In 1992, I wrote an essay under the title “Banishing Fear”. Since I wrote that, there has been a tragic resurgence of fear permeating western culture, a resurgence that has had devastating consequences for the children growing up in this new century. In fact, at a time when, more than ever, all the elements are in place to banish fear totally from our lives, the great majority of people in the “developed world” have succumbed to a wave of internal terror that threatens the future of our culture.
This essay examines the reasons for this resurgence of fear, in the hope that when these are understood, and when people face them squarely with clarity and a small dose of courage, they will free themselves from this awful condition and, once again, see the potential for living with hope and trust; see that Franklin Roosevelt’s oft-quoted utterance, that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, is more apt today than ever before.
What is fear?
Fear is an emotion stirred in a person when he perceives that he is faced with a situation in his environment that threatens his well-being, and that he cannot either control or find ways to work around.
In order to understand this statement, we have to examine it closely.
Perhaps the most important word describing fear is “perceives”: fear derives from a perception that a person has, regarding some element in his environment. A perception is something private, something highly individual, arrived at as part of a person’s overall understanding of the world and his place in it. A perception is not an objective reality (whatever that phrase may mean), not something that can be assumed to be shared universally by other people in the same situation.
The classic story illustrating the differences among people’s perception of a situation, and the consequences of these differences, can be found in the Bible. It is worth reading again, not the least because it has been part of the tradition of the classic monotheistic religions that have formed a basis for Western culture. It takes place while the ancient Israelites are wandering in the Sinai desert on their way from liberation from Egyptian slavery to the land of Canaan. Here is an excerpt:
The Lord spoke to Moses saying, “Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan. So Moses sent men of distinction to scout the Land of Canaan, and he said to them, “Go up this way in the south and climb up the mountain. You shall see what kind of land it is, and the people who inhabit it; are they strong or weak? Are there few or many? And what of the land they inhabit? Is it good or bad? What is the soil like—is it fertile or barren?”
So they went up and explored the land, and they returned at the end of forty days, and they brought back a report. They said, “We came to the land to which you sent us, and it is flowing with milk and honey. However, all the people we saw in it are men of giant stature. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”
But Joshua and Caleb said, “You should not fear the people of that land for their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”
What a wonderful story! It is all about fear and perception: for all but two of the spies, the perception of their own stature was that of “grasshoppers”—so much so, that they even assumed that their perception was an objective reality, and that the local population must have also perceived them to be “like grasshoppers”! But for the other two, the perception was of a land, and a population, whose “protection is removed from them” because, in their eyes, the reality was that of a power that was on their side.
And if we ask, “So what in fact was the reality?” we realize instantly that the question is meaningless.
All the heroism in battle, or in facing adversity, that we study and praise and wish to emulate, has to do with a hero’s perception that the situation he is in will not threaten his well-being, but on the contrary, that facing the situation head-on and finding ways to get past it will enhance his well-being, will make his life more meaningful through actions that are compatible with his life goals.
Perception is the key to fear, and only through altering his perception can a person make the transition from a state of fear to a state of calm or even of hope and optimism.
The basic theme of my earlier paper, “Banishing Fear”, was that the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century, and gained enormous momentum in the 19th and 20th century, had created a perception in an increasingly large proportion of the population that there were fewer elements in their environment than ever before that could threaten their well-being, and that the advances in technology and communication had made it possible to find ways to cope with those elements that in the past felt threatening. Anyone who reads the literature of that period—extending well into the second half of the 20th century—must be struck by the widespread presence of optimism and hope for the fate of humanity that permeates so much of the writing. Scientists vie with each other to declare that they have finally unlocked the key to how the physical world functions; political theorists compete to produce social schemes that will guarantee happiness and prosperity for all people; students of human behavior present a stream of explanations for the feelings and actions of human beings that should make it possible to improve the functioning and efficacy of people of all ages and in all situations; economists tout a variety of theories that will enrich all of humanity.
