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Can fear be a positive influence in our tumultuous world?


On January 22, 1988, many Pashtun mourners traveled from Peshawar, Pakistan to Jalalabad, Afghanistan to attend the funeral of Bacha Khan, a political leader who fought against British colonial rule. Among them was Robert Peckham, a British student who was traveling in the region. He joined a group of friends, journalists, and the editor of the Frontier Post and rode in a van through the winding Khyber Pass, a road marked by reminders of the Soviet-Afghan war such as tanks, checkpoints, and soldiers. A ceasefire had been arranged and the crowds peacefully gathered around Khan’s family home in Jalalabad where he wanted to be buried.

During the ceremony, the first bomb exploded, causing a shockwave through the crowd. Peckham remembers the crowd briefly maintaining their composure before a second explosion caused chaos and people started to run. The buses that had brought mourners were destroyed and the parking lot was a scene of disorder. Approximately fifteen people were killed and many others were injured. In his book, Fear: An Alternative History of the World, Peckham describes how the crowd, initially united in grief, became divided as people fought to find safety. Some were crying and others were fighting or pointing guns in fear. As Peckham and his group rushed back to Peshawar for safety, they saw stranded mourners trying to hitch a ride but their driver refused to stop. In this state of panic, Peckham notes, humans can become both vulnerable and cruel.

Peckham’s experience of being caught up in a stampeding crowd had a profound impact on his academic career. He was struck by the way his personal panic was intertwined with larger forces, including the Soviet incursion and the legacy of colonialism. This experience made him curious about how emotions, like fear, can affect individuals and societies. He saw fear as a powerful force that can both unite and divide us, and believed it played a significant role in shaping history. Peckham was determined to delve deeper into the complexity of fear and its impact on humanity.

The pandemic, conflict in Ukraine, and the Israel-Hamas war have all brought fear to the forefront of our minds. However, the existence of human fears can be traced back thousands of years. This sensation has always been a part of life, a primal neurological response that prepares us to take action in the moment, whether it be to fight or flee. Throughout history, people have found ways to express or control these fears, starting with primitive markings on rocks. In Sulawesi, Indonesia, cave art depicts terrifying creatures that are half-human, half-animal. At a Neolithic settlement in Turkey that dates back 9,000 years, the walls are adorned with images of headless figures and vultures with human legs. As humans evolved and developed the ability to write, pray, and reason, our capacity to be influenced by thoughts and emotions also grew. Fear became more complex and no longer solely served as an instinctual response to protect us from physical danger, but also as a tool for social interaction.

According to Peckham, during the medieval period, there was a pervasive sense of fear in everyday life, comparable to the presence of demons in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. Pope Innocent III also expressed this sentiment, stating that human life is consumed by fear. The Church saw this fear as an opportunity and capitalized on it, using images of monsters, demons, and angels in fiery pits to illustrate the unknown and offer salvation for a price. However, in the 14th century, these fears became a reality with events like famine and the Black Death, causing widespread devastation and psychological trauma. The Catholic church struggled to maintain its followers as fear overwhelmed society. This eventually led to the Reformation in the 16th century, a major change in the organization of religion and state in Europe.

Robert Peckham sitting on a bench outside, plants around him and a latticed window in a brick wall behind him

According to Peckham, this event marked the beginning of several significant moments in history that were influenced by fear, ultimately shaping the modern world. The Catholic Church’s control over fear was disrupted, giving Protestant kings the ability to utilize the same tactic to govern their people. It is no coincidence that during this time, Niccolo Machiavelli’s influential book, The Prince, was released. The book argued that rulers could use deceit and aggression to maintain their power, leading to the emergence of a new “politics of fear.”

