THE CULTURE AND THE POLITICS OF FEAR

“The risk society is funded on the culture of fear, where fear represents in a certain way the worldview.”

Lars Svendsen, Strah

the culture of fear

Fear, just like other emotions, is not only a naturally and individually conditioned experience. Fears also emerge from community experience, as sediment of the past. They are a part of a culture in the broader sense of the word. Our knowledge and experience are not independent of the social context in which fears are generated and appear. Collective, culturally and socially conditioned fears indicate to us the concrete facts which concern a community or group of people the most. The relationship towards fears and the way in which we deal with them as individuals and society also tell us something about the very mechanisms of the functioning of society.

Society of Risk

Fear is manifested depending on the perception of risk. Risk implies a mental notion of what might happen. The idea of what risk is produces fear. Ideas, just like fear, are not formed exclusively according to our personal experience. They do not depend solely on our free estimation and interpretation of risk but are also formed with regard to the way that we perceive another person’s experiences.

“Risk is not a thing, it is the way of thinking.”

mary douglas

Today risk is frequently a synonym for the feeling that makes us susceptible to some danger. It is a feeling of insecurity which tells us that the world around us is full of dangers which might afflict us at any time without any kind of notice. And yet at the same time a feeling of vulnerability that warns us that our defence mechanisms are not sufficient.

Threats come to us from every direction, and varied terrors can find us anywhere: at home or on the street, on large or small screens, in the media, in the family, at work, in school, in hospital, in nature and because of nature, on the ground or in the air. The danger and threat which awaken fear in us are interwoven in the network of relationships and actions in which human and non-human actors actively and passively participate: close and unfamiliar people, worldly and spiritual authorities, palpable and impalpable objects and phenomena – from mechanical devices to outdated and latest technologies, scientific achievements, ideas, ideologies and worldviews.

In seguito alle categorie usate nei sondaggi per la elaborazione del Global Risk Report 2018 del Forum economico mondiale (economia, ambiente, società, geopolitica, tecnologia), le tabelle e il grafico mostrano la percezione dei rischi a livello globale, a partire dalle probabilità’ che i rischi particolari avvengano e in base all’impatto che possano avere sulla società in generale.

Environmental disaster in Raša/Arsia gulf. Romeo Ibrišević-Zelene stope, 2018.

During the fueling on the ship „Fidelity“, three tons of that fuel ended in the sea polluting the gulf.

The Cultural and Social Dimension of Fear

Human reality and social phenomena are built and formed by social interaction. People’s individual experiences, social norms and way of life form meanings which we attach to the things and events around us. They are the foundation of the “local knowledge” of a community or group of people: the comprehension, skills and beliefs resulting from the social practices of a community through history.

Particularly interesting for ethnology and anthropology is the observation of the phenomenology of fear: the situations which at a certain moment and in a certain time generate a feeling and state of fear, in other words, the way in which we experience them and how we deal with them. That which we fear and how much we fear depends on our perceptions of the world, about what dangerous forces exist and which possibilities we have to protect ourselves from them.


the politics of fear

“For a Principe, it is better to be feared than loved.”


N. Machiavelli, Il Principe, cap. XVI
Fear can also be a powerful weapon. Especially when it is used on the masses. Manipulation by fear – the planned creation of conditions which spread fear – creates what today are generally acceptable phrases such as: “strategy of fear”, “climate of fear” and “policy of fear.” Such strategies, policies and climates greatly influence our daily lives: in political discourse, in the media, in the workplace, on the street, in the perception of and relationship towards the other.

More Security, Less Freedom

The perception of constant threats is an unavoidable element of people’s everyday lives. Alongside this fact, or directly because of it, the dominant public politics based on security, globally and locally are also strung together. Cameras film us at every step, security measures at airports and other public places are increasingly bizarre, telephones and other forms of digital communications are subject to control, eavesdropping and manipulation. Whether or not they comply with policies based on security and their consequences, they are implemented every day. The price of this is the constant loss of basic human and civil liberties.

Media Intimidation

At a time when old ideologies do not have such a strong motivating power, fear becomes one of the most prominent means in political discourse. Political actors exist in a perfect symbiosis with the mass media being that intimidation undoubtedly sells news and attracts people to the TV screens. The media is key to the spread of the climate and culture of fear. The logic of the mass media, sensationalist news and tabloid reality are amongst the most important causes of the growth of the culture of fear in everyday life. At the same time, it is clear that this culture could have only developed because we accept that logic.


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