That period constitutes almost two centuries of sunny optimism. It spawns a belief that the “end of history” is near, that the approaching new millennium will indeed be the glorious “end of days” predicted in so many spiritual writings. Even horrific wars do little to dampen people’s enthusiasm. The 19th century, from the end of the Napoleonic wars on, is viewed as a wonderful era of peace, notwithstanding a host of what are considered “little European wars” like the Crimean War (not so little for the Light Brigade!), colonial wars waged by European powers bent on subjugating the rest of the globe, the horrific First World War (which people saw as the “war to end all wars”!!), and the bloody revolution and civil war in Russia. Even after the more horrific Second World War we were told that once and for all that war would really end all wars in an era of universal cooperation centered on the United Nations. As a child, I remember singing in school:
The sun and the stars are all ringing,
with song rising strong from the earth;
The hope of humanity singing,
a hymn to a new world in birth.
United Nations on the march
with flags unfurled,
Together fight for victory
—a free new world.
It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But that was the spirit that infused those two centuries, that was the perception widely held by people of all nations, of all beliefs, of all ages, and of all levels of education. Progress toward a perfect world was happening all around us, and was inevitable.
That was what I was caught up in when I wrote “Banishing Fear”, as late as 1992, even though what was happening in my environment was rapidly changing my perception, and that of so many others.
So what brought about this change? What has suddenly—“suddenly” in the historical sense—caused a fear, bordering on terror, that has arisen from a widespread perception that something awful is threatening people’s well-being, and has generated a response that is so laden with pessimism concerning the future?
Before tackling this question, it is worth considering some of the events that haven’t affected the perception of the possibility of limitless progress in any noticeable way.
Take, for example, the various financial crises that have struck the world—especially the more prosperous countries—during the past thirty years. If you were wedded to the idea that “objective realities” determine people’s attitude toward the future, you would be at a loss to explain how the multiple collapses of the banking system and the world’s financial markets have only led to ever more profitable banks and ever higher stock market indices. Or how the staggering and rapidly growing mountain of debt under which governments all over the world, at every level (local, provincial, country-wide) are groaning, and the ocean of money in one form or another which is being created out of whole cloth, is doing nothing at all to generate a feeling of crisis, or even a need to seriously slow the pace of indebtedness.
Or consider the patent political and social disintegration of almost every region in the world—a disintegration evident from wars, terror, crime, mayhem, and unremitting divisiveness, all of which exist at a global level unprecedented in history. Yet, you would look in vain for widespread expressions of fear that our security, our very existence, is threatened by these phenomena. Civil wars, invasions, bombings, assassinations, fraud and corruption—the response of the general population everywhere is at most one of concern, but hardly one of fear.
Yet signs of fear abound in all walks of life, nowhere more pronounced than in those institutions devoted to nurturing future generations, our “institutions of learning”—schools, from preschools (even daycare centers) to university graduate schools.
So what is it precisely that has altered people’s perception of threats to their well-being?
The short answer: the Information Revolution, and its consequences. Or, as Dee Hock so aptly named it, the “birth of the chaordic age”1. The word “chaordic” is a neologism invented by Hock, an adjective describing a system, organization, or natural process governed by or combining elements of both chaos and order. It is a word that applies to such things as the global credit system created by Visa (a system which Hock invented), where a person can use a single credit card anywhere in the world, without the need for the vendor accepting the credit card, or the organization guaranteeing it, to check a person’s credit availability before approving a transaction. (It is truly mind-boggling to think about what this entails.) It describes the world of free markets, and the puzzling order that emerges in that world from the seemingly total randomness of individual suppliers.
Let’s step back and take a look at this dispassionately. Our existence depends critically on the notion of order and stability. Each person’s understanding of the world presupposes that his picture of reality is not shifting every moment; indeed, to survive, people need to “get a handle” on reality, create from their experiences some discernible order or organization within which they can plan their actions from moment to moment, day to day.
