It’s been said that, after 9/11, the 2008 financial crash and the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re a more fearful society than ever before. Yet fear, and the panic it produces, have long been driving forces – perhaps the driving force – of world history: fear of God, of famine, war, disease, poverty, and other people.
Robert Peckham is a cultural historian and founder of Open Cube, an organisation that promotes the integration of the arts, science, and technology for health. He was previously Professor of History and MB Lee Endowed Professor in the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. He has held fellowships at Cambridge, Oxford, LSE, and King’s College London, and been a visiting scholar at NYU. A fellow of the Royal Historical Society, he has published in Foreign Affairs, New Statesman, Prospect, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times Literary Supplement.
In his new book, Fear: An Alternative History of the World, Robert Peckham considers the impact of fear in history, as both a coercive tool of power and as a catalyst for social change. Beginning with the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Peckham traces a shadow history of fear. He takes us through the French Revolution and the social movements of the nineteenth century to modern market crashes, Cold War paranoia and the AIDS pandemic, into a digital culture increasingly marked by uniquely twenty-first-century fears.
In this interview, I speak to Robert Peckhham about the concept of fear. We discuss how fear shaped civilisation and continues to do so – and how fear can motivate us, challenge us, and be used against us to cement authority and crush society. We also delve into how fear of disease, conflict, economic crises and of technology have been so instrumental in culture – and what that means for our future.
Q: What has been the impact of fear on the history, and shape, of civilisation?
[Robert Peckham]: Fear has had a huge impact on human societies throughout history, and as science and archaeology are increasingly suggesting through prehistory, too.
But my main interest is in how fear has been used as an instrument of power, wielded by rulers to consolidate their authority, and to manage their populations.
In Fear: An Alternative History of the World, I argue that the management of fear – fear of war, social instability, famine, and so forth – became central to the business of the centralised state that took shape particularly during the Reformation from the sixteenth century, when political and religious conflicts convulsed Europe. This was also the moment that Europeans exported a newly minted fear-politics around the globe as they carved out their imperial dominions.
This history isn’t a story of “wicked despots,” though, because fear is also inseparable from hope and has often acted as catalyst for change. Social reforms in nineteenth-century Britain, for example, were driven less by a humanitarian impulse, I’d argue, than they were by fear. It was fear of disease and urban lawlessness propagated by the industrial working-classes that catalyzed the ambitious sanitarian projects we associate with reformers like Edwin Chadwick.
It’s easier to identify fearful events in history – wars, revolutions, natural disasters, and pandemics – than it is to grasp the fear that diffuses through social and economic institutions. But in my book I argue that it’s important to understand how the systemic fear that inhered in slavery, industrialisation, and global capitalism shaped the world that we live in today. In this sense, there is a centripetal and centrifugal direction to the history of fear: it moves into the centralised appurtenances of government, and it moves out across the world.
And finally, it’s important to point out that fear and hope are twinned. Because as soon as we invest in an idea, a cause, or a value, we live in fear that it may be contested, denied, or cancelled. It’s this history of hope that I want to reclaim as an integral component of the history of fear.
Q: How can understanding the impact of fear in our past help shape our understanding of the future?
[Robert Peckham]: Fear isn’t just a neurophysiological phenomenon; it’s also socio-cultural. We’re enculturated to fear; it’s something that we inherit, acquire, and learn – which implies that there is possibility of “unlearning” our fear.
Understanding where our fears come from, then, gets us one step closer to being able to manage them. History can give us a much-needed critical perspective on fear – it can give us a new agency in the sense that when we become aware of how our fears are been manipulated we are in a better position to move against that manipulation.
The very fact that we are having this conversation about fear is in my mind cause for hope. Fear today is being foregrounded as a challenge, meaning that we recognise its importance and the possibility of changing our relationship to it.
Q: How was fear weaponised against us?
