Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A history of Fear. Professor Joanna Bourke in interview

One of the over-riding effects of September 11th is that it has given a, paradoxically re-assuring, face to this fear. As Bourke puts it: “With the 9/11 attack there was a relief that – finally – the enemy could be defined as an ‘outsider’. It was no longer the CIA (as in the Kennedy conspiracy in 1963) or a crazed American (as in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City), but foreign Islamic ‘fundamentalists‘. Although there was considerable unease with the adroit way these terrorists were able to assimilate into Middle America, the relief of their otherness was clear. The enemy could be identified: he was ‘the Muslim’.”

Notwithstanding the very real and horrific attacks of 9/11, does she think that our culture, that of the industrialised west, requires an enemy? “One of the most interesting responses to fear is scapegoating”, Bourke responds. “In the book, I draw a distinction between two kinds of fear: fear and anxiety. In the first, an enemy is clearly identified and individuals can respond by either fighting or fleeing; in the second case, anxiety is free-floating, an enemy difficult to define. The important thing about this distinction is that in fear states, people tend to huddle together – they form organisations to fight the enemy or they create communities as a form of protection. In contrast, in anxiety states, individuals tend to retreat into private spaces: they feel incapable of communicating or communing with others – they tend to retreat into their homes, for instance, where they watch violent films and dramas which make them even more afraid of the world outside.”

“These responses, – continues Bourke, – have a clear political dimension. In other words, what is a ‘fear’ for one individual or group may be an ‘anxiety’ for another. The distinction between the two states is defined according to the stimulus, but what is an ‘immediate and objective’ threat for one group may simply be an ‘anticipated and subjective’ threat for another group. Indeed, because one common response to threat is scapegoating, it could be argued that the only difference between a ‘fear’ and an ‘anxiety’ is the ability of individuals or groups to believe themselves capable of assessing risk or identifying a (supposed) enemy. Put another way, the difference lies in the ability to externalise threat, thus providing a sense of personal invulnerability. Furthermore the difference between fear and anxiety oscillates wildly. Anxiety is easily converted into fear, and vice versa. The uncertainty of anxiety can be whisked away by processes of naming an enemy (whether a plausible or implausible one), converting anxiety into fear. Scapegoating, for instance, enables a group to convert an anxiety into a fear, thus influencing voting preferences against an ‘outsider’ group.”

The implications of this division between fear and anxiety are not inconsiderable. “If anxiety can be turned into fear, – Bourke explains, – and thus provide an enemy to engage with, fear can, similarly, be converted into anxiety. There have been good historical reasons why certain groups might wish to convert fears into anxieties. The power of particularly institutions and their diverse discourses depended upon it. It is no coincidence that the word ‘anxiety’ became more popular as the twentieth century progressed – in part due to the decline in external threats to the individual’s existence experienced by Britons and Americans in that period, but also because of the conversion of fear into anxiety through the therapeutic revolution. Whereas, in the past, the frightened individual might turn to her community or religious institution for advice and comfort – a process that often involved the delineation of an evil ‘other’ – as the century progressed, the emotion became increasingly individualised, appropriated by the therapist or, in the most isolated fashion, the contemporary ‘self-help’ movement. The modern construction of the unique self as residing ‘within’ the body and accessible to psychotherapeutic confession prioritises the language of anxiety. As a consequence, anxiety may have been higher in late-twentieth century America, because of the greater cultural resonance of therapy in that country but also because a much more entrenched class structure in Britain served to dilute some forms of status anxiety.”

We’ve seen, in particular in the last four years, a harnessing of fear on the part of both the US and UK governments. Would Bourke agree with the contentious suggestion that both countries have a political culture that promotes and harnesses fear, to an extent that most other nations do not? Is there a link between the political culture of fear and power? “I am not sure about whether the UK and USA political culture promotes fear more than other nations – think of Nazi Germany, or North Korea today. However, there is no question that the politics of fear has become a dominant feature of our governments in recent years. It seems to be at the heart of statecraft. Governments need to be wary, though, of using the politics of fear in this way: unless they are willing to employ a great deal of force against their own people (which they are not), the politics of fear is more effective in the short or medium term, rather than long term. Within democratic societies, individuals simply cannot live under the constant oppression of fear.”


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