Yet, we are surrounded by events that we cannot comprehend, or explain. Chaos seems always to be threatening to engulf us. We handle this by assuming that there does exist some order that emerges from the chaos, and by creating images of that order for ourselves. All you have to do is think about the daunting task that faces an infant confronting this complex world of ours. The infant’s world at first is steeped in chaos, and the enormous task he undertakes day by day is fashioning some sense of order out of it for himself.
That is the way it has been from the dawn of human existence, when creatures first emerged who could contemplate their world and give it meaning—creatures who were self-aware, who understood that they had to think about the world and figure it out. People who can’t do this at all lose their sanity.
Now, whenever there is some sort of communications revolution, there are people who think the world will come to an end, who fear the consequences for human society of the explosion in information that such a revolution will bring, by forcing people to confront the multiplicity of world views held by others. Free exchange of information has always appeared threatening to many people when it first appears—when the printing press was invented, when the telegraph, telephone, radio, and tv came into being. The evils that would result from those new technologies were shouted from the rooftops—“too much information that is unedited, unfiltered by the experts; people will be overwhelmed by it all and lose their grasp on truth.” But the fact is that the effects of those information revolutions were gradual enough, and the changes in world-views that emerged from the sharing of information among what was, at best, a fairly small proportion of the population, did not in the end destabilize society radically.
Even the Industrial Revolution did not have the effect of causing major socio-political revolutions. Where they occurred, they were quelled fairly rapidly. Evolutionary change was the order of the day throughout the Industrial Era, and even in the 20th century, the more things changed, the more they were the same. Tsars morphed into Party Secretaries, Kaisers into Fuehrers, but the underlying social fabric remained.
And in the world of intellectual endeavor, new theories gradually replaced old ones, new textbooks appeared and slowly overtook the classrooms, but it took time (it takes years for a new textbook to be written and published). As Max Planck ruefully commented, a new theory will only receive serious attention in the academic world after the older generation has died. Not something to generate a perception of instability in most people.
Which brings us back to the question that opened this section: What is it precisely that has recently, and suddenly, altered people’s perception of threats to their well-being? The Information Revolution and the Chaordic Era have been with us for over fifty years. But the wave of fear that is sweeping our culture is at most a few decades old, and is gaining traction only in the dawning new millennium. What has changed?
Consider this: Suppose you were a young aspiring musician—say, a pianist—in the mid-19th century, living in some small town. What would you do, assuming you had access to a piano? Chances are, you would see whether there was a local piano teacher to help you (and teach you!), and go as far as you can with her. Full stop. Unless you could travel to some large metropolis where you might, if you were lucky, find a more advanced teacher who would accept you and whom you could afford. The chances of your becoming an accomplished pianist, let alone a performer, would be remote indeed.
Now fast-forward to the 1930s. You may own a gramophone, and get hold of a 78rpm recording of some famous pianist (3 or 4 minutes’-worth per side of the record). That might inspire you to new heights, but it would have limited instructional value; you would have no idea how, technically, the sound was achieved.
Fast-forward again to the mid-20th-century, and your new television set. Again, if you were lucky enough to catch one of the rare videocasts of a piano concert, you could watch the fingering, the positioning of the hands, and other such factors, as practiced by the performer. More of a help, to be sure, better than nothing, but not much. Still hardly enough to catapult you onto the stage.
Consider, now, the current situation, with the rapid development of the internet in the 21st century—of YouTube, for example, and of other on-line venues. Suddenly, a whole new world opens up. You can see and hear, at will, clips or full performances of the best pianists of today and of the recent past. You can access on-line instruction concerning all aspects of piano playing, from beginner level to advanced, including master classes. Everyone with a connection to the internet can do the same, everywhere in the world, no matter how removed they are from major musical centers.
We are talking about a global cultural sea-change. Within the past two decades, not only is a mass of information and instruction (much of it interactive) available to all who seek it, but also the ability to upload your own work, to create a personal website or Facebook page or some other social media presence, thereby to make yourself known to others, and gather feedback for what you are attempting. In short, the world of self-initiated, self-motivated access to the whole of human culture, current and past, is suddenly at your fingertips. You can be no less current than the most accomplished person in any field of endeavor, and you can gain knowledge and expertise at will, at your own pace, to whatever level you seek.
