Fear Itself…

Al Jazeera recently had a thought-provoking interview with a Polish political philosopher I’d never previously come across: Zygmunt Bauman. The subject-matter was the growing civic unrest that is by no means limited to the United States.

In Western Europe it has been a summer of great change and discontent.

The European Union is facing major upheaval as the United Kingdom gets ready to withdraw its membership, in the process possibly jeopardising the composition of the country itself.

In fact, under the surface, people across Europe seem to be on edge. As European nations deal with migration and various economic uncertainties, the political landscape is changing, and a feeling that old social structures are being replaced or challenged is widespread.

It’s the same for the United States, where the race for the White House is anything but ordinary. Political rhetoric this year is tougher and there’s a feeling the country is seriously divided on race and economic prosperity.

What has brought us to this situation? And what are the possible scenarios going forward?

Bauman thinks our problems are the consequence of what he has dubbed “liquid fear,” and what I would call “fear of random and unforeseeable dangers.”

“Liquid fear,” Bauman explains, “means fear flowing on our own court, not staying in one place but diffuse. And the trouble with liquid fear, unlike the concrete specific danger which you know and are familiar with, is that you don’t know where from it will strike.

“We are walking, that’s my favourite metaphor, as if on a minefield. We are aware that the field is full of explosives, but we can’t tell where there will be an explosion and when. There are no solid structures around us all on which we can rely, in which we can invest our hopes and expectations. Even the most powerful governments, very often, cannot deliver on their promise. They don’t have enough power to do so.”

Bauman says we live in a state of “continuous uncertainty, which makes us afraid.” This fear, this uncertainty, increases the desire for security, the appeal of politicians who say “If you give me power, I’ll take responsibility for your future. I can keep you safe.” He also notes that people’s memories of totalitarian governments and their dangers have faded, making “strongman” promises attractive.

Bauman’s minefield metaphor is so powerful because it accurately describes human reaction to unknown and unpredictable danger. We humans are pretty good at coping with the known: a hurricane, an automobile accident, a disease. These threats are comprehensible; there are experts who can predict their occurrence and deal with them if they appear. Terrorism, economic downturns, pandemics–dangers over which individuals have no control–generate more fear precisely because we feel helpless to either predict or avoid them.

So we look for reassurance, for someone who can convince us that he (and let’s be honest, it’s always been a he) can avert tragedy. We may have to suspend disbelief, close our eyes to the inconsistencies and facts that cast doubt on the assurances, but at least someone is telling us what we want to hear. It’s only later that we remember why listening to siren songs is never a good idea.

It’s because of our very human, very predictable reaction to our anxieties that FDR’s admonition was so important: what we should really fear is “fear itself.”


  1. The fear we have now is not existential. That’s the problem. In an era when there is so little personal risk, people become paranoid about little things. That is where the fear is coming from. Ironically it would do us a world of good to face real existential fear. That would put things back in perspective.

Comments are closed.