Fear is a powerful emotion and it can be a force for good as well as force for bad. . We all need some fears. Young children learn to fear hot stoves thanks often to their mothers who instil that fear in them. That is a healthy fear. We could be seriously hurt if we did not have that fear. There are many positive fears like that which help us to avoid danger or harm. That is all for the good.
Other fears can be completely disarming. An example I often use is the United States. It is a country dominated by fear. They spend more money on arms and weapons than the next 8 or so countries behind them combined. That is what fear drives them to do. Everyone knows they would be much better spending the money on other things, many of which could actually make some of those fears go away. For example, Americans have a great fear of crime. As a result they spend vast sums on policing or weapons and that does little to drive away the fear. Fear can make us do stupid things.
There is plenty of fear going around these days. Recently, I attended an anti-vaccination rally in Steinbach and the leader of the rally as far as I could determine was a woman called Sheena Friesen. She spoke a lot about fear. She claimed fear of Covid-19 was making us do stupid things.
One person held a sign that read, “Facts over Fear.” I agree entirely with that sentiment, yet I think he and I have a very different conception of what we should fear. It seems he thought we were mistaken in fearing the virus that causes Covid-19. I think our fear of that virus is healthy, but we should not let it get out of control.
The difference is this. I believe that fears are valid and a force for good so long as they are kept under control and are rationally based on evidence of harm which the disease can cause. In other words, some fears are reasonable others are unreasonable. By definition, an unreasonable fear is called paranoia. Such fears are always a force for evil since they are not based on evidence.
American philosopher, Martha C. Nussbaum had important things to say about fear in her fine little book, The Monarchy of Fear. The title itself says a lot, suggesting we should not be controlled by fear. We should never let fear be our boss or king. Here is what she said,
“There’s a lot of fear around in the U.S. today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.”
This is precisely right. The real problem with fear is that it can and often does interfere with rational decisions making. For example, I admit that I have an unreasonable fear of heights. It is not a rational fear. If I get to the edge of a tall building or structure I start getting scared even when there is nothing to fear. After all, I am not going to pitch myself off the building. I am not going to fall over the edge. There is nothing to fear, but I can’t stop being scared. I even get scared when I see total strangers getting what I think is uncomfortably close to the edge, when they have no such fears. My fear is unreasonable. Therefore, it is an irrational fear and I should learn to control it and not allow it to control me. That is easier said than done however. Nussbaum says fear can disrupt rational deliberation, leading to unwise choices. I think we can all think of many examples of exactly this.
Beyond making us suffer, irrational fears can lead us to make bad decision for our community and our country. From a public policy perspective we should not allow fears to lead us to faulty decision making. It can be dangerous. For example, Nussbaum said,
“What is today’s fear about? Many Americans themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of loved ones. They fear that the American Dream–that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done–has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all too attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women. “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.”
Fear drives us to make unreasonable decisions. For example, if people have an unreasonable fear of government or authority they can refuse to listen to them when they give us good advice such, advising us to take vaccines that mountains of research and by now millions of actual experiences such irresistibly that our vaccine are safe and beneficial.
I think fear of others led Americans to make a disastrous decision in electing Donald Trump as president in 2016. It was a disastrous choice and led to near catastrophic results. Americans irrationally feared others such as Muslims, Mexicans, and elites. The last of those might have been a rational fear. Certainly more rational than the first two.
As Nussbaum said,
“The problems that globalization and automation create for working-class Americans are real, deep, and seemingly intractable. Rather than face those difficulties and uncertainties, people who sense their living standard declining can instead grasp after villains, and fantasy takes shape: if “we” can keep “them” out (build a wall) or keep them in “their place” (in subservient positions), “we” can regain our pride and for men, their masculinity Fear leads, then, to aggressive “othering” strategies rather than to useful analysis.”
The most effective means of dealing with such “othering” is to rely on our sense of fellow feeling. Empathy can chill many a pervasive fear. In fact, fellow feeling is the opposite of “us” vs. “them.”
According to Anti-vaxxers like Steinbach’s Sheena Friesen we are overly scared of Covid-19 and as a result we impose irrational restrictions on others like forcing people to wear masks or take vaccines that are dangerous.
In my opinion, fear of Covid-19 so long as it is held in check is an entirely reasonable fear. Millions of people have already died from it. Millions more have got sick, often with permanent damage. Millions more again, have had important medical treatments such as life-saving surgeries dangerously delayed. These are not unreasonable fears. These are completely reasonable fears which lead us to take reasonable precautions such as wearing a mask or getting vaccinated. Hundreds of millions of people have already taken the vaccines with remarkably few serious side effects. Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Medical Officer of health recently said he and his team have so far found no deaths in Manitoba that could properly be attributed to taking the vaccine and very few cases of serious illness resulting from the vaccines. At the same time, they have saved thousands of lives in Manitoba.
I think the antivaxxers, not the rest of us, have been dominated by unreasonable fears of the vaccine. They are ruled by unreasonable fears, not those who are taking reasonable precautions at very little cost.