According to Peckham, fear is not just a tool used by tyrants or a sign of impending disaster. It can also serve as a catalyst for change. He argues that throughout history, major transformations such as the Industrial Revolution, the rise of democracy, and the spread of global capitalism have all been driven, at least in part, by fear. As our world continues to face numerous crises, including climate change, nuclear threats, and advancements in AI, it may be worthwhile to look back and reflect on how we have dealt with fear in the past. Peckham reassures us that fear is not always a negative emotion and can sometimes lead to positive outcomes.

Peckham and I met on the anniversary of September 11th. It is a day that is ingrained in our collective memories, serving as a reminder of how fear can leave a lasting impact. We chose to meet in London’s East End, a location that held significance for Peckham as he had been attending an art exhibition of his father’s paintings when news of the Twin Towers attack broke. In the years that followed, fear became a dominant force in politics, leading to the declaration of a war on terror and the invasion of Iraq by western forces. This also resulted in a rise in Islamophobia and an increase in state surveillance at the expense of individual privacy. The acts of domestic terrorism that had previously plagued America were quickly overshadowed by these new fears, with the anxieties of the Cold War becoming a distant memory. This pattern is one that has been repeated throughout history as old fears are replaced by new ones.

In 2019, when Peckham began writing his book, he held the position of head of history at the University of Hong Kong. For more than ten years, he had been studying and writing about risk and panic in financial markets, epidemics in Asia, and how colonial authorities managed health crises, often prioritizing controlling fear over controlling the disease itself. At this time, the Chinese government was forcefully cracking down on pro-democracy protesters. As the protests intensified, the appearance of Covid-19 was used as an opportunity to further suppress the movement. Peckham notes, “This was a prime example of everything I had been researching – how authorities capitalize on moments of crisis to manipulate public fear for their own gain.”

In 2021, there was an attack on the Capitol building in Washington by supporters of former President Trump. This was followed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was a time of great uncertainty and fear. Peckham, who had been writing about these events, resigned from his position in Hong Kong due to increasing paranoia and self-censorship. He explains that the recent espionage law in Hong Kong made it difficult to know what statements were allowed and what would be considered provocative. As someone who writes about the histories of societies where certain things cannot be said, he felt guilty discussing it, knowing that his friends and colleagues in China and Hong Kong were feeling nervous.

Peckham has a valid concern that discussing fear may lead to excessive introspection and detachment from worldwide issues. According to him, while we are discussing fear in London, there are other regions where oppressive governments are utilizing fear as a means of control.

Even in the midst of the turmoil in Hong Kong, Peckham was struck by the intricacies of fear and how we understand it. An example of pro-democracy graffiti, written near the university, particularly stood out to him: “Freedom from fear”. To Peckham, it represented the way we associate fear with oppression, but fail to recognize its role in protecting the values we hold dear in a democracy. Fear can serve as a check on power – a government that fears consequences (or losing an election) is preferable to one that acts without consequences. And for individuals, fear can serve as a call to action, reminding us of our power and what we risk losing if we do not take action.

It can be challenging to come to terms with, but it is important to reflect on in a society where freedom is often taken for granted. In 1844, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard used the analogy of standing at the edge of a cliff to illustrate this concept. The fear of falling is not the only thing that scares us, but also the temptation to jump off simply because we have the ability to do so. According to Peckham, as our freedom increases, so does our anxiety about making choices. Instead of giving up our freedom, which some argue happened in the 20th century with disastrous consequences, we should recognize that fear and freedom go hand in hand. After the 9/11 attacks, we sacrificed our personal freedoms in hopes of easing fears of terrorism. However, it wasn’t until a decade later when leaked National Security Agency files revealed the extent to which those fears had been exploited.

Advancements in technology, particularly in the realm of communication, can accelerate the spread of fear by creating new channels for it to travel and be controlled. The printing press, for example, enabled the witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum to become a bestseller in the 15th century, contributing to widespread hysteria in Europe (reportedly outselling even the Bible). In the present day, 24-hour news coverage intensified the impact and aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, creating an overwhelming sense of closeness to the event. It has become commonplace to closely follow distant conflicts and disasters in real time through hashtags and live videos. In many cases, the technology itself becomes the source of our fears. In the 18th century, the rise of the novel sparked a moral panic similar to that caused by violent video games in recent years. Currently, many fears revolve around AI, with some tech leaders warning that it poses a threat of human extinction.

