Why We’re Living in the Age of Fear
This is the safest time in human history. So why are we all so afraid?
By Neil Strauss
Oct 6 2016
Jen Senko believes that her father was brainwashed. As Senko, a New York filmmaker, tells it, her father was a “nonpolitical Democrat.” But then he transferred to a new job that required a long commute and began listening to conservative radio host Bob Grant during the drive. Eventually, he was holing himself up for three hours every day in the family kitchen, mainlining Rush Limbaugh and, during commercials, Fox News.
“It reminded me of the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Senko says. “He used to love talking to different people to try to learn their language, but then he became angry about illegal immigrants coming to the country, that they were taking jobs from Americans, and that English was becoming the secondary language.”
Senko is not alone. A California schoolteacher says her marriage fell apart after her husband started watching Fox News and yelling about government plots to take away his guns and freedom. On the left, my friend Phoebe has had to physically remove her mom, who she describes as a “Sam Seder news junkie,” from family functions for raging against relatives about the “dark place” this country is going to.
“All of these emotions, especially fear, whip people up into a state of alarm and they become angry and almost evangelical about what they believe,” says Senko. “It’s like a disease infecting millions of people around the country.”
If this election cycle is a mirror, then it is reflecting a society choked with fear. It’s not just threats of terrorism, economic collapse, cyberwarfare and government corruption – each of which some 70 percent of our citizenry is afraid of, according to the Chapman University Survey on American Fears. It’s the stakes of the election itself, with Hillary Clinton at last month’s debate conjuring images of an angry Donald Trump with his finger on the nuclear codes, while Trump warned “we’re not going to have a country” if things don’t change.
Meanwhile, the electorate is commensurately terrified of its potential leaders. According to a September Associated Press poll, 56 percent of Americans said they’d be afraid if Trump won the election, while 43 percent said they’d be afraid if Clinton won – with 18 percent of respondents saying they’re afraid of either candidate winning.
Trump’s rhetoric has only served to fan the flames: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” “It’s only getting worse.” “You walk down the street, you get shot.” Build a wall. Ban the Muslims. Obama founded ISIS. Hillary is the devil. Death, destruction, violence, poverty, weakness. And I alone can make America safe again.
But just how unsafe is America today?
According to Lewis & Clark College president Barry Glassner, one of the country’s leading sociologists and author of The Culture of Fear, “Most Americans are living in the safest place at the safest time in human history.”
Around the globe, household wealth, longevity and education are on the rise, while violent crime and extreme poverty are down. In the U.S., life expectancy is higher than ever, our air is the cleanest it’s been in a decade, and despite a slight uptick last year, violent crime has been trending down since 1991. As reported in The Atlantic, 2015 was “the best year in history for the average human being.”
So how is it possible to be living in the safest time in human history, yet at the exact same time to be so scared?
Because, according to Glassner, “we are living in the most fearmongering time in human history. And the main reason for this is that there’s a lot of power and money available to individuals and organizations who can perpetuate these fears.”
For mass media, insurance companies, Big Pharma, advocacy groups, lawyers, politicians and so many more, your fear is worth billions. And fortunately for them, your fear is also very easy to manipulate. We’re wired to respond to it above everything else. If we miss an opportunity for abundance, life goes on; if we miss an important fear cue, it doesn’t.
“The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn it’s not something that’s supposed to make you happy all the time,” says Andrew Huberman, a Stanford neurobiology professor who runs a lab studying fear. “It’s mostly a stress-reactive machine. Its primary job is to keep us alive, which is why it’s so easy to flip people into fear all the time.”
In other words, our biology and psychology are as flawed and susceptible to corruption as the systems and politicians we’re so afraid of. In particular, when it comes to assessing future risks, there is a litany of cognitive distortions and emotional overreactions that we fall prey to.