Recent work on fear in contemporary culture is at once remarkably wide-ranging and surprisingly interconnected. Despite the myriad of topics scrutinized under the academic study of fear, scholars are unified in their assessment that fear is deeply engrained in contemporary culture. If we ever thought that a total eclipse of fear was part of the natural maturation process of an enlightened society, it seems impossible to take that position today. And while much of the scholarship seeks to locate and interpret fear in its particular manifestations, there is also a consistent and urgent drive to push behind the specific examples in order to understand how fear itself may be, for good or ill, a foundational cultural element of liberal society.
While fear has been an occasional topic of scholarly interest for quite some time, the problem of fear in contemporary culture was first studied systematically in the late 1990s, when a host of books were published on what was called “the culture of fear.” These sociological studies criticized the media, politicians, and even some intellectuals for sensationalizing crime, disease, drugs, and other social problems in order to benefit from the fascinated paranoia of uninformed readers. Since this initial flurry of publications, the study of fear has widened its purview to consider terrorism, conspiracy theories, postmodernism, the arts, and political and ethical philosophy—to name the major topics of this essay.
Perhaps the most consistent conclusion of these recent studies has been that fear is a plague within our society because it is regularly and intentionally misused to further suspect economic, political, or ethnic motives. Fear is the instrument of choice in the hands of those agents, the powerful and the disenfranchised alike, who seek to achieve shortsighted goals at the expense of ignoring the deeper, more complex problems of liberal society. Furthermore, the perseverance of irrational fear within supposedly rationalistic societies is often explained as a result of a general sense of insecurity due to the failure of various religious, political, artistic, and scientific metanarratives in the twentieth century.
Others understand fear as a useful epistemological tool closely allied with suspicion. On this view, an unacknowledged foundation of the liberal tradition is its ability to employ fear as suspicion as a means to overcome the harmful effects of fear as prejudice. This conception of fear as constitutive, in part, of the liberal tradition has its supporters in political as well as ethical philosophy, and it has been spun out into new theories of multiculturalism, justice, and ethical judgment claiming that human flourishing will increase more by intentionally avoiding cruelty than by chasing elusive utopian figurations of “the good society.”
It seems clear that unless we come to a more nuanced view of the role fear plays in contemporary culture, we will have learned little from the amazing energy that has recently been put into the study of this emotion that looms so large in our social and cultural lives.