Throughout history, technology has eased concerns and improved safety, while formerly distrusted forms of communication have been utilized for progressive causes. An 1788 illustration depicting the layout of the slave ship Brookes was widely published and played a crucial role in the abolitionist movement. As noted by Thomas Clarkson, a clergyman and activist, the image had an immediate impact on all who saw it. In 2020, a viral video of George Floyd’s death ignited global support for the Black Lives Matter movement, reshaping perceptions of racism. Social media, often feared for its potential to cause social decline, mental distress, and spread misinformation, has also sparked social change, from the #MeToo movement to the Arab Spring. According to Peckham, fear can both fracture communities and unite them through shared experiences. The pandemic, for instance, highlighted issues of inequality and it is not a coincidence that the BLM and social justice movements gained momentum during this time.

In recent history, fear has become a prominent aspect of the industrial world. Peckham acknowledges the initial panic over germs in the early 1900s, which even included fears that library books could spread disease and resulted in a new market for hygiene products. The late Victorian era saw increased anxiety about industrialization and changing gender roles, leading to the emergence of “physical culture” and fitness influencers like Eugen Sandow selling workout courses to young men. From medication to makeup and from supplements to surveillance technology, consumerism has capitalized on individual fears and insecurities. Products and services now compete in an ongoing race to both instill and alleviate fear. According to Peckham, we are ensnared in a cycle of fear that generates profits, driven by increasingly intimate tactics such as targeted ads and messages on our phones. This has led some to believe that it is a fearful time to be alive. The rise of wellness culture, life coaching, and guides to happiness can be seen as direct responses to this phenomenon.

Discussing current concerns would be incomplete without acknowledging the looming threat of climate change. The anxiety surrounding the environment has become a regular state of mind, even on days when the sun is shining. For Peckham, this raises a crucial question about the role that fear can play. “Can it be used to increase awareness? Or can we exaggerate fear and become indifferent?” Peckham’s own grandfather, Alexander King, was a scientist and environmentalist who helped establish the Club of Rome, a think tank that published a groundbreaking report in 1972 titled “The Limits to Growth.” This report examined the potential consequences of a world focused on constant consumption (spoiler alert: not great). Some critics at the time dismissed it as being overly concerned with the environment.

The environmental movement continues to grapple with a significant challenge – how to incite change in the face of such an overwhelming problem. Figures like Greta Thunberg believe that fear is a reasonable response to the impending threat, as she expressed at the 2019 World Economic Forum: “I want you to experience the fear I feel every day.” In Andreas Malm’s book, How to Blow up a Pipeline, he argues that activists must escalate their methods beyond peaceful demonstrations and use the potential for ecological disaster as a motivator, even if it means resorting to eco-terrorism. On the other hand, climate change deniers dismiss activists as “doomsday cultists,” utilizing different fears to undermine the movement.

Peckham is optimistic that individuals can develop a heightened awareness and critical perspective of how fear influences our actions. He believes that the key to self-improvement is recognizing that fear is shaped by culture and has a past. This understanding can lead to a sense of empowerment by acknowledging that external forces impact our ability to make choices. Despite delving into the historical context of fear, Peckham remains hopeful for a positive outcome. After experiencing the bombing in Jalalabad, he observed a feeling of clarity that followed. While fear can have negative effects, it can also serve as a motivating force that directs our attention towards important issues. In fact, the history of fear can be seen as a history of hope.

Robert Peckham’s book “Fear: An Alternative History of the World” has been released by Profile Books with a price of £25. You can purchase it for a discounted price of £21.25 at guardianbookshop.com.

Source: theguardian.com