“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius
In recent years, I’ve noticed an alarming existential threat gripping the world. While it’s not physical in nature, it has the potential to be more catastrophic than war, or terrorism, or economic collapse, or (insert nebulous threat here).
It’s the disease we call Fear. All-encompassing, soul-destroying, debilitating fear.
But it’s not your garden variety fear. Irrational fears (phobias) are primarily experienced internally. For example, your fear of flying won’t actually impact anyone else (except maybe for the person seated next to you on the plane whose hand you may have instinctively grabbed for support). Likewise, your fear of spiders or heights won’t impact anyone else in any substantive way. They may be a burden to you, but they’re not contagious (socially or otherwise). They’re largely believed to be the product of genetics, environment, and past experiences. No one else is subjected to these fears but you. Same goes for anxiety-related fears that are often associated with panic attacks and generalized excessive worry. While debilitating for the person experiencing them, only said person is exposed to their own anxieties.
These are the fears we are told we must overcome, as if they are a part of our Hero’s Journey, or a stepping stone in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order to grow, we must conquer these fears.
But that’s not the strain of fear I’m referring to.
The fear I’m referring to is the type that is exclusively manufactured externally by forces beyond our control (keyword being manufactured). This type of fear is not born out of one’s own experiences, or genetics, or environment — it’s exclusively formed by the current cultural zeitgeist. And it’s contagious. It has the ability to spread like wildfire, engulfing anyone it encounters in its path.
These are the fears that are not only validated, but propagated by the establishment, including the corporate media and ruling elite who use it as a tool to control and subjugate. These powerful institutions want us to remain paralyzed and encumbered by fear.
Covid is the latest iteration of how this manufactured fear looks in application.
This capital ‘F’ Fear is mostly manufactured by external entities in a way that will influence the highest number of people to benefit the few. The fact that this Fear stems from an actual threat makes it easier to get entangled in it; it is wrapped up in the fear of others, like a cacophony of voices all sending the same message: we must all be fearful of this, and if you’re not as fearful as we are, there is something wrong with you. This fear is state-sanctioned, and we’re not encouraged to overcome it (unlike those pesky irrational fears mentioned earlier). Instead, we are told to embrace it — we must stew in this fear and allow it to grow bigger and bigger in our psyche.
As the pandemic demonstrated, some feared the virus more, others feared societal collapse.
The other week, I witnessed an example of the former: A 30-something year old man on the bus donning two surgical masks and a plastic face shield obsessively wiping his hands with a sanitizing cloth. He took great care in covering every surface of his hand. Over and over again, like a scene playing on repeat, stopping only momentarily to check his phone.
That same week, I saw the following exchange between a young woman, who was wearing an N-95 mask, and an Uber driver. She opened the door to the Uber and accusingly asked: “Where’s your mask?” He responded, “Sorry — what was that?” “Do. You. Have. A. Mask?” she asked again, barely able to contain her rage. “Oh! Uh, no. No, I don’t…” Before he could say more, she slammed the door shut and stomped off.
Then there’s those that fear societal collapse.
There’s the doomsday prepper constantly posting anecdotes and memes in an online survivalist group. “This is it. This is the end. It’s finally happening,” he says after every news story he posts, almost gleeful at the idea that the end is nigh. Then there’s the self-assured crypto disciple who seems to be everywhere all the time, preaching a message to whoever will listen: “Invest your money in crypto before it’s too late!” he proclaims. “When the market collapses, you will have nothing!”
All of these people, with their own life experiences, upbringing, and biological makeup, react very differently to the same perceived covid threat. It may take them different places, but it is the same manufactured fear that has overtaken every single one of them. This is the type of fear that has an impact on others: The woman who disrespected the Uber driver subjected him to her own fears (certainly there are more graceful ways to handle conflict). The crypto disciple directly influenced others by preaching in online groups (and wherever else he seeks to be heard). The appearance of the man on the bus had his fears plastered all over him — a physical manifestation of his psyche. While all of these examples seem to be minor, they illustrate how this type of societal fear both manifests and influences others. (For example, you wouldn’t know if someone was scared of spiders, because arachnophobes do not present themselves in a way that would outwardly showcase this fear).
