‘Fear is the deadliest assassin; it does not kill, but it keeps you from living.’ — Popular Saying
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains thirty articles. Nine of those articles directly state the word ‘freedom.’ We therefore expect that a range of freedoms are our basic human rights. We consider ourselves as ‘free’ and independent individuals. And ever since the rise of complex societies we’ve been trying our hardest to eliminate uncertain and unknown fears. It was always a relief to know where our fears were coming from, so we could confront them. Usually they turned out to be not so scary (vampire-like) than we had thought or imagined them to be. When we could see, and perhaps touch them, the darkness surrounding the fear would disappear. Sometimes we would get an ‘aha’ feeling, and we’d let out a huge sigh. That would make things better. Once you can see something, you are better placed to do something about it. Fear, and potential dangers, used to be a lot more familiar to us; but that was when the world was smaller, and our neighborhoods were a place of home and belonging.
The shift into the ‘modern era’ was considered as a move into a world where calamity and catastrophic disasters would be put to rest. It would be a time where fanciful illusions and ungrounded worries would be washed away. It would be a ‘modern’ time of certainty and solid progress. It appears that what was once seen as a straight road ahead has turned into a long, winding detour; and the only maps we have are satnavs with annoying actors’ voices. The modern world has done little to extinguish the presence of existential threats — in fact, if anything, they have increased. We no longer have only natural disasters to worry us, we also have the bank/stock markets crash; corporate collapse; the failure of power grids; jets falling out of skies; children with handguns mowing down kids at school; or jihadists at pop concerts. It’s now a cornucopia of possible death on nearly every street corner; and quite literally in our schools, in our homes, and very definitely in our own heads. As Craig Brown notes, with a touch of parody: ‘Every day, there were new Global Warnings about killer viruses, killer waves, killer drugs, killer icebergs, killer meat, killer vaccines, killer killers and other possible causes of imminent death.’1
As I have discussed in my recent book Healing the Wounded Mind, a mass psychosis spreads its traumatic virus through permeating a fear pandemic within our daily lives. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big ‘oh my dear g-d’ type of fear. The constant underlying ‘civilized fears’ also sustain a persistent nervous energy and anxiety within our collective being. Such ‘modern fears’ seem to have an almost civilized agenda, where they attempt to make life with fear livable. This is what Thomas Mathiesen refers to as a ‘silent silencing’ in that ‘it is a part of our everyday life; it is unbounded and is therefore engraved upon us; it is noiseless and therefore passes by unnoticed; and it is dynamic in the sense that in our society it spreads and becomes continually more encompassing.’2
Risks are considered as calculable dangers where we at least have some capacity to calculate their potential. But modern fears are that which we can neither predict nor fully escape from because they flirt too close to our dark fantasies. Whereas risks can be seen as explosions, emanating from without, our fears are the implosions that erupt from within. The trauma of the Wounded Mind perpetuates this struggle within us between a sense of self and some ‘other’ external, almost alien, agency. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that the battlefield for freedom is both within the self and with our institutions. Our dependency, he suggested, begins with the helplessness of being born and needing extra-long dependency and protection. Our human biological weakness, he says, is the very condition of human culture. The result is that there remains a lifelong struggle between the individual self and those over-whelming strong powers external to us; or unnatural to us. Fromm noted that we succumb to powers outside of ourselves through being blinded to our inner restraints, compulsions, and fears, which undermine our real power. Fromm made an interesting observation in that the human being ‘is not really the master any more of the world he has built; on the contrary, this man-made world has become his master, before whom he bows down, whom he tries to placate or to manipulate as best he can.’3
Our modern psychosis has turned fear into its own commodity marketplace, and like any good marketplace it requires consumers. And consumers are better at consuming if they are given a valid need. This logic tells us then that fear is planted in as many of us as possible in order to have a need to safeguard against it. It’s somewhat akin to saying that so many people are diet-obsessed because our media tells us how important it is to be thin. French sociologist Hugues Lagrange, in his study of fear, came to term as ‘derivative fear’ that which guides much of our modern behavior. It acts as a secondary type of fear when there isn’t any immediate threat present. It is a sediment, a residue, that outlives any actual threat; somehow the shadow of the menace lingers on, haunting us. It shapes our behavior regardless of whether any direct threat to us exists. It is this type of fear, I suggest, that is endemic to the Wounded Mind and is seeded into us through our media and social institutions.
