessed with them. It is as if the more we dwell on these fearful problems, the more we keep generating them.

The root cause of all of our fears is that we have yet to make that giant leap from relying on animal instincts to becoming fully rational and cooperative human beings. Thus, the biggest challenge facing all of us everywhere is how to replace our fear with love, or at least cooperation without conflict. Maybe this sounds naïve and idealistic. But the fact that scores of people are dying daily in conflicts from robberies to bomb attacks is a situation that blatantly points out that we humans are still evolving and have not yet reached a high level of global cooperative interaction. It is not naïve or idealistic to believe we can improve our relations with each other and work toward that goal. We either think idealistically and seek a solution to the problem or we continue to allow fear to control our thinking to the point that we become so paranoid that economic and social activity among nations is stifled. The problem of paranoia has always been part of our history and continues unabated today.

The worst politicians and religious leaders exploit fear and use it to divide people into tribal factions. We are seeing a lot of that in the news today. History shows us that we have always been tribal and that normally tribes and communities cooperate in trade and the exchange of ideas. However, much of our history is a story of conflict and of one tribe or community being aggressive toward another. The old saying is that people who do not learn from history keep repeating it. So why can we not learn that using fear and aggression as political tools are not long-term solutions to anything. How many more millions of us must die before this obvious fact soaks into our thick heads?

Enter the internet and television. What these have done in the last few decades is hit us in the face with our tribalism, a situation that has contributed to a culture of fear in much of the world. Fear is there, it is part of us and it is scary. Some cultural or religious groups believe they have the answer as to how life should be lived and that all other groups are inferior and expendable.

Another situation that has many people worried is our global population explosion. There are now over 8 billion of us, each with his or her own particular likes and dislikes, each with our own fears, each with our own set of theories as to how the world should function. Problems arise when some of us join with others and blend our theories into conspiracies.  And some of us who are perhaps more enlightened take the time to look at both sides of each issue and form an opinion based on facts and evidence. Each person reacts to a potentially fearful situation in her or his own way. Some of us jump right in to a conspiracy or an unfounded opinion and pull as many other fearful people along with us as we can. Misery and shortsightedness love company.

Then there are those who analyze their fear in a more objective and rational way by attempting to understand the underlying base causes of the situation that engendered the fear in the first place. The rational ones think before they leap. For example, they try to determine what were the reasons that caused someone to say things that would make others fearful? Is the person using fear as a weapon to get attention or promote his or her ambition? Why does that person find it necessary to stir up fear and social chaos just to advance his or her political agenda when rational thought should work equally as well? But perhaps the message is not intended for rational people.

Fear mongers are people who exploit our base animal instincts rather than treating us as rational humans. They understand that many people make decisions merely on an impulsive emotional reaction to what is perceived as a fearful situation. They stir up fear and chaos and use them as political tools by designating certain groups as enemies and saying bad things about them. They take advantage of the fact that many of us are emotional beings who quickly come to conclusions before taking the time to contemplate and analyze what we are being told. We are impulsive. Tyrants and egotistical politicians understand this quirk of human nature and use it to their advantage in their rise to power.

Ambitious and aggressive fear mongers are an anathema to the well-being of our species. They destroy, kill, and create ill feelings among people merely to gain power. Innocent people have had to put up with them throughout history. We have let these aggressive people run rampant and kill us by the millions. It is a form of insanity that must be analyzed and cured. There is too much goodness in humanity to allow the chaos of a few deranged people to continue.

Have we given up on trying to find a common ground among all of the tribal factions? Aren’t we getting tired of all of this bickering? Are there now so many people with various opinions, so many cultural outlooks, and so many decisions to make that we get lost in the confusion? For many of us, life is too complicated, and we become anxious trying to figure it all out. This attitude is not sound, however, and causes too many people to give themselves over to a tyrant or an imagined spiritual being to help them sort it all out.

One of the things that has a lot of people confused is the situation with religion. For centuries religion was a soft cushion to fall back on when we had existential questions or personal issues that we felt were beyond our control to cope with. We could pray or talk to someone who supposedly could communicate our problem to a higher power who would help solve our problem. For many of us, putting our problems in the hands of a higher power assuaged our fears and gave us a feeling that we were not alone in our struggle.

But today in many cultures, people are beginning to understand that our Earth and all of its inhabitants are the result of natural phenomena and not the result of a plethora of spiritual beings with supernatural powers. This is creating anxiety among millions of people who have traditionally looked to powers beyond themselves to solve their problems and to set the standard for moral behavior between cultures and individuals. To many people, the idea of not having a priest, preacher, Iman, rabbi or other spiritual guide to help make the important decisions each of us are faced with occasionally is frightening.

That is why people in some cultures are afraid to step completely beyond not having something larger than themselves to rely on. Unfortunately, some people in these cultures find it easy to turn to their government or a powerful dictator to act as a moral guide for them. They have not come to realize that morality is within each one of us. Morality is not something that we need to have handed to us by a god or a dictatorial ruler.

Our built-in “golden rule” should suffice for each of us. If we do not want to be robbed, then do not rob others. If we do not want to be killed, then do not kill others. If we want to be treated fairly in business, then treat others fairly. Of course, there have always been selfish and aggressive people who justify to themselves that they deserve a larger share of food, resources, etc. than others. We live with these criminal minds and they cause a lot of trouble. Looking around us, we see that there is cause for concern. One is reminded of lines from the poem Second Coming by William Butler Yeats in which he writes:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,

and everywhere 

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity.

But let us dwell on the good. Most of us are not criminals, dictators, or egotistical tyrants. Perhaps some of us harbor a small amount of truculence in the back of our mind that pops out at times. But most of us try to keep ourselves under control. We know, however, that being kind to everyone we meet is sometimes a challenge.

But we are humans and we are the greatest problem solvers within a radius of billions of miles that we know of. We do not need to live in a culture of fear. Thoughtful, reasonable, and rational people know that we do not need to continue to live with egotistical bullies trying to rule our lives. These bullies are powerless without our support. When we stop pandering to them, when we stop becoming their sycophants, they will fade away. Those seeking global peace and harmony must have the fortitude to keep working. Be optimistic and help others to be optimistic about the future of our species.

Ted McCormack

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