sum of our fears
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
"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
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
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.
published in Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2005