“Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.” William Shakespeare.
Fear is the property of the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe of the brain. Evolution has confirmed its usefulness as an emotion. The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate, and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and the stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down. Fright leads to fight or flight.
But fear, as a human emotion, passing through our higher hippocampus, can be altered by social/situational context. A tiger in a zoo elicits a different response than a tiger on the trail in front of you. A stranger’s pit bull is not your harmless pet. Fear can also be learned. The brown snake is benign; the striped one killed your uncle. Fear is teachable.
Fear can have a cultural component. In America we have a fright holiday, Halloween, in which fear is outed through a social consensus. For a day we can laugh at skeletons. (Imagine a Christmas creche with skeletal Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus.) The semiotics of the skull-and-crossbones flag is widely understood. Fear can be propagated and transmitted. Fear can be an infectious affliction.
Actually, it was Halloween that got me thinking about this. My town just recently introduced a policy of nominating one street as trick-or-treat street. Parents were directed to take their costumed offspring there to troll for candy. This directive—almost universally observed—burdened the residents of that street with dispensing a town’s worth of candy to kids from all over and deprived everyone else in town of the traditional pleasure of participating in an essential aspect of the event and the neighborhood bonding that it enhanced.
When asked for a reason for this fresh expansion of the administered world, all that was offered was the children’s safety. Traffic was blocked from that street that twilight. They were saving the kiddies from danger—a fear-based explanation. Of course, no one could name a single instance of trick-or-treaters coming to harm on previous Halloweens. It reminded me of all those apocryphal—never substantiated—tales of poisoned treats and razor-bladed apples. It was sort of ironic in a sick way: here on the feast day of not being spooked, the kids were being schooled in being scared of the mysterious unknown, in their own, hyper-safe hometown.
Fear, such a weapon of persuasion, a favorite these days of the secular powers that be. Of course, for millennia spiritual hucksters have used the threat of an invented inferno as their meal ticket. It does not get old. But this contemporary twist is additionally insidious. We seem intent on raising a generation tutored in dependency upon the administered world for their safety. Kids do not play ball without adult supervision. Their days are a schedule of overseen events. Independence, self-dependence, freedom from adults is dangerous. Beware of strangers, if you ever get to meet one. Don’t leave the house without your helmet and your cellphone—just in case.
What is a fascist state but one that wants as much control as possible over personal freedom? An essential component of fear is the other. The other is unknown and therefor dangerous. Fear it. Fear now fuels our national politics. Safety is surrender to the administered world, to armed troops at our borders and kids caged or confined to where the cops want them.
“In time we hate that which we often fear.” William Shakespeare