Philosophy, Fear and Optimism

Thinking Honestly About Fear:

The author of the great book The Philosophy of Fear argues that fear is actually anathema to almost anything positive and unless we see how much of it in a modern, free and more leisurely world is irrational and must be tossed to the four winds, we will be hopelessly trapping ourselves in effectively a delusion.

Cutting to the core of the book are the following points (admittedly from my biased perspective):

We live in a culture of fear where we see everything from ‘a perspective of fear’. Though it is used strategically, the apocalypse, like the Rapture, never arrives. But our obsessing on it causes us to ‘lose our heads’ and if we think through it, we have far less to fear. The basis for ignoring this possibility is driven by an awareness of uncertainty that systematically distorts to a feeling that we risk when we really aren’t. Part of our problem is that in our often boring average everydayness because we live in a much more leisurely society than in the past, ‘fear lends color to the world’, and we often mix fictions with our duller realities. The most disturbing aspect of this fear is how it cuts through the possibility of trust. In fact a key cancer of our reliance on fear is that instead of trust, we get the ‘systematic paranoia’ of lost trust showing itself in cancers such as the surveillance culture. Playing on the political theories of Machiavelli and Hobbes, we can see how the omniscience of fear blended into our ‘so-called war on terror’ turns into for the most part a strategic war on citizen’s freedoms. But amid the delusions that our fearfulness imbibes, there is the possibility of replacing our mostly irrational fears with ‘hope’ and what the author refers to as ‘humanistic optimism.’

That is the pivot point for our discussion. There are possibilities through the looking glass of Humanistic Optimism. One of the key points of the book is that if we could figure out a way to assuage our fears, fight through those things that nip at our heals, put them on the backburner as we think about more important things, there are amazing possibilities in a transformation to something very much better. One of the major points in Steven Pinker’s incredible study The Better Angels of Our Nature is that we are evolving culturally far more quickly than we ever could biologically. Just consider how once one lives in a ‘free’ society, societal norms change much more quickly … like in a few generations rather than a thousand or hundreds of thousands of years. In this paradigm, just consider how the imbibed racism of the older is far less powerful in most of the young. And just consider the cultural acceptance of homosexual lifestyles between 2004 where a political party used gays as a wedge to retain power and how much less of a possibility that is now. Amongst our young, there is far less of this generally than in most of the people my age.

Considering this possibility, here are some points we can think about before and focus the meeting on:

Can we break the things we fear into essentially two categories: those that are truly distractions that we allow in the door for essentially some vicarious ‘pleasure’ and those that are truly threats that we must do something about beyond putting aside?

As we live into the future in our more free societies, are there truly less things to be fearful of, more of our fears moving into the category of distractions?

If this is true and getting more true as we move forward, is it not possible that we can start considering things we fear simply to be things we should grow past, reduce in power, think of as some sort of guilty pleasure, something to sort of enjoy and then put away as we deal with our real lives in our real world?

With this in mind, let us bring up (your ideas beyond mine) some of the things that we now consider to be substantially fearful. Let us take some time to create a short list of these things we are really afraid of and argue they are not just distractions.

And finally let us consider that generally what many Americans worry about are mostly distractions, mostly irrational. Therefore the cancer of fear is totally corrosive in a trust between us and cuts deeply into the possibility of a Humanistic Optimism. Does a better world not lie just on the other side of that chasm?

Dale Friedley
Your Head Dork

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  • A former member
    A former member

    I had to miss this meeting due to an emergency, but it seemed like it would have been a promising and hard to come by (for me at least) conversation. Would love to see more of these!

    November 20, 2012

  • Scooter D.

    Another Great Meeting! Well run and on topic. Fascinating to think how fear is both innate in mankind's evolution, and such an integral part of our modern American culture.

    November 19, 2012

  • Dee D.

    A short list of these things Americans are really afraid of, not just distractions or irrational? Hmmm, are we considering: death (nearly all religious & non-religious), our nation's wars - more wars - still more wars with resulting death/destruction, imploding on national debt, current and looming consequences of human overpopulation (desertification, mass starvation/pollution), growth of totalitarianism of surveillance technology making life unbearable (ask Petraeus), devastating illnesses/accidents, cost of healthcare, current recession/jobs, etc . . . and spiders, of course ? What better world lies just on the other side - please share, Pollyanna.

    November 18, 2012

    • A. Colin F.

      The real long-term problem for all nations seeking peace and humanity is the expounding population growth, increasing consumption, scarcity of natural resources and contaminant waste. Unless the Real Problems are addressed (and we are barely starting), political and economic instability, along with pressure for military solutions will continue to grow.

      November 18, 2012

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