Natural versus artificial fear?
I’m taking a course this semester on the Sociology of Fear and Risk. To start the framing for that topic later in the semester, I’m currently learning about the constructionist argument for the role of emotionin individuals and society. If I attempt to boil down the entire argument to a few sentences, I guess it becomes an argument that emotions are not necessarily purely natural. Instead, emotions have sociocultural roots, in that individuals within a given community are taught what emotions are supposed to be within that society, as well as what emotions are expected to be felt and displayed in certain situations (i.e. prescribed). Additionally, the individual can expect to be punished if their emotional expressions don’t fall within the allowable guidelines for the society of which they are a part.
This got me thinking ahead to what applications this constructionist argument might have on the concentrated topic of fear and risk in modern society. Note that my thinking here is preliminary, exploratory, nascent.
As Westerners, we live in a world that is, actually, free of natural fears of yore. The urban homeless populations notwithstanding, few people in the Western world today fear hunger, loss of home, loss of spouse or children or indeed their own life in any significant way.
In the past, we could assume that the fear of death coupled with the need to often bring death to other living creatures brought about a certain familiarity and conversely a certain respect with it towards death. The same could be said of life, both plant life and the life of the various birds, mammals, fish and so on. We gathered our food from the land and hunted the land for its natural occupants. A respect for our natural co-existence was natural. Even later, when we became farmers and we bent the land to our will to grow our crops, we still developed a respect for the crops and for the weather and natural forces that could so easily destroy them. Disease was common, so it was normal to lose a child early in its life, or lose a spouse to accidents, childbirth, or illness. We also feared the loss of our culture and so we banded together with others who were likeminded, as kin or clan or tribe or village. We took an active role in the functioning of the community and as a result we had an active participation in each other’s lives. We went to war together against anything or anyone who threatened our way of life. We protected each other and were, in turn, protected. We were connected to one another and to all of life around us. We trusted and loved and lived and died in a time in which these fears loomed large. Fear was therefore omnipresent and very functional to our lives.
So what could be the impact then of our western way of life today, in which these same fears are minimized or eliminated totally? We now live in a world in which our food is purchased pre-slaughtered at the various uniform locations of a supermarket chain. We live in a world in which we know that modern medicine will be able to prevent a large number of formerly deadly diseases, or cure us of those we might develop. We live in a world in which the last two generations have grown up and are growing up with no expectation to have to ever go to war against other human beings, in which we do not ever need to kill another entity. Thus, we live in a world in which we can expect our children to grow to see an entire century of life. We ourselves have the concrete and plausible hope for the same.
We live in a world in which we buy our homes pre-made for us, our clothes pre-sewn, our food pre-killed, our society managed for us by people unknown to us personally who live in cities and communities far away from our daily realm, who participate in processes in which we have only a titular ceremonial part, if any. We are no longer connected to the former process of living.
My exploratory argument here is not about the glorification of the days of yore. Rather, what I am trying to explore is whether or not the fear and risk that were rampant in the more primitive days served a function. And in the absence today of the situations of old in which it loomed large, what is the role today of fear and risk? If these fears no longer exist at a level strong enough to govern and guide us as they did, what is the role today in society for fear? How do our governments exploit it to control us or to exercise power? How do we manufacture it and why? How do we teach fear to our children today and in what situations?
The answers to this are what I expect to ponder throughout the rest of this semester. The answers will, I believe, be enlightening. Whether it be to explain why we love roller coasters, why we participate in extreme sports, why we worry about computer viruses or sexual diseases, why we manufacture fear…these are the things I will be pondering this semester in this course.