A short history of fear

Throughout history, humans have been afraid. Fear is one of the most primal emotional responses and can take many forms. It can be individual and specific, like of that flying or of spiders, or more generalised and widespread, such as the Yellow Peril fear of the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or the looming terror of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union that arose decades after that.

Fear stems from a lack of understanding. Individualised fears of flying, heights or spiders affect only the individual and are usually harmless to society as a whole. But when fear spreads and takes root, aimed at a group, a race, a nation, a religion, or a concept, that’s when it acquires the dangerous potential to be leveraged as a technique for social control and manipulation, usually to the detriment of some groups and the benefit of others.

In the past, it was difficult to identify exactly how these widespread fears begun, or what factors propelled them to spread across societies. Today, our globalised and tightly connected information society offers new scope for uncovering the truth. Independent journalists and citizen bloggers can share their stories with the world, with the minimum of resources needed to do so.

At the beginning, this shift had the potential to dilute the power of government and mainstream media to shape the wider narrative. But they soon emerged more potent than before, using less obvious yet perhaps more insidious methods.

Unfortunately, the information age offers many ways to hide truth, often by creating smokescreens based around false perceptions. With 24/7 news at our fingertips, information and misinformation spreads like flames sweeping across a field of parched grass. It’s called ‘going viral’, and it’s every digital marketer and content producer’s dream.

But false perceptions are deeply damaging to those affected. If a country has a bad reputation, such as for safety, tourists and investors will hesitate to go there. The economy will suffer and so will the country’s status in the world. It takes a lot of careful planning to restore a lost reputation.

For certain groups of people, false perceptions are even worse. They become objects of fear wherever they go. They don’t get the chance to show society who they really are, because all the assumptions have already been made. It’s not a level playing field when the narratives of fear are at play. Opportunities shrink away for the members of the feared groups. They experience vilification, whether overtly or more implicitly. They become constantly on the back foot in society.

In 2016, the world’s most feared group is Muslims. This has been the case for over a decade, ever since the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and their vicious aftermath. The narrative constructed around the threat of Islam, Muslims, and the need for the Western ‘war on terror’ has resonated across the years, bolstered by reams of media coverage. Today, it has become an integral part of Western mainstream consciousness.

The Islamophobia narrative received a further boost to almost hysterical levels in 2014, when Islamic State (Isis) burst onto the global scene in a flurry of blood and gore. Seemingly appearing out of nowhere (although we know this is far from true) the aggressive tactics and ruthless nature of the group struck a further heavy blow to the image of innocent Muslims across the world.

Syria and Iraq had already been war-torn before Isis arrived in the public eye. As the group captured their cities, refugees began pouring across the border into Turkey, and from there into Europe. At first, stories such as that of Aylan Kurdi, the small boy who washed up drowned on a Turkish beach, resonated with the world and spurred sympathy in many quarters. None more so than in Germany, where the leader Angela Merkel actively encouraged refugees to move there.

This move, which seemed so positive, soon morphed into the beginnings of a new wave of fear. The incident in Cologne on New Year 2015, when North African men were accused of attacking German women, was hijacked to place the blame squarely on refugees. A spate of new Isis atrocities followed, widely reported. The resulting hysteria grew and spread. And so the fear cycle continued.

Since then, Islamophobia has grown to epic levels. It has swept across and permeated Europe, the UK and the United States. The mainstream media is largely to blame, for fuelling exaggerated and often patently untrue narratives. But the unquestioning masses lapped them up, soaking in tales of dangerous refugees who refused to integrate into European culture, instead spending their days groping local women and plotting how to impose sharia law. These perceptions drive far right responses, which in turn shift the political direction of many countries towards the right.

From amid this toxic brew we now reap the effects of fear that was sown. In the UK we have Brexit to contend with, a vote for UK independence driven on the back of exaggerated and often false narratives around immigration. The main party gunning for Brexit, UKIP, used provocative campaign posters to play on British fear of the ‘other’. The posters, ostensibly anti-immigration from the EU, showed large groups of men of Middle Eastern appearance, not white as might be expected from EU countries such as Poland or Bulgaria. The message was loud and clear. Refugees, and hence Muslims, were really the ones to be feared.

Across the Atlantic, the US is experiencing its own backlash. Donald Trump, a man who began the presidential race widely perceived as a bad joke, has gathered steam and emerged as the competing candidate for the White House. Again, he stokes people’s fears of the ‘other’, mainly of Muslims, but also of Mexican immigrants and black people. This has led to an increase in harmful incidents on the ground, affecting ordinary people, such as Muslims being forced off flights for speaking Arabic, kids beaten up at school for being Muslim, and an assortment of other discriminations within an already deeply racist society.

Islamophobia has become entrenched. It won’t go away any time soon. And the people affected by it will respond in various ways. Many will be circumspect and simply carry on with their normal integrated lives. But others will soon grow to resent the constant battering from media and society alike. Some of the affected individuals will want to fight back. Combined with a morass of different factors, from social constraints and lack of opportunity to identity crises and toxic masculinity (the exploration of which are beyond the scope of this post), a few outliers may head down an altogether more dangerous path.

Fighting radicalisation has become a fully-fledged industry these days. Many academics, journalists and commentators make their livings from studying it. Western governments, especially in the UK, have tried many times to devise strategies to stop young people from becoming radicalised.  These are widely deemed to have failed. Again, discussing the multitude of reasons why this is so are a topic for another post. Suffice to say, the nature of the mainstream narrative has an important role to play. One way forward is by trying to shift this in a positive, constructive direction that involves affected groups directly, letting them define their own new narratives at the grassroots level, then making sure those narratives reach mainstream hearts and minds.

Fear Interrupted will act as a platform to do precisely that. It will explore examples of counter-narrative building from around the world, mainly in the digital sphere, showcasing a range of citizen-led initiatives that are trying to reset the mainstream narrative, promote understanding between groups, and, albeit on a small scale, bring some semblance of normality back into our distorted and uneven societies.

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