ⓘ Culture of fear

Culture of fear

ⓘ Culture of fear

Culture of fear is the concept that people may incite fear in the general public to achieve political or workplace goals through emotional bias; it was developed as a sociological framework by Frank Furedi and has been more recently popularized by the American sociologist Barry Glassner.


1. In politics

Nazi leader Hermann Goring explains how people can be made fearful and to support a war they otherwise would oppose:

The people dont want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

In her book State and Opposition in Military Brazil, Maria Helena Moreira Alves found a "culture of fear" was implemented as part of political repression since 1964. She used the term to describe methods implemented by the national security apparatus of Brazil in its effort to equate political participation with risk of arrest and torture.

Cassação English: cassation is one such mechanism used to punish members of the military by legally declaring them dead. This enhanced the potential for political control through intensifying the culture of fear as a deterrent to opposition.

Alves found the changes of the National Security Law of 1969, as beginning the use of "economic exploitation, physical repression, political control, and strict censorship" to establish a "culture of fear" in Brazil. The three psychological components of the culture of fear included silence through censorship, sense of isolation, and a "generalized belief that all channels of opposition were closed." A "feeling of complete hopelessness," prevailed, in addition to "withdrawal from opposition activity."

Former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the use of the term War on Terror was intended to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it "obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue".

Frank Furedi, a former professor of Sociology and writer for Spiked magazine, says that todays culture of fear did not begin with the collapse of the World Trade Center. Long before September 11, he argues, public panics were widespread – on everything from GM crops to mobile phones, from global warming to foot-and-mouth disease. Like Durodie, Furedi argues that perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability. Furedi says that "we need a grown-up discussion about our post-September 11 world, based on a reasoned evaluation of all the available evidence rather than on irrational fears for the future.

British academics Gabe Mythen and Sandra Walklate argue that following terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon, Madrid, and London, government agencies developed a discourse of "new terrorism" in a cultural climate of fear and uncertainty. UK researchers argued that these processes reduced notions of public safety and created the simplistic image of a non-white "terroristic other" that has negative consequences for ethnic minority groups in the UK.

In his 2004 BBC documentary film series, The Power of Nightmares, subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear, the journalist Adam Curtis argues that politicians have used our fears to increase their power and control over society. Though he does not use the term "culture of fear," what Curtis describes in his film is a reflection of this concept. He looks at the American neo-conservative movement and its depiction of the threat first from the Soviet Union and then from radical Islamists. Curtis insists there has been a largely illusory fear of terrorism in the west since the September 11 attacks and that politicians such as George W Bush and Tony Blair had stumbled on a new force to restore their power and authority; using the fear of an organised "web of evil" from which they could protect their people. Curtiss film castigated the media, security forces and the Bush administration for expanding their power in this way. The film features Bill Durodie, then Director of the International Centre for Security Analysis, and Senior Research Fellow in the International Policy Institute, Kings College London, saying that to call this network an "invention" would be too strong a term, but he asserts that it probably does not exist and is largely a "projection of our own worst fears, and that what we see is a fantasy thats been created."


2. In the workplace

Ashforth discussed potentially destructive sides of leadership and identified what he referred to as petty tyrants: leaders who exercise a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace. Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt. When employees get the sense that bullies are tolerated, a climate of fear may be the result. Several studies have confirmed a relationship between bullying, on one hand, and an autocratic leadership and an authoritarian way of settling conflicts or dealing with disagreements, on the other. An authoritarian style of leadership may create a climate of fear, with little or no room for dialogue and with complaining being considered futile.

In a study of public-sector union members, approximately one in five workers reported having considered leaving the workplace as a result of witnessing bullying taking place. Rayner explained the figures by pointing to the presence of a climate of fear in which employees considered reporting to be unsafe, where bullies had been tolerated previously despite management knowing of the presence of bullying. Individual differences in sensitivity to reward, punishment and motivation have been studied under the premises of reinforcement sensitivity theory and have also been applied to workplace performance. A culture of fear at the workplace runs contrary to the "key principles" established by W. Edwards Deming for managers to transform business effectiveness. One of his fourteen principles is to drive out fear in order to allow everyone to work effectively for the company.


3. Impact of the media

The consumption of mass media has had a profound effect on instilling the fear of terrorism in the United States, though acts of terror are a rare phenomenon. Beginning in the 1960s, George Gerbner and his colleagues have accelerated the study of the relationship that exists between media consumption and the fear of crime. According to Gerbner, television and other forms of mass media create a worldview that is reflective of" recurrent media messages”, rather than one that is based on reality. Many Americans are exposed to some form of media on a daily basis, with television and social media platforms being the most used methods to receive both local and international news, and as such this is how most receive news and details that center around violent crime and acts of terror. With the rise in use of smartphones and social media, people are bombarded with constant news updates, and able to read stories related to terrorism, stories that come from all corners of the globe. Media fuels fear of terrorism and other threats to national security, all of which have negative psychological effects on the population, such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. Politicians conduct interviews, televised or otherwise, and utilize their social media platforms immediately after violent crimes and terrorist acts, to further cement the fear of terrorism into the minds of their constituents.


4. Publications

Sorted upwards by date, most recent last.

  • Culture of Fear: Risk taking and the morality of low expectation 1997, by Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-7616-3
  • Cultures of Fear: A Critical Reader 2009, by Uli Linke, Danielle Smith, Anthropology, Culture and Society, ISBN 978-0-7453-2965-9
  • Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City 2006, by Steve Macek, ISBN 0-8166-4361-X
  • The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things 2000, by Barry Glassner ISBN 0-465-01490-9
  • Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century 2003, by Hunter S. Thompson, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-87324-9
  • Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right 2005, by Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-8728-9
  • The Formation of the National Security State: the State and the Opposition in Military Brazil, Volume 2 1982 by Maria Helena Moreira Alves
  • Creating Fear: News and the Construction of a Crisis 2002, by David L. Altheide, Aldine de Gruyter, 223pp., ISBN 978-0-202-30660-5
  • Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity 1989, by Ulrich Beck, ISBN 978-0-8039-8346-5
  • You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear 2005, by Frances Moore Lappe and Jeffrey Perkins, ISBN 978-1-58542-424-5
  • Witnesses to Terror 2012, by Luke Howie, Baskinstoke, Palgrave MacMillan ISBN 978-0-8232-2434-0
  • The Climate of Fear 2004, by Wole Soyinka, BBC Reith Lectures 2004, London, Profile Books, 155pp., ISBN 1-86197-783-2
  • Social Theory of Fear: terror, torture and death in a post Capitalist World 2010, by Geoffrey Skoll, New York, Palgrave MacMillan ISBN 978-0-230-10349-8
  • State of Fear 2004, Michael Crichton, ISBN 0-06-621413-0
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