At this point I’m half expecting someone to say, “So what? What’s the harm here? Live and let live!”
I don’t see it that way.
The concept of ‘live and let live’ is dismissive and lazy. It allows people to continue doing things that might be harmful to them; it recuses people of personal responsibility, and it doesn’t help to bridge understanding. It’s also important that, instead of downplaying these patterns, we acknowledge them —because the above examples are not one-off examples; they are trends, and they reveal a lot about where we are at and where are going collectively. As big as the world is, it is flattened in the way information is shared and digested, and our behaviours are a direct response to how we receive information. The above examples illustrate the ways we have become normalized to such fears. Of course, many of us have experienced far worse over the past 2+ years: death, job loss, separation, isolation, mental illness, and so on — but the point is, the above manifestations demonstrate the normalization of fear in everyday encounters.
Fear can be a productive emotion. It can spur us to take action, to take chances, to challenge ourselves. It can be a tool to motivate, to propel us forward. But when we are consumed by it, it debilitates. It can cause us to be irrational. To be cloudy in our judgement. It can rob us of learning opportunities and personal growth. It can also separate us.
In the past, at least the manufactured fear campaigns were largely single-issue based. In the 1950s, the fear was communism (though this fear has been a mainstay since the beginning of the 20th century). In the 1960s and 70s, it was drugs. During the Cold War, it was fear of nuclear warfare and the Soviet Union (though that fear has also persisted). Post 9/11, it was terrorism. During the Trump years, it was fascism. And on and on it goes. There will always be something to be afraid of, it’s just a matter of what our leaders decide what the fear du jour should be.
I don’t blame anyone for falling into this trap. We are constantly bombarded with messages nudging us to be afraid. Just a couple hours ago, I saw an article with the headline “There’s a Strong Chance a Conservative Will Try to Kill Me Because of My Writing” — I won’t link the article because it purposefully preys on peoples’ manufactured fears (in this case, it’s the radical right-wing extremist bogeyman — yet another manufactured fear). But it works. It works really well. The people commenting see themselves as the Good Guys, claiming they too will be murdered by a conservative one day (one commenter has even resigned themselves to this potential outcome, preparing for the day they will get murdered — because in their minds, it’s definitely happening in the next year or so).
The media has long used fear as a tool to garner views, to divide, and influence. The problem now is we are constantly exposed to these endless fear campaigns everywhere — in our pockets via our devices, at the grocery store, at the soccer game, in our homes, at the bar. It’s constant. Relentless. We can’t escape it.
And it shows.
Americans are more fearful than ever. A recent American Psychological Association report found that 87 percent of surveyed U.S. adults feel like there has been a “constant stream of crises without a break over the last two years.” Another survey conducted by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School found that more than half of young Americans surveyed say they’re more ‘fearful than hopeful about the future of America.’
Other surveys came to similar conclusions. A January 2022 report conducted by the McCourtney Institute for Democracy found that over half of Americans are “extremely worried” about the future of the United States. In all of these surveys, Americans expressed fears over war, inflation, covid, health care, democracy, nuclear war, the economy and money.
All of these issues are piling on top of each other, marking an unprecedented point in history that we may look back on and call the tipping point (depending of course on how the next few years play out).
Certainly, there is a laundry list of things to be feared, but it’s important to remind ourselves that those in power want to keep us divided, demoralized, and disconnected. Many of us have reached a breaking point where we have become so afraid of everything that we forgot how to live. This pervasive manufactured culture of fear is keeping us paralyzed. And we feed into it every day, much to the grotesque satisfaction of the faceless oligarchs who march in lockstep with the corporate entities to keep us in line.
We’ve allowed these fears to strip us of our autonomy, rendering us completely incapable of looking forward, and all we are left with is brain rot.
We must counteract these fear campaigns with courage, humility, and most of all, the desire to live. To acknowledge that we are all struggling, together. To push past the propaganda that wants to keep us hostile and suspicious of anyone who may look or think differently than us. If we are to achieve this critical first step, I suspect there will finally be more to hope for than fear.