Suddenly—and I can’t emphasize that word enough—the whole age-old monopoly of experts, elders, scholars, and other self-appointed arbiters of culture, is a thing of the past. No one can hold you back, no one can give you criticism or feedback that you do not ask for. Your curiosity can be unbounded, your achievements unlimited. Whoever you are, wherever you are—if only you have access to the cyberworld.
But there is more. The dizzying rate of innovation in the world of high technology has transformed the very concept of “access”, and promises to do so at an increasing pace. Today’s laptop, notepad, and smartphone are all computers with extraordinary speed, power and storage, and are developing increased capacity from month to month. Nor is access limited to those known devices; new modes of connection to the Cloud are being conceived all the time. No one would dare predict what next year will bring, let alone next decade.
All of these developments have brought with them one other unforeseen development: the explosion of fear.
Every increase in the ability of individuals to access other people and other physical environments has, throughout history, been accompanied by an increase in the number of new world views being created and shared. This phenomenon is inevitable: after all, we create our individual models of reality for the purpose of dealing with our environment in ways that enhance our well-being. We work hard at this task, processing inputs from our environment, organizing them in our minds in ways that we hope will give us a handle on how we can control the unfolding of our lives.
The more people we interact with, the more we can benefit from their efforts at figuring out what they see as “reality”, and how they have used their perceptions to design their world views. And the more extensive our access to the physical world around us, the more inputs we have at our disposal to use as raw material for our designs.
But increased access means more hard work to process more inputs. The legend of the Garden of Eden illustrates this dramatically: human beings partake of the “tree of knowledge”, and this greatly increases the hard work necessary to insure their well-being—as the Bible phrases it, “by the sweat of your brow will you survive”—an outcome that was seen as a curse in a world where bare physical survival was a life-long struggle for most people, and the less they had to work on constantly refining their understanding of reality, the more likely they were to have the sheer energy to go on living.
In short, more access to the world brings with it more perturbations to our world view, more instability in our understanding of reality.
On the other hand, a richer variety of shared models of reality brings with it a greater likelihood that ways will be found to increase the circle of people who can collaborate with us to benefit our mutual well-being, and more methods will be developed to modify and control our physical environment to ease our struggle to survive as individuals and as a species.
This is the paradox embedded in increased access: the greater the access, the greater the instability we experience in our lives and, simultaneously, the greater the chances for increasing our well-being.
The key to moving on with our lives as we experience this paradoxical effect of greater access is our relationship to fear: everything depends on whether we perceive this paradox as a threat to our well-being.
If we perceive this suddenly increased global access as a threat, we fear it; if we fear it, we fight to eliminate it. What this means in practical terms is that we fight to restrict access in order to minimize instability, and forego promises of a brighter future in favor of maintaining a present condition with which we have somehow come to terms.
We can see this fear response occurring throughout history when increased access appeared on the scene. The invention of printing brought with it an explosion of censorship promoted by those who led the most comfortable lives —society’s elite—and general acceptance of censorship by all layers of society as a necessity for preserving the existence to which they had become accustomed. And virtually every technological innovation that connected more people to each other and to their surroundings met some form of resistance by elements of society who feared them.
And then came the greatest explosion of access—the most far-reaching and most rapid—that has ever been encountered by the human race: the digital revolution. It is an explosion that has rocked the entire world, created an overwhelming instability in the world views of everyone who has experienced it, and brought with it extravagant promises of rapid increases in individual well-being. People who dread instability perceive it as an existential threat, and look at the promises as empty and false. People who cope well with instability do not perceive a threat, and embrace the hope of a brighter, better world for their future. Each of these groups sees the other as a mortal enemy, as they always have historically, but the stakes now are ever so much higher, since time is of the essence, and the battle must be joined immediately and with maximum effectiveness.
