Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi

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Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectation by Frank Furedi

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Forms and reasons for the predominance of risk consciousness and safety obsession are explored and analysed. It's a scholarly but passionate book and well worth reading. The argument is presented very clearly, one idea leads to another in a logical sequence, not always inevitably, but convincingly enough. Recommended as a provocative read for those interested in social phenomena, though for those unused to a academic writing and vocabulary of social science reading might require some effort.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: April 2005
Publisher: Continuum International Publishing Group - Academi
ISBN: 0826476163

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Frank Furedi is a sociologist from University of Kent and his books reflect this academic background: they are well researched, properly referenced and make an erudite use of old and new sociological theories and concepts.

They wouldn't, however, be interesting and controversial and worth reading by so called general educated public if they were just scholarly studies. He does make value judgements, though - and even fairly scholarly style cannot completely conceal evident passion he feels for the subject. You might not agree with him, but his argument is certainly worth listening to.

In the Culture of Fear Furedi concerns himself with the concept of risk and resulting societal fear.

Despite the fact (or maybe, just maybe, because of it?) that we live lives of historically unprecedented safety, comfort and length, modern society seems to be plagued by fears of all kinds: from the threat of impeding environmental disaster that threatens the very future of the planet to the fear of unknown side effects of new technologies and medical treatments, to the pervasive distrust of other people - not only strangers in the street, but also teachers, doctors, neighbours, co-workers and lovers. Furedi apparently started the book with the objective of explaining the health and technology related fears but eventually came to the conclusion that it's in the sphere of personal relationships that the dominant culture of safety/fear manifests itself at its most insidious and destructive.

The conventional interpretation is that these all-pervasive fears are a reflection of a very real phenomenon of technology and science getting out of control and genuinely threatening humanity's survival. Furedi advances a theory that the causes for pretty much all the fears are in the social rather than technological realm. Particular fears are exemplifications of a floating sense of being permanently at risk, which in turn is an obvious consequence of a assumption about human vulnerability. Vulnerability is seen as a defining characteristic of human condition.

If there are so many dangers lurking everywhere from food to sex to family to medicine, and if we are so vulnerable to hurt (which is likely to have life-long effects), then it's not surprising that safety becomes the core value of the society.

The biggest (and most terrifying) is the influence of safety obsession on interpersonal relationships. Strangers are not to be trusted and in the world lacking common value system everybody is a stranger (and a threat), even people that you work and live with.

This floating sense of danger is, according to Furedi, caused by increased individuation and alienation, breakdown of community bonds and loss of a common societal sense of value system which enabled us to know what's right. Traditional morality has been replaced by a new etiquette of risk avoidance.

All of that leads to what Furedi describes as a culture of low expectation - people lacking faith in themselves and a society lacking faith in the possibility of solving its problems.

Language of support and empowerment and cushy-cuddly packaging is used as means of disguising what is fundamentally very authoritarian framework, aiming to intervene in the most intimate aspects of behaviour on the grounds of people's inherent lack of ability to cope. This results, pretty inevitably, is a creation of therapeutic state in which we all (apart from the experts in authority of course) become like children needing guidance and support, incapable of knowing what's good for us and unable to cope with the basics of life without help from above. The notion of the self-possessed individual who can cope with what life brings is denied outright or framed as 'being in denial'. This opens door to all forms of social control and moralising, more insidious as often welcomed by the subjects of the control themselves because performed under the guise of 'counselling', 'public health' or 'child protection'.

And of course it's hard to reconcile such a view of human beings with an idea of a democratic system in which we are responsible adult citizens holding the powers-that-be to account, and herein lies the greatest danger of such view of the world and humanity taken to its political extreme.

The part of his argument that I agree with most, and one that perhaps needs voicing as often as possible is one relating to abuse culture, undue obsession with risk avoidance in interpersonal relationships and a pessimistic and fundamentally destructive vision of human beings for whom vulnerability is a defining quality.

I had more problems with Furedi's take on the environmental risks and precautionary principle. There, I am not sure: it would be good to believe that the safety obsession in personal lives and grave concerns with humanity destroying the planet were part of the same social zeitgeist and that the latter has as little basis in reality as the former. But, perhaps influenced by this zeitgeist I am too scared to believe that it might be so!

The second aspect of Furedi's argument that I was distinctly unsure about was one regarding the role that advocacy groups play in the political life. Yes, they have less democratic mandate than elected politicians, even in the current climate of political apathy. And yes, a lot of them seem primarily concerned with lobbying and media driven PR rather than establishing genuine society-level participation. And yes, they do feed on the general mood of mistrust of authority and fear of hidden dangers and official cover ups. But despite being media darlings playing at being outsiders voicing the concerns of the underdog and despite being treated by the state enforcement agencies with indulgence unheard of in cases of previous political protest (cf. miners in the 80's) I think there is a role for advocacy groups and I think that lumping them all in one basket as concerned exclusively with lobbying activities ('we are not here to do a revolution, we are here to do a media stunt') is rather unfair.

If the democratic process needs reviving amongst the many then the energy for this revival can - and probably has to - come from the same source that animates the few that take part in advocacy groups. Democratic process is all nice and dandy, but part of the democracy is also the right to protest - not just in the voting booth, but also in the streets. There is a fundamental difference between a group of dressed-up extremists destroying a GM trial field or 15 people protesting against live calf exports, even if one of them throws herself under a lorry and virtually millions of people who took part in anti-war marches before the Iraq war. Furedi chooses to conveniently ignore this difference (if not the existence of such undoubtedly mass participation) and thus close his argument in a neat but not necessarily completely honest way.

Despite all that I liked this book a lot. It was a intellectually fairly challenging but by no means boring read and I thought that the argument Furedi is making is an important one and worth considering.

The book reads well, but it becomes more dragged out and perhaps too scholarly in its later parts. It picks up again in the polemical favour and controversy of the last chapter concerned with 'Politics of Fear'. This is also a title of Furedi's newest book and I will read it, if only to see if he makes any new points or again rehashes the same arguments and ideas from a new angle.

'Culture of Fear' is wholeheartedly recommended as a provocative read for those interested in analysis of social phenomena, though for those unused to a semi-academic writing it might require some effort. The argument is presented very clearly, though; one idea leads to another in a clear and logical sequence; not always inevitably, but in most cases convincingly enough and the effort is well worth making.

If you don't feel up to reading a sociological analysis cum political polemic but would like to enjoy somebody having a go at therapy culture and self-help industry, you might enjoy Will Ferguson's Happiness TM.

If moral panics and scares relating to health are what you find particularly interesting then you might want to track Michael Fitzpatrick's Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the regulation of Lifestyle.

And finally, Making Monsters: False Memory, Satanic Cult Abuse, and Sexual Hysteria by Richard Ofshe presents particularly frightening indictment of one of the most damaging fads in the therapy and abuse universe; recovered memory therapy.

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Jill said:

Y'know, I was only ranting to Michael t'other day about why on earth the elite are doing so much handwringing about poor poll turnouts, when all the elite ever does is try to convince we oiks that we need guidance/therapy/league tables and all the rest of the interference in daily life. I shan't start to rant about paedophilia terror, else I'd be here all day.