October 31, 2014
The Value of Fear
The fear of an Ebola pandemic has gripped the country. Many believe that it is due in large part to the over dramatic coverage by the media. Jon Stewart is quite funny on his exposé of the Ebola media frenzy. The probability of a pandemic in the U.S. according to the scientific community is most unlikely. As of now, in the U.S. only one victim succumbed to the disease. Furthermore he was not infected in the U.S. but in Africa. To put things into a U.S. perspective, more than 36,000 Americans die of the flu each year yet more than half of the population choose not to be vaccinated against it. Deborah Kot, of the Boston Globe, in her article “Why Americans Have Irrational Ebola Fears tells of a teacher from Maine who was: ”placed on a 21-day leave demanded by parents because she recently attended a conference in Dallas - the same city where the Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died on Oct. 8.”
Fear is a basic and very powerful human emotion because it is often the base for many of our actions. Fear has numerous expressions horror, alarm and anxiety.
Fear has, for many, been perceived as a negative feeling. We are encouraged since childhood to overcome our fears. Many of the fairy tales we were told were actually pretty scary. What is more scary that a wolf eating your grandmother and about to eat you? These stories had the purpose of exteriorizing our fears. Halloween and its zombies and other creepy creatures probably serve the same purpose. That may also explain the success of horror movies and novels.
Government authority has used fear (in others) as a tool to coerce required action from the public. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the Prince understood that very well when he wrote that: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
Tyrants have ruled their “subjects” by fear of prison and torture to obtain submission to their will.
Religious leaders have also used fear to control and manipulate the flock. One theme of Umberto’s Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose is about the concern of Church hierarchy that fear could be eliminated by laughter. In the movie adaption of the novel, one of the characters, the blind murderous priest Jorge de Burgos says: “Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.”
Health public policy makers use fear in public health campaigns to bring awareness to the public of the risk of certain lifestyle behaviors such as overeating and smoking. The purpose of these campaigns is to change behaviors and thus improve personal welfare and public health.
Fear can have a paralyzing effect. It was that type of fear that Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke against in his first inaugural address in 1933.
“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.
We have many reasons to fear and at so many levels.
At the global level, we fear, to name a few, the consequences of climate change, wars, terrorism (home grown or international) and the collapse of world economies and of our financial system.
On a personal level we fear death and disease, whether our own or of those we love as well as financial distress. We fear anything that can cause physical or emotional pain.
Yet fear is essential to our wellbeing. If we were truly fearless, we would take unimaginable risks and most likely suffer equally unimaginable consequences.
Akiko Busch in his New York Times article “What Are You So Afraid Of?” published yesterday has an interesting take on the potential benefit of fear on a global level. He says: “At a moment of such social, political and environmental urgency, I would like to think it is possible to tap into human fear to change behavior in some fundamental and strategic way.”
Fear has an ethical value as well. In many circumstances it keeps us from wrongdoing. The fear of being exposed, charged and even condemned will keep us from committing a felony. The fear of being shamed will also keep us from unethical practices.
Aaron Ben Ze’ev in The Subtlety of Emotions writes:
“The functional value of fear is not merely existential but social as well: it keeps us aware of our norms and prevents some of the activities which may violate them.”