All of which brings us to the heart of the matter: who are the people most likely to be comfortable with ever-changing world views that evolve at a dizzying pace?
The answer is simple: children.
At the moment of birth, all children experience that very explosion of access that we have been talking about: nine months in the womb, a nice, cozy, secure place to develop their bodies and their minds—and in one short interval, they leave the womb, the security is lost, and a hugely complex environment assaults them with an overwhelming mass of sensory inputs that floods their bodies and their minds.
And these massive assaults of inputs keep coming! There is no respite, no hiding from them. Every day is a mass of new experiences to undergo and to try to make sense of.
But here’s the important thing: these newborn children—and the toddlers they become—do not perceive their explosively increasing access as a threat. On the contrary, they seek more day by day. They can’t have enough of it, and they are overjoyed at the prospect of constantly designing, redesigning, and revising their models of reality.
Children are completely at home in a world swirling with change. They see in each experience an opportunity to gain new perspectives, new ideas for inventing different designs for their world view, even abandoning whole categories of designs for new ones they have created or encountered.
For children, the digital era is nirvana, and the rapid pace of its evolution is no different than what they have experienced from birth.
By contrast, who are the people most likely to be threatened by the instability generated in them due to encountering an ever-changing world that generates new models of reality at a dizzying pace?
Here too the answer is not hard to discern: people who have grown up in a world that was relatively slow to develop new modes of access to the physical and human environment, where they encountered fewer challenges to the world views they have created to guide their lives.
People, in short, who grew up before the 21st century, or who are growing up now in sheltered and protected environments where access is limited and long-standing traditions guiding the design of models of reality dominate their lives. For them, the battle against personal destabilization is an existential one, and winning it is seen to be a necessity to maintaining their continued ability to function, to survive.
For them, children are key enemies, champions of the new Information Age —objects of fear, an ever-present threat to their well-being.
In every facet of our lives today we see people with world views that they want to maintain taking the strongest possible measures to protect their stability by stopping, or at least slowing dramatically, the pace of change.
We see this in the socio-political realm, which has been developing in a way diametrically opposed to what most people expected just a short while ago. In the late twentieth century, the blessings of freedom were extolled, and hopes were raised all over the globe for a great expansion of the free exchange of goods and ideas, and of the blessings of expanded circles of human association leading to the idyllic picture of a “global village”. That phrase says it all: the word “village” raises images of peace, friendship, intimacy, mutual caring and help. The risks involved to every individual when they are given the freedom to find their own way in the world seemed slight by comparison to the benefits to be derived, individually, from what was hoped to be a great leap forward in human welfare.
In a twinkling of an eye, the new millennium has brought a surge of human insecurity when faced with the consequences of unfettered freedom in a world connected in a way inconceivable a generation ago. And this insecurity has led to a widespread desire among adults everywhere to have their world protected, to create socio-economic models of collective action that provide security for everyone, minimize risk, whatever the cost.
We see this in the realm of natural philosophy. The rapid and all-encompassing spread of “conservation” movements, in virtually every domain of the physical world, is an explicit effort to stop changes in the physical environment, no matter what their origin—to keep the world the way it is now. There is an urgency in this trend—the halt in any change in the physical environment cannot happen soon enough, and must be comprehensive, encompassing all aspects of physical reality.
But the greatest perceived threat to the stability, indeed survival, of the current adult world comes from children, whose joy in innovation, change, risk, and ever-evolving models of reality must be suppressed thoroughly and early. The most pressing task for the adult world today is to break the spirit that pervades childhood from birth, using every method of coercion currently known.
Let’s be clear on what is happening, and how the situation differs from the past. Up until this new generation, the free-wheeling creativity of children was suppressed not only by adults who saw it as a threat, but also by the reality that faced children as they began to mature. A child who wanted to see things differently had no way to pursue that desire. She could not access a wide range of experiences that would feed her curiosity; she could not easily and quickly interact with other mavericks in other parts of the world who might share her desire to explore new perspectives, or even discover whether they exist; and she could not widely disseminate her activities in an effort to get others to join her explorations. Reality was the biggest ally of adults in making children into traditionalists: go along the tried and tested path if you want to live.