This haunting, lingering type of fear is more intangible, invisible, and hence cannot be quantified or reasonably assessed by us. It is, in all ways and forms, a lurking type of fear — slithery, shadowy, and sneaky. It is distasteful, and yet has great power to invade and infect our conscious and unconscious minds. It makes us more susceptible and vulnerable to feelings of insecurity and disempowerment. We are open to attack at any time; we are instilled with a lack of trust. And, importantly, we are more willing to obey (i.e., willing obedience) to those authoritative powers that promise defense and security. Any person who has internalized the sense emotions of derivative fear will be more willing to respond as if to threat even in the absence of a genuine threat. Such behavior is self-propelled and is exactly what the collective psychosis wants.
Those of us in so-called ‘developed’ territories live in some of the most secured societies, pampered with our goods and lifestyles, and yet we feel the most threatened, insecure, vulnerable, and liable to panic than most other societies.
Psychologically, we fear being weak. We despise being seen as downtrodden; as being the ‘weakest link’ in our family or community. And yet our entertainment media plays on this. The ‘weakest’ is voted off on Reality TV shows, from the coward in the jungle to the geek in the Big Brother house. The ‘weakest link’ is eliminated in the pseudo-quiz show of the same name. These morals teach us that being weak means exclusion, exile, being outcast — the evicted person from Big Brother walks out to a barrage of boos. There is nothing quite so caustic as public humiliation. We no longer need our town square stocks and rotting vegetables to throw: we have mainstream media and our social media to add further public insult to injury. And all this is trauma-food for the collective Wounded Mind. Can we not see that we play it out in front of us — or rather perhaps, it is being played out for us? The shadows dance upon the wall of Plato’s cave, and we sit entranced and in fear of our false-weaknesses.
So many things in modern life that are presented to us are little more than transient distractions — the retro fad or fashion; the one-hit wonder pop star that was a reality TV cast-off; the TV jingle you sing in the shower; the over-hyped diet; the latest juice recipe; etc. And yet the intangible, lurking fear remains — shadowy and yet ever-present. This type of fear not only seeps deep down into us, it also reminds us that our real fear is being incapable of escaping our own condition of being afraid. In many cases, this lingering internal fear has forced us to give permission for external actors to intervene in our private lives. We are fear-driven to give away our power to others, which is exactly what the Wounded Mind wants — a collective power to traumatize us. As film-maker Adam Curtis said: ‘In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power.’4
We are offered our ‘new securities’ in the form of unfreedoms. In other words, we have opened the door and allowed the wolf to enter as a guest.
Privacy, Unfreedoms & (In)Securities
Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states ‘Freedom from Interference with Privacy, Family, Home and Correspondence.’ This almost sounds like a bygone relic. The idea of privacy has undergone a modern upheaval. Privacy has become the domain of our confessional societies, where it is now divorced from secrecy. Privacy is no longer an intimate space, only a space where a person can allocate their thoughts and express their opinions. It was once a much more guarded and secure place; a place where personal traumas were veiled. Yet today it has done an almost irreversible swing with the rise of the public sphere. The privacy domain and the public sphere are now collaborators as part of the modern pseudo-transparent society. The internal and individual Wounded Mind of old has been transformed into a collective and public confessional.
We lived for centuries with the medieval sense of confession; that is, an intimate, confidential whisper to the priest or through the tortured confession ripped out of us in hidden retreats. Now we are treated to public confessions bordering on self-advertising. From the blogs, social media posts, to videos that display an exhibitionism once frowned on by most cultures. Secrecy — the secret self — is now seen as something anti-social. These behaviors and attitudes are part of the collective psychosis that wishes to share, spread, and influence others into joining this public pseudo-cathartic process. Technologies that allow such public confessionals merely reflect the human condition. Such technologies are not so much intruding within us rather than showing externally that which we normally keep hidden. Physical, social and psychical exposure is now a part of the general collective mind.