[Robert Peckham]: Your point about fear being cultural is immensely significant. Fear isn’t just a neurophysiological process; it’s also learned and inherited. Recognizing that fear can be learned means it can also be unlearned or, at the very least, managed. My book adopts an optimistic lens, suggesting that by discussing fear, we recognise its implications. This paves the way for addressing and perhaps containing the more harmful manipulations associated with it. A core topic I address is how citizens willingly give up their freedom, letting the state control their fear. I reference the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who speaks of an individual on a cliff’s edge. That person’s freedom to choose—even a terrifying choice—is a powerful one. Yet, the daunting nature of such freedom can lead us to surrender our choices to greater powers, like governments. Relinquishing this freedom is a significant part of the narrative. Furthermore, in discussing fear’s impact on society, I explore its relationship with hope. Fear and hope are intertwined. When we passionately support a cause or value, we inherently fear its potential loss or compromise. In essence, hope and fear are closely connected.
Today, policies are sold to us largely on the basis of fear, or fear mitigation: from immigration to climate change, from health services to defence. It’s less about promoting a progressive vision of the future and more about playing to our fears of what might happen if we don’t toe a particular line. We’re told that immigrants will overrun us, the planet will implode, health institutions will break down, we’ll be invaded.
At the same time, as I mentioned above, we’re seeing an insinuating marketing culture that sells us products and services to assuage our fears: of economic collapse, ageing, illness, and so forth.
But “weaponising” is only half of the story because fear can also be an important motivator. It can move us to action. It can give us a new perspective on life and make us newly aware of real threats that need to be met. A measure of fear, I’d argue, is beneficial. Not just in meeting the challenges of climate change, but in appreciating the harmful consequences of social inequalities, as well. If we don’t tackle the issues, we’ll live with the consequences.
Q: What are the challenges you see with how contemporary society relates to fear?
[Robert Peckham]: Digital technology and instant news cycles, together with the aggressive marketing of fear-mitigating products and services, are certainly driving fear in contemporary society. Today, fear is closely related to the problem of misinformation and disinformation, and to the erosion of trust in political institutions.
Let me point to another related challenge, which is that politics has become fear centred. It’s become less about espousing positive values and visions of a progressive future, than it is about using fear to defend rights or advocate a cause. Fear-mongering and counter-fear-mongering are the order of the day.
Some would argue that this is a legacy of the Cold War, and I have some sympathy with this argument. The experiences of WWII, the Holocaust, and Stalin’s repression made liberalism excessively protective and defensive, rather than progressive. It created what the philosopher and political theorist Judith Shklar called “the liberalism of fear.”
Today, a fear-based politics has largely replaced the promotion of ideals. Obama’s call for “the audacity of hope” in 2006 now feels quaint. To me, this concession to fear poses a big challenge: how do we recover an aspirational politics?
[Vikas: and what about the technological factors here, for example, social media, AI, etc?]
[Robert Peckham]: Speaking of technology, contemporary discussions about AI, machine learning, and the diminishing of autonomy somewhat mirror past debates in the industrial era regarding humans losing significance and machines gaining consciousness. This theme has persisted for a long time. Technological advancements, be it the written word, the printing press, the telegraph, telephone, TV, or cinema, have all played roles as channels for fear. These innovations disseminate fear but also serve as mechanisms to manage it. There’s a fascinating duality in technology, acting both as a spreader and a regulator of fear. For instance, the telegraph, first visualised in the 19th century as a governmental tool, was later recognised to be vulnerable to sabotage and exploitation by opposing forces. Then there’s the matter of data, immense amounts of it. Distinguishing vital data from trivial data becomes challenging amidst this information deluge. These technological dimensions are crucial to our understanding of fear. In relation to your point about the spread of fear, there’s a dynamic push and pull. Fear can be centralised, becoming embedded in governance, but it also permeates and becomes systemic. It’s simpler to spotlight fear-induced incidents, like wars or pandemics, than to understand the inherent systemic fears, such as slavery or global capitalism. These fears navigate through systems, posing significant challenges to governance. Their global circulation often eludes the control of national governments.
Q: How has the fear of plagues and diseases shaped society?