Today, all those obstacles have been swept away. All you have to do is open your eyes and see how immersed children are in the new world of rapid connectivity and rapid change, and how comfortable they are in that world.
The adult fear of children has reached such heights, that it has become the norm for them to accept measures against children that, not long ago, would not even have been considered, let alone practiced. Consider for example, the following commonplace actions taken against children today:
- children are essentially incarcerated for increasingly long stretches of time—more days, more hours every day—during their childhood. They are forced to stay in fortress-like buildings, kept from moving freely even within the confines of those buildings, restricted from free access to food, drink, and even bathrooms except at times and in places approved by adult authorities. And they are punished with additional confinement for any infractions of rules imposed by adult authorities;
- children’s expressions of thought are drastically limited to a narrow set of norms determined by adult authorities. They are told explicitly, both orally and in writing, what they are supposed to consider as “true” models of reality in every realm of existence, and they are coerced into repeating those official versions whenever asked about them, especially in constant and ever-more pervasive testing;
- children who show any inclination to deviate from the narrow limits of behavior and thinking prescribed by adult authority are subjected to overwhelming physical and psychological measures. They are prescribed mind-altering medications and psychological interventions, and they are marked for life with labels, “marks of Cain”, that designate them by various forms of “abnormality” and “disability”, thereby undermining their self-image, self-confidence, and desire to function independently;
- and, perhaps most cruelly, the people on whom children depend more than anyone else to nurture and support them—parents and family—are drafted into serving as assistants in these measures of coercion, using methods of coercion on parents that vary from public shaming to invoking legal authorities.
These measures, and all the supporting activities that can be imagined to increase their effectiveness in controlling children, are being invoked at ever earlier ages. The euphemism “early intervention” is nothing more than a pretty phrase describing the adaptation of these measures to preschoolers and toddlers, and testing at birth is not far off.
So where is this all headed? What are the prospects for this intense inter-generational conflict born of fear, born of the adult perception of a pervasive threat posed by a real globalization of society in the emerging world, and the new generation’s perception of a pervasive liberation of mind and body offered by those very same conditions?
One thing is clear from history: suppression cannot last forever. The more violent the suppression, the shorter its life span—and its long-term prospects for survival are undermined more than anything by human connectivity. The turmoil of the early 21st century demonstrates this dramatically. Forces of coercion and liberation are engaging in more open conflicts than ever. But the existential human need for freedom to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and to form associations that are self-governing protectors of that freedom, is something embedded in the essence of human existence—endowed by “our creator” —and will reveal itself as long as our species survives.
As time goes on, perceptions of threat to people’s well-being will diminish as people recover the confidence they are all born with, and use tools they are free to create that enable them to face all that the world brings on.
And here is the simple reason I believe this will happen: I have witnessed it happening in the microcosm of the modern world that is the Sudbury Valley School. Perhaps the most striking feature of the school is the almost total absence of fear—total absence in children who entered the school at an early age. Here life is not a threat—it is a challenge, full of risk, full of opportunity to design one’s life, one’s world view, and one’s connection to the surrounding environment. The diversity of character, of models of reality, of personality, of age, of skills, indeed of any human characteristic, can be experienced every day, everywhere. People do not fear innovation, creativity, intense examination of issues, challenges, obstacles, and hard work. Every day is a new world of experiences, with its joys and disappointments, but always a day each person owns as his individual existence.
Sudbury Valley is indeed a microcosm of the emerging world. Similar schools are springing up all over the world, and our model is rapidly gaining exposure and sparking more interest every day. And it is worth noting that the “history” of Sudbury Valley did not “end” when it finally came into being, a century after its existence was foretold by Tolstoy, but rather its history is evolving every day, every week, with no expectation that an “end”, a final state, will ever be reached.
1. Dee Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age (Berrett-Koehler; 2000).
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