Furthermore, this modern mode of the Wounded Mind has attempted to impose a manageable control over unruly social chaos and uncertainties. A rational mindset was brought to bear, according to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, ‘to bring the world of humans, hitherto vexingly opaque, bafflingly unpredictable and infuriatingly disobedient and oblivious to human wishes and objectives, into order: a complete, incontestable and unchallenged order. Order under the indomitable rule of Reason.’5 This ‘unchallenged order’ needs an obedient collective mindset, and the Wounded Mind — complete with its traumas — is the ideal material with which to manage this.
In modern societies, power and politics have already split apart. Power is no longer truly exercised through our political institutions. Like our networks, it has now shifted into an extraterritorial space that is beyond boundaries, nations, laws, visibility, and accountability. External power is now invisible, intangible, and almost ethereal. The need for security, which is being rolled out as a social stabilizing force, is yet another form of power. And it has been the same throughout most of human history — we give our cooperation to be ruled, and this is welcomed by the rulers. In fact, it is expected by them; they rely upon it. It is this compliant agreement that sustains authority: visible enforcement then slips into new social norms and ‘expected’ behavior. It also works through seduction by the arousal of our desires and supply of our satisfactions. Social management (a.k.a. security) is a mixture of glossy public relations and our own complicit self-surveillance. The smart phone, the health tracker, the smart watch, etc. To find meaning, it seems, we must also provide data. As philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy observes, ‘We are condemned to perpetual vigilance.’6
To all intents and purposes, modern life has become dependent upon surveillance; and it is also an addictive dependency. Once we have it, we feel it is not enough and we need more, until we come to the point where we realize we cannot do without it because we have created our own psychological state of feeling afraid. Quite simply, fear breeds fear. Insecurities are now becoming the norm of today’s increasingly securitized societies. Insecurity has insinuated itself into our social and political configurations. In other words, in/security is now systemic; but it is far from static. Earlier dystopic visions of in/security, notably from Orwell and Huxley, regarded such cultures as being more solidified. Security and power/control regimes were well-positioned and intimidating. Or, in Huxley’s case, they were ingrained within our compelling pleasures. Today, our in/securities and regimes of power and control are fluid, uncertain, non-visible, and constantly on the move; they adapt, re-position, and re-configure themselves.
Fear and insecurity are now diffused in a non-linear and asymmetric manner throughout our diverse cultures. They are unpredictable, unclear, unanchored, and with no clear agenda or cause. We are haunted by a continually propagandized realm of unknowns; by a threatening menace that we are told is everywhere within a thousand faces. These intangible ‘floating’ threats are often cleverly packaged by our societal propaganda agencies into ‘knowns’ such as named terrorist organizations or stereotyped into ethnic groups. In other words, the ‘usual suspects’ are rolled out, each time with a different name or toy-like acronym. In return, ‘we the people’ often define ourselves against such threats as a way of being seen as apart from them: ‘We all need to mark the enemies of security in order to avoid being counted among them…We need to accuse in order to be absolved; to exclude in order to avoid exclusion.’7 And this has become the public face of our collective Wounded Mind. It fears — and thus we must fear.
In the end, such ‘security’ actually generates increased insecurity, either as a by-product or perhaps as a deliberate in-built policy. This has created a ‘security obsession’ with many people living in modern urban environments whereby ordinary citizens are encouraged to respond to the new insecurities by two ways. These are either a strategy of defense (e.g., stockpiling supplies); or by attack (such as supporting extreme government measures, including increased domestic surveillance). Our public collective mindset is further conditioned with feelings of insecurity that are instilled by politicians and the media, and sustained by urban fortification, technological surveillance, and economic vulnerability. Our modern dense urban enclaves are now filling up with gated communities, privately patrolled neighborhoods, and security zones. We are more and more living alongside visible and invisible walls, barricades, watchtowers and enclosures — all aggressively guarded by a burgeoning force of armed security. The Wounded Mind wishes to make us all feel vulnerable and wounded in some way.
