Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

The sum of our fears
Michael Duffy

Frank Furedi is one of the most interesting thinkers in the humanities today. If he had a personal motto, it would probably be the same as George Pell's: be not afraid. But where the Cardinal's concern is mainly personal, Furedi sees fear more broadly, as the defining emotion of our time.

Fear is on the increase and it's corrosive of our humanity. In a series of books and articles, Furedi, who is professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Britain, has sought to alert readers to this and urges us to seize control of our lives and our futures.

One of the events that alerted him to the climate of fear occurred when his child was born nine years ago. A surprised Furedi was told by the hospital, "Don't worry, everything is all right. We've got a really good system here to make sure your son doesn't get kidnapped."

"Until that point," Furedi recalls, "it had never occurred to me that this was a risk I was facing. But I noticed from that stage on that virtually every experience, every developmental stage to do with children, has some sort of risk attached to it [by professionals]. Everything comes with a health warning."

Furedi is in Australia to talk about fear. "Fear itself has become a perspective on life," he explains. "There used to be a time when people had specific fears, such as fear of spiders or heights. But increasingly, as we've lost touch with other people and become more lonely and isolated, we've adopted a perspective where just about every experience is looked at in terms of the worst possible outcome." This leads to an increase in counselling and therapy, which often increases fear instead of diminishing it, and an impoverishment of politics due to timidity and low expectations.

These are large claims, but then Furedi has always been interested in the big picture. Born in Hungary in 1947, he moved with his family to Canada after the failed revolt of 1956. By the 1970s, he was living in England and helped found the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain. He moved on, wrote many books, and today is one of those behind the edgy libertarian internet magazine Spiked Online. It has a particular interest in the ways people deal - or fail to deal - with risk in daily life.

In his book The Culture of Fear (1997), Furedi set out the paradox of modern life that lies at the root of much of his writing: the less we have to worry about, the more we worry. For instance, we are healthier than ever yet as a society worry about health more with each passing year. Safety, he says, was the fundamental value of the 1990s, when in Britain fear of tap water doubled sales of bottled water in just five years, and the frequency of words such as "trauma", "stress" and "counselling" skyrocketed in newspapers.

"Today," according to Furedi, "the fear of taking risks is creating a society that celebrates victimhood rather than heroism. We are all expected to compete, like guests on a television program, to prove that we are the most put-upon and pathetic people in the house, the most deserving of counselling and compensation."

Our expectations have been lowered; merely to survive is now considered a wonderful achievement. One example of this is the changed attitudes within the women's movement.

Furedi says feminists in the 1960s and early 1970s were keen to portray women as empowered and strong. But by the 1980s this had swung around to the idea of women as victims that is still so pervasive. As a result of this trend, he believes, our lives are impoverished: "The celebration of safety alongside the continuous warning about risks constitutes a profoundly anti-human intellectual and ideological regime. It continually invites society and its members to constrain their aspirations and to limit their actions."

Why do we worry so much? Furedi believes we have a diminished sense of control due to things such as the growing complexity of society and the increase in loneliness brought on by the breakdown of families and institutions such as churches and trade unions. The nervousness induced by such major changes is fed by the increase in knowledge and an emotionally rapacious media, and the fact that our ability to assess risk is at least as woeful as ever.

An outcome of this trend has been the boom in therapy. In 1980, there were 1800 individual and 160 organisational members of the British Association for Counselling. By 1993 this had swelled to 10,000 individuals and 500 organisations. Turning to experts so frequently leads to a surrender of our sense of responsibility for our own lives. And often, Furedi says, it doesn't work. Counselling can make problems worse not better, thereby contributing to, rather than breaking, the cycle of fear.

Children suffer from their parents' insecurities. Our kids are far more healthy than in the past, but we worry about their upbringing endlessly, seeking advice from a bewildering range of experts. While attacks on children are even more infrequent now than before, we take far more precautions to prevent them. Children grow up thinking the world is a dangerous place full of risky strangers. The proportion of British children taken to school by car quadrupled between 1971 and 1990, while the number of activities that children undertook on their own nearly halved. This is wrong not just because risk-taking is one of the most important expressions of our humanity, but because it makes children less capable of dealing with the unexpected. (Many parents today like to think their twentysomething children won't leave home because they enjoy their cheap creature comforts or love their mums and their dads. But maybe they're just scared?)

Furedi thinks these problems are worse in the Anglo-American part of the world than in other countries, where formal relationships have not broken down quite so much. He recalls walking down a street in Brussels a few years ago.

"I knew something strange was happening," he says, "but I didn't know what it was. Then I looked and saw there was a bunch of six-year-old children going to school on their own with little backpacks, and they were all squealing and laughing and yelling and walking down this busy street. That's what I used to do when I was a kid, but I haven't seen it happen in England for 15 to 20 years."

Protectiveness towards children has now reached absurd levels. Furedi says he is forbidden to photograph his son playing football unless he gets the permission of every parent on the field. "This is next to impossible. So basically it means I don't have a pictorial memory of my child doing athletics and football, which to me is a symptom of the fact we're all looking at the world from the point of view of the pedophile. We think every adult is a potential pedophile, and ultimately that's a triumph of pedophilia over common sense."

Furedi says the rise of fear has rendered the old political labels fairly useless. "In the old days," he told me last week, "the left was very pro-experiments, pro-science, pro-future, while the right was much more hesitant. Today there's been a complete reversal. For example, supporters of scientific innovation tend to be on the right."

Furedi's optimism about science has attracted some criticism from the left. Writing in The Guardian in 2003, commentator George Monbiot described Furedi as "the godfather of the cult" of a group of ex-communists who now, thanks to campaigns such as one in support of genetically modified food, were destroying public trust in science and medicine with their "repugnant philosophy".

He's no longer of the left, but Furedi rejects the claim of fox-hunting philosopher Roger Scruton that he's now a conservative. Furedi says: "Today conservatism has collapsed. Many conservatives are scared to uphold tradition. Old conservatism had beliefs, a system of thought and morality. New conservatism upholds nothing except an unswerving conformism to the present. It seems to me that conservatives have given up on the past while the left has given up on the future. We now live in a kind of infinite present."

Furedi describes our times as "pre-political", by which he means politics has lost the desire and confidence to change things in a big way. "The larger debates of the past have been replaced by single issues such as literacy in classrooms or school lunches or the environment," he says. "These issues don't have much to do with traditional politics. They become the focus for almost arbitrary divisions among people. I call them arbitrary because they don't have much to do with the future, or with morality. They concern people's lifestyles. Sometimes today our most heated debates are over nothing more than individual preferences rather than things that affect us deeply as human beings." He has written about some of this in his most recent book, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? (2004).

So what is to be done? "We need to become much more interested in the past and learn from it, but we also need to embrace the future."

And be not afraid.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2005