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“A Philosophy of Fear” by Lars Svendsen

by Benjamin Miller

Why is America sidled with such a tangle of overly complex laws and regulations? One reason is certainly a ubiquitous fear, or risk aversion, that drives legislators and rulemakers to try and address every conceivable danger.

That’s why, for example, people are detained at the Canadian border for carrying Kinder chocolate eggs—which evidently present a choking hazard because of the toy inside. It’s also why doctors struggle to deliver care efficiently and why soup kitchens are targeted for serving home-made food.

Where does this overwrought fear come from, and how can we combat it? Those questions lie at the heart of the short philosophical and sociological book A Philosophy of Fear by Lars Svendsen. The book’s object, as Svendsen puts it, is "an attack on the tendency to consider practically all phenomena from a perspective of fear." It’s certainly worth turning off the local news for a minute to thumb through.

We haven’t always lived with such omnipresent paranoia. Svendsen notes that the incidence of fear-related language in the media has increased dramatically in recent decades. Similarly, individuals’ concern over risks like crime and traffic accidents has increased even as the actual danger has fallen. Safety has even become a theme in design, fashion, and architecture, with trending bullet-proof couture and an exhibition of safety devices at the Museum of Modern Art. All of this despite the fact that, "All statistics indicate that we in the West in particular are living in the most secure societies that have ever existed, where the dangers are fewer and our chance of dealing with them greater than ever before."

Unfortunately, fear can be as contagious as an urban legend, spreading from one person to the next until the original basis is forgotten. And, as Svendsen observes, we have strong incentives to obsess over threats while dismissing positive news: “We seem to be culturally disposed to assume negative consequences, and we have a fluid fear that is chronically hunting for new objects it can link up with. Such a frightening world is not a happy one.” News media exploit this disposition—if it bleeds, it leads—while companies use it to sell products and politicians to consolidate support.

Fighting what seems to be a deeply rooted tendency toward fear is an uphill struggle, but Svendsen calls for hope and optimism to displace the fear that "ruins much of what gives meaning to our lives":

Mass media, authorities and pressure groups must be asked to behave more responsibly when it comes to fear—not to over-dramatize dangers, no matter how ‘good’ their intentions. Health authorities ought not to use exaggerated scare propaganda in order to combat smoking and drugs, for example. The mass media ought not to use banner headlines to warn people of the danger of eating this or that, if these dangers are in fact infinitesimal. Pressure groups ought not to exaggerate a present danger just to get media coverage.

Here’s to hoping—and reminding ourselves to focus on real sources of meaning, not imagined threats against them.