Despite all this, we need to constantly remind ourselves that this Wounded Mind needs our minds through which to manifest. It needs our willing compliance, and in this lies the clever yet dastardly maneuver of presenting the inhuman — and the inhumane — as something normal.
Normalizing the Inhuman as Human
Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem charged with his involvement in the death of about six million humans. His defense tried to convince the court that his only motive was the job well done. That is, to do the best he could for his superiors, as he would any job. He alleged that he had no personal interest or grudges against the people and could not stomach the sight of murder. He was merely acting out orders, providing loyal service to his superiors, and the death of millions was its collateral damage. Let us think on this for a moment — is there nothing wrong in wanting to fulfill orders to the best of one’s ability? Here we have only to refer to the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments to realize that we would do almost anything if a person in a white coat told us to.[i] We have been quite thoroughly socially conditioned to accept and submit to various displays of power.
As I have discussed previously, what I refer to as the ‘Modernity Project’ has inserted within the collective psyche a subconscious obedience to authority. It is as a form of artificial conditioning.[ii] The concept of justice in such modern societies is then replaced by the overt necessity for order and stability. This is then reinforced through fear strategies to establish and maintain a required need for security Not to have a trusted structure of security would suggest the alternative of chaos and disorder. Within complex social systems the threat of chaos — and thus the loss of social privileges — is usually enough to gain support for restrictive security measures. To achieve this, there has been a subtle and ingenious — yet devastating — maneuver to acclimatize and desensitize people to acts of inhumanity. The psychosis is not only prevalent within those who are corrupt and dangerous, or those people who hold great power. It is also widespread within the ‘nice people’ who work in the offices, or the lab technicians, the clerks; and, of course, the owners, directors, and stockholders — all the people who not only uphold but also willing implement our bureaucratic forms of social management.
It is a Kafkaesque scenario where bureaucracy and its workmanlike rationale cancels out all notions of soul, meaning, compassion, and especially love. Everything gets reduced down to the final concept of the ‘loyal servant.’ Erich Fromm, in his highly regarded work The Fear of Freedom, recognized that a hugely influential, almost secret, power was being exercised over the whole of society in a way that has influenced our social mindset. He wrote that — ‘Because we have freed ourselves of the older overt forms of authority, we do not see that we have become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals.’8 And it is this illusion, I argue, that is being sustained and developed by the traumatized Wounded Mind. The result is that we have entered into a collective psychological crisis.
Our crisis today — our current psychosis — is that many of us are, in the words of Fromm, living under the illusion of being self-willing individuals. The ingenious maneuver of the Wounded Mind has given us the illusion — or delusion — that everything we think, and therefore do, originates from our own free will. The frustrating contradiction here is that we can, and do, have individual agency — if we can act from our own minds. To achieve this, we must separate our sense of genuine self from the programmed social self that acts as our personality — our mask. We need to ‘wake up’ and see the way in which our lives have been, and continue to be, manipulated and programmed.
At present, we occupy a space where anything might happen, yet nothing can be known with any certainty. What is certain, however, is that the future has to be in our hands. The only real and genuine freedom must be through exorcising fear from within us — to cut out its roots (to root it out) and to expel it from our collective and individual minds. Until we do so, we remain living within an unreal world — a world that is a tyranny against human consciousness.
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of Healing the Wounded Mind: The Psychosis of the Modern World and the Search for the Self and other books. Visit his website — http://www.kingsleydennis.com/
1 Cited in Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, p5
2 Cited in Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, p6
3 Fromm, Erich. 1960. The Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p101
4 Cited in Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, p149
5 Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, p79–80
6 Cited in Bauman, Zygmunt. 2006. Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity Press, p176
7 Bauman, Zygmunt; Lyon, David. 2013. Liquid Surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press, p104
8 Fromm, Erich. 1960. The Fear of Freedom. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p177
[i] See Milgram, S. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: HarperCollins, 1974.
[ii] See my book The Struggle for your Mind