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How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty.


The fact that more and more areas of life are seen as targets for terrorists – buildings, power stations, the economy and so on – has little to do with the increased capabilities of terrorists; rather it reflects the growth in competitive claims-making around fear and terror.

Today’s free-floating fear is sustained by a culture that is anxious about change and uncertainty, and which continually anticipates the worst possible outcome. This ‘culture of fear’, as I and others have called it, tends to see human experience and endeavour as a potential risk to our safety. Consequently, every conceivable experience has been transformed into a risk to be managed. Garland writes of the ‘rise of risk’ – that is, the explosion in the growth of risk discourse and risk literature. He notes that little connects this literature together, other than the use of the word ‘risk’.

The very fact that risk is used to link together a variety of otherwise unconnected experiences highlights today’s mood of uncertainty. Fear, like risk, has become a taken-for-granted concept, even a cultural affectation for expressing confusion and doubt. For the French social theorist Francois Ewald, the ascendancy of the fearful and precautionary culture is underwritten by a ‘crisis of causality’, by a feeling of uncertainty towards the relationship between action and effect. Ewald suggests that the institutionalisation of precaution ‘invites one to consider the worst hypothesis (defined as the “serious and irreversible” consequence) in any business decision’. The tendency to engage with uncertainty through the prism of fear, and therefore to anticipate the worst possible outcome, can be understood as a crisis of causality.

Kurt Riezler, in his early attempt to develop a psychology of fear, similarly drew attention to the influence of ideas about causality on the way that people respond to threats. ‘They have been taken for granted – and now they are threatened’ is how Riezler describes a situation where ‘“causes” are hopelessly entangled’.

The question of causation is inextricably bound up with the way that communities try to make sense of acts of misfortune. Questions such as ‘was it God?’ or ‘was it nature?’ or ‘was it an act of human error?’ have important implications for how we understand acts of misfortune, and how we deal with them. Confusion about causation encourages speculation, rumours, mistrust. And as a result, events often appear to be incomprehensible and beyond human control.

The new identity of vulnerability

‘Whom and what we fear, and how we express and act upon our fearing, is in some quite important sense, as Durkheim long ago realized, constitutive of who we are.’

Today, the autonomisation of fear has important implications for identity, for how we see and understand ourselves. The idea that we are the subject of threats – threats which have an independent existence – has given rise to the concept of generally being ‘at risk’. The emergence of this ‘at risk’ category ruptures the traditional relationship between individual action and the probability of a hazard. To be ‘at risk’ is no longer just about the probability of some hazard impacting on you; it is also about who you are as a person. ‘At riskness’ has become a fixed attribute of the individual, like the size of your feet or hands. Public officials frequently categorise whole groups of people as being at risk.