Anxiety as the New Normal
Posted July 25, 2016on:
Forty years ago, the exiled Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn wondered in a BBC interview: “Why is it that societies with access to every kind of information suddenly plunge into lethargy, into a kind of mass blindness, a kind of voluntary self-deception?”
My favourite social philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has recently coined the term “liquid fear” to describe the diffuse and pervasive state of anxiety that is evident in Europe and the USA today.
Unlike the fear of concrete, specific dangers that has always been with humanity, today’s Western middle-classes (what Bauman labels the “precariat”, from the French précarité – being on shifting sand) live in a state of constant uncertainty on all fronts: from the precariousness of their marriages/sexual partnerships to fear of unemployment, terrorism, random acts of violence and not knowing when the next threat will be and from where it will come. The metaphor Bauman uses is that of walking in a minefield- we know the mines are there, but we don’t know where they are.
As I have pointed out in previous Blog posts, it is these fears that keep alive the totalitarian temptation. Just when the fear of fascism has receded in Europe, we find demagogues arising both there and in the USA asking the “precariat” to give them the political reins and, in return, they will restore law and order and make their nations “great” again. Such was the rhetoric that ushered Hitler, Mussolini and Franco into power.
Sadly, conservative sections of the Church also give into fear. Conspiracy theories abound in the American Christian media. I was shocked to learn recently that pseudo-scientific Christian institutions in the US involved in so-called “creation research” team up with Muslim fundamentalist preachers in Turkey- to oppose Darwinism! (This is seen by both as an organized conspiracy against “true religion”).
As for conservative evangelical groups in Europe, including in the organization with which I work, the shift of the centre of gravity of the Christian Church to the global South generates fear that “sound doctrine” (defined, of course, by Anglo-Saxons) is being sacrificed on the altar of social transformation by Asian, African and Latin American leaders. I myself have been the target of such accusations since the 1980s. I watch with a sad sense of irony as European Christians now begin to grapple with the issues of poverty, violence, multiculturalism and religious pluralism that we have been addressing for decades. Issues that they once thought were a “distraction” from “the Gospel”.
Bauman also makes the interesting observation that the condition of most refugees and migrants into Europe today- educated people who have lost their jobs, homes and social positions in their home countries- mirrors the very fears of the European “precariat”. The same forces of globalizing capitalism and terrorism, which Third World nations have long suffered from, have come home to roost.
Whenever a mass killing occurs on American or European soil, and the perpetrator (or perpetrators) happen to be Muslim, government leaders immediately make stern public pledges to root out “international terrorism”. This only reinforces the fictional narratives that terror group such as ISIS or al-Qa’ida wish to propagate about themselves. They want to be feared in the West; to be seen as well-armed, well-organized groups that reach deep into the heart of Western societies and wreak havoc on the streets of Western cities.
But the attacks we have seen, whether in Boston in 2013, San Bernardino in 2015, Orlando, Nice and Munich this year, don’t fit that scenario. Some of the perpetrators may have been self-declared admirers of jihadist groups, but the groups themselves don’t seem to have been aware of them until after the attacks took place. Then they seized on them for propaganda purposes.
These were criminal acts and should be treated as such by governments and the media. Invoking the spectre of “international terrorism” or “Islamist jihad” only serves to strengthen the hands of fascists at home and groups such as ISIS abroad. It makes them appear much stronger than they really are. Vowing to fight international terrorism, even destroying ISIS, will not prevent future acts of criminality on European or American soil. Banning assault weapons in the US will not prevent future attacks either, but it would help reduce the number of potential casualties. If, collectively, we focused on grief– mourning with the families of the victims- rather than promising revenge (on whom?), and started conversations about our deepest fears, from whence they arise, and what may lie behind the apparently senseless acts of home-grown violence, we may be able to quell the totalitarian temptation.
I would love to know if Church leaders and Christians working in the media, universities or government, are starting such conversations in their cities and nations?