Numbers > Number 19 > The role of fear in collective phenomena. Fear of others and the need for society between politics and information
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ISSN: 1885-365X
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The role of fear in collective phenomena. Fear of others and the need for society between politics and information

17 de julio de 2022
26 de julio de 2022


The article proposes a reflection on the centrality of the feeling of fear in the context of the dynamics of collective life that bring out the role played by the presence of dangers, real or imaginary, as well as the instrumentalisation of the same, to control reality. Building on the insights of past authors, we discuss the multidimensionality of ‘social’ fear with which contemporary literature is confronted in order to investigate the strategies of social and political actors and –even more– of information in the face of extreme and unpredictable phenomena such as terrorist attacks and pandemics. The hypothesis put forward is that in the representation of events there is a shift from fear as an interpretative frame to a narrative plot, to the point of delineating a storytelling of fear that is the plot of contemporary social problems. The inability to come to terms with sudden and dramatic risks, as in the case of the pandemic, supports the thesis of a constant incidence of fear on the media and political agenda and on the activity of bodies working for national and international security.

1. Introduction

The feeling of fear, as a driving force behind human attitudes and behaviour, has acquired renewed interest in recent years in the analysis of collective phenomena. In particular, we can find an unprecedented centrality in the field of communication studies, aimed at redefining the role it plays in political information and communication choices. This is justified in consideration of processes that insist on the logic of the news, on the definition of media and political agendas and on the construction of reality, normalising the reference to collective panic. These processes have in fact become ingredients of a generalised communication strategy, mainly in electoral periods, but also in the face of other emergencies that also contribute to the heightening of the feeling of fear for the sake of political legitimacy.1

2. The place of fear in collective phenomena. A theoretical premise

However, in order to conceptualise this feeling and grasp the dimensions that allow us to use it in the analysis of social, cultural and political processes, it is necessary to resort to a literature that starts from further afield and draws on different perspectives. This step allows us to overcome the phase of distancing ourselves from the subject that has led to a kind of «silence on fear»2 as a response by the social sciences to the difficulty of curbing the intrinsic multidimensionality with which the phenomenon presents itself. To help us in this direction

1/ In relation to the Italian case, see, among others, the editorial «El voto, el miedo y la profesión de miedoso (que nada tiene que ver con la profesión de periodista)», by Valerio Cataldi, published by the associazione carta di Roma on 28 April 2018.
2/ The reasons for this silence are to be found, in Delumeau’s opinion (1987, p. 7), in the idea rooted in Western culture that feeling fear is a type of man that the collective imaginary pushes out of the circle of positive values. In other words, fear has been read as a feeling to be ashamed of and that suits the masses. On the contrary, the positive feeling of courage gives man a social value that allows him to rise to the status of a hero.

Is the reflection of Delumeau (1987), who, contextualising the subject in the Western world of the 20th century, argues that in the contemporary world fear has become «the emotion of the possible» and the counterpart of freedom. It is no longer fear of a specific object that can be confronted, but the anguish that calls into question the faculty of the imagination «proper to man» to produce and transmit the idea of danger. Hence «a feeling of global insecurity», experienced as a painful waiting in the face of dangers that are all the more fearful the less they are identified (Ibidem, p. 27). In order to intervene in the continuum between fear, anguish and disorientation and to contain the collective traumas resulting from fluctuating insecurity, according to Delumeau, the West has over time experienced the transformation and fragmentation of this confused feeling into «concrete fears of something or someone» which, precisely because of their simpler identification, seem to have a more immediate solution.3 This is an interesting line of interpretation not only because it leads us to relocate the theme of fear, but also because it can be applied to contemporary scenarios and to the processes of communication and information about emerging phenomena.

However, this is not unicum. In fact, looking back to the past, we already find the recognition of the power of the impact of fear on macro and micro phenomena, thanks to philosophers, sociologists and political scientists united by an unprecedented capacity to enter into the complexity of the human and, from there, to begin to shed light on the paradoxes of history, society and politics. Suffice it to think of the insicuritas of the natural condition described by the philosophers of the ’600s and ’700s, and in particular the state of bellum omnium contra omnes situated by Hobbes at the origin of the State,4 or the Freudian research on civilisation as a protective niche. But also to Pareto’s residues: instincts, passions, impulses that generate actions and reactions of individuals and groups of individuals, as well as the need to rationalise, cover up or justify them.

Guglielmo Ferrero also insists on the complexity of fear, on whose reflection, in our opinion, it is worthwhile to dwell, as it brings to this feeling both the fragility of the human soul and the contradictions and perverse effects of actions and social functions. According to Ferrero, the common thread of history is the attempt to free oneself from fear, but each phase of this struggle (until the construction of the weapons) Paradoxically, it has been turned back on humanity itself, creating a new and growing state of insecurity. Indeed, the use of force towards which fear leads frightens both the sufferer and the wielder.

In this perspective, the theme is central to Power, the 1942 play in which fear is not only a human weakness in the face of the dangers of the universe, but the result of the exercise of an illegitimate power that terrorises itself. «It is impossible to frighten men without ending up being afraid of them. From this ineluctable law of the human spirit comes the greatest torment of life, the mutual fear of power and its subjects» (Ferrero, 1981, pp. 384-385). Thus an essential element of fear comes to light: that which arises from the use of force, which

3/ According to the French historian, prolonged apprehension can create ‘a dangerous proliferation of the imaginary’ and generate ‘an inner climate of insecurity’. A self-defence mechanism then intervenes, which consists in giving anxiety a distinguishable form, as in the case of fear of enemies and war (Ibid., pp. 28-29).

4/ As is well known, the English philosopher places mutual fear at the origin of great and enduring societies. This mutual fear, together with the fear of danger and violent death, induces men to negotiate and to establish a sovereign authority with absolute power to guarantee order, peace and security.

Is nothing more than fear in action. Men fear each other, both because «man is the only one capable of constructing tools to destroy life», and because of the difficulty of discerning between reality and imagination and recognising the dangers that represent a real threat.

Trust in institutions helps in this discernment, which intervenes when political action introduces democratic rules and observes them to respond to the collective need for security. Any model of power to carry out its functions can recreate fear, the idea that without the control exercised by political institutions one would live in insecurity, disorder and anarchy is widely shared. Karl Mannheim writes:

Once the dynamic forces of society get out of control and chaos prevails, social life becomes even more terrifying than the blind forces of nature… Fear of uncertainty and mutual distrust, the primary fruits of chaos, can lead to the arbitrary exercise of power and anarchy.5

In the wake of the multidisciplinary sensibilities that define the role of fear in the human psyche, in society, in politics, contemporary contexts can be described in terms of a risk society that generates uncertainty and continuous, creeping forms of liquid fear (Beck and Beck). Forms of liquid fear (Beck, 1992, Castel, 2003, Bauman, 2008). The literature that has developed around the subject converges in the belief that, although the feeling of fear is harboured in the soul of each subject in a unique, unpredictable way, it is not limited to individual experience, but is strongly imprinted in social processes, in cultural transformations, in the collective unconscious. These are the «fears social» with which we give a name to our uncertainty and unawareness of the threat, behind which lies the inability to control the consequences of the changes our era is going through.

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