The “F” Word

Playing the ‘Fear’ Card

When I was back in the US a few years ago, there was a TV commercial that portrayed one’s bed as a grey, bubbling, seething pool of something that one imagines might dwell in their sewer lines or septic tanks.  Wasn’t it kind of the people of Proctor and Gamble (or whoever it was) to warn people of the dangers of bedsoil!?

Coincidentally, those very same people had just the thing to protect everyone.  All that was necessary for salvation was to buy their product, put it in the washing machine with the sheets, and all would be well.  It makes one wonder how we have survived the assault from our beds all these years.

Another commercial sought to warn of the incredible number of germs on our toothbrushes. Of course, this advertiser, too, was able to come to the rescue…for a price.  However, the ad neglected to mention that the main source of all these germs is our own mouths, which have harboured these germs all our lives without causing much difficulty.

These are just two examples of the ways in which people’s fears are nurtured and used against them for someone else’s profit

Of course, fear is a natural instinct that is important for our survival.  If we had no fear, we would not avoid real dangers or act to get rid of them, so we probably wouldn’t be around very long.  However, like all our instincts, this one is subject to inappropriate action.  

Faith provides the balance to fear; it is its antidote.  Whilst it does not make fear go away, it allows us to continue to face life, even though there are real dangers.  For example, bacteria indeed represent a real danger, but faith, based upon our experiences of life, the potency of our immune systems and efficaciousness of our routine preventative measures, allows us to get out of bed each day, free from worries about surviving the onslaught by the millions and billions of organisms with which we will have contact during the day.  Faith provides the balance necessary to keep our fear of germs in proper perspective. 

A Culture of  Fear

In the film, Bowling for Columbine, the question is raised: why are there so many more deaths by firearms in the U.S. than anywhere else (by a very, very large margin)?   The usual explanation is that it is easier for people to obtain guns there.  Certainly this is a factor, but it is not quite this simple.  Canada has about the same rate of gun ownership as the U.S., but its citizens do not go around killing one another at anywhere near the same rate, so there must be other things at work.  

The reason offered by the makers of the film is the high level of fear that is nurtured and nourished in the U.S. compared to other countries.  Not only is fear encouraged by businesses who want people to believe that only their products can protect them, but also by government who, similarly, wants its citizens to believe that only it and its policies can protect them.

This fear factor became strikingly obvious after 9/11.  Taken alone, 9/11 was scary enough, but the event was used to convince people that, in order to protect them, it was necessary to accept government policies that would have been totally unacceptable prior to September 11, 2001.  Terrible as it was, the terrorist attack was the best thing that could have happened for the Bush administration.  This is why Americans are regularly reminded of the danger with timely warnings.

The U.S. was the only country that had any real support from its populace for the war against Iraq. Why?  Because the government played on the fears of the people by creating images of terrorists using the weapons of mass destruction that, allegedly, would be provided by Iraq.   We now know that claims Iraq had such weapons, and that it was allied with terrorists, were blatantly false, but the lies worked because of the fear that had been instilled in the people.

Yet, when it comes to the urgent action that appropriate fear would normally inspire, such as reducing green house gasses to combat global warming, the fear is dampened by those whose interests are served by keeping our heads in the sand.

Self-Inflicted Dangers

Even worse than inaction, our inappropriate responses to fear can exacerbate the dangers.  For example, everything seems to be antibacterial these days: soap, hand cream, detergents, floor cleaners, etc.  We have become an antiseptic society; so fearful of germs and so clean, in fact, that some researchers believe that children’s lack of exposure to normal household sources of bacteria results in weak immune systems, and this is responsible for the increase in the rates of  asthma and other common maladies.

Why do people drive SUV’s when they are not used for the off-road use for which they were designed?  They use more petrol and other resources, they  produce more pollution per kilometre, and they cost a lot of money to buy and insure, yet they are often used just for trips to the grocery store or running kids around.  Apparently, women like driving them because they are viewed to be ‘safer’  In fact, not only do SUV’s pose additional hazards for other drivers and for pedestrians, they cause more accidents than cars and are more dangerous to their passengers because they are not as stable in corners due to a higher centre of gravity, are heavier and thus harder to stop, and are not as nimble in avoiding accidents. This is another example of fear bringing about an inappropriate response, which then results in increased danger.

The common foreign policy of combating terrorism militarily will always be only partly effective. While expending lives and huge amounts of money, it actually increases the risk of terror attacks because the policy itself breeds terrorists.  Until the sources of terrorism are dealt with, the response to this fear is not only inappropriate, but downright dangerous.

Healing the Illness

Why are Americans such suckers for the false fear factor?  One would think that there is less reason for fear there than almost anywhere in the world.  In addition, as one of the most church-going peoples in the world, one might think that Americans hold an edge in the power of faith, so as to keep fear in proper perspective.  How did this fearful state of affairs come about?  Why doesn’t their faith work?!?  I use the American example, because they are one of the most fearful people in the world, but a recent survey indicated that Australians are not far behind, so there are lessons for us.

Maybe the trouble lies with the nature of faith.  The first institution to use fear to manipulate people was the Church.  The Church leaders took a gospel of love and infinite mercy, and created an image of hell, from which only the Church had the answers that would save us.  People fell for it, proverbial ‘hook, line and sinker.’

Although Americans are indeed a church-going nation, the manipulative ways of the old time religion still play a dominant role.  Many (far too many) people still believe that, at death, there are two ways to go: up or down?  If one is to go to heaven, then one must do certain things, believe certain things, and not do or believe certain other things.  This is not what Jesus taught (quite the contrary), but there are still principalities and powers that get mileage out of manipulating people with fear of eternal damnation.  Perhaps the Americans’ church-going heritage is the very thing that has made them so vulnerable to manipulation by fear when, in fact, faith should be a protection against such manipulation.  Australians are less obviously religious, but one might argue our faith is equally unsophisticated and there is less of it go around than in the U.S.

“Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…Look at the birds of the air…the lilies of the field….But seek first his kingdom…” (Mt.6:25-34)

People are clearly suffering a faith shortage.  This spiritual crisis is potentially more dangerous than the threat of germs, bad breath, a failing economy and all the terrorists of the world put together.    The failure of our faith to keep fears in proper perspective is not only dangerous but, given the power of the U.S. (and its closest ally, Australia) to inflict disaster in other parts of the world, it is a danger of global proportions. As a nation, Americans suffer from a form of fundamentalism that makes the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism pale by comparison.  At least the dangers of the latter are obvious, but it is much harder to see that our greatest danger is our own fear. Nations that tag along with the fear-motivated Americans court disaster.

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