[Robert Peckham]: Fear of disease – and the fear sparked by epidemics – have shaped societies in all kinds of ways. For many years I taught a course on the history of epidemics at the University of Hong Kong. We studied how epidemics influenced the material development of the city; from urban planning to methods of construction, and so on. It was fear of disease, for example, that led to the creation of the Peak settlement in colonial times, a racialised politics of exclusion embodied in a “European” zone on Hong Kong Island.
While epidemics can shape communities through their demographic impact – and the social, political, and economic consequences that this has – fear of disease invariably has a stigmatising effect. Groups, often minorities, are targeted as carriers of disease. Fear involves an ‘othering’ and leads to discrimination, as it did during the HIV-AIDS pandemic which I discuss in the book. But while it may precipitate social breakdown, crises may also bring people together. Shared fears can be community-building.
Fear can also trigger panic before and during epidemics. And this panic can be harnessed for politics ends. The plague panics in India in the late 1890s, for example, helped to galvanise an Indian anti-colonial movement.
Meanwhile, fear can be useful for political leaders and governments as a screen to introduce unpopular legislation. There are those who argue that 9/11 enabled George W. Bush to pass far reaching surveillance laws under the Patriot Act, which would have been unthinkable without the fear produced by the terrorist attacks. In Hong Kong, fear of Covid-19 was used by Beijing to crush the pro-democracy protests and to bring in a draconian “National Security Law” in 2020.
Finally, fear of epidemics can lead to over-reaction, as it did in the US in 1976, when the Ford administration panicked during an outbreak of Swine flu, worried that they were faced with a 1918-type pandemic.
Q: How has the horror of war [and fear of conflict] shaped society?
[Robert Peckham]: The brutality evident in the European Wars of Religion during the sixteenth and seventh centuries were an important context for shaping ideas about fear and panic. This is the moment, I argue, when a modern lexicon of fear develops.
Industrial wars – or “total wars” – from the nineteenth century, and particularly WWI and WWII, had a major impact on societies. In Fear, I explore the new kinds of fears brought on by WWI, a conflict fought on an unprecedented scale with new industrial weaponry. There were fears of social breakdown and traumatic fears associated with shell shock. I explore how these geopolitical and personal fears were reflected in art and literature, and in the modern horror movie as a genre that originated in the experience of war.
Cold War fears, and particularly fears of nuclear conflict from the 1950s, were also crucial to the balance of power in the twentieth century, freezing the world into two ideological camps. These fears were also the pretext for stigmatising “witch-hunts” associated with McCarthyism in the United States.
It’s notable that the topic of fear is often met with debate and diverging opinions; it’s a subject that elicits strong reactions and differing viewpoints. However, you’ve highlighted a significant aspect. Having spent 13 years in Hong Kong, I’ve observed firsthand how the perception of fear varies greatly based on one’s societal backdrop. In dictatorships or environments with limited freedoms, the nature of fear diverges significantly from that in democratic settings where there’s liberty to experience fear in specific ways. There’s a potential risk of becoming ensnared in our own narrow circle of anxieties, becoming insulated from the broader spectrum. This segues into my area of interest: the propagation of European fear management methodologies in colonial domains. With a background in colonial history, I delve into the residual fears left by Europe globally and the diverse experiences of fear in regions ranging from Iran, the Middle East, Russia, to China. It’s crucial to acknowledge the tangible threats and fears faced by individuals in these regions, setting a context to our own anxieties. We must guard against being overly self-focused on our fears, overlooking the broader, global anxieties that others grapple with.
Q: How has the fear of technology shaped us?
[Robert Peckham]: Technology has an ambiguous relation to fear. The advent of the written word, printing, the telegraph, telephone, wireless, TV, and internet have all served as new conduits of fear at the same time as they have functioned as ways of managing fear.
The printing press enabled ideas and experiences to circulate, helping to create new communities bonded not only around shared beliefs, but shared fears, as well. At the same time, printing enabled the dissemination of propaganda, fueling politically directed fear. Books in the vernacular, rather than in Latin, entrenched national differences.
The case of the telegraph is interesting because while it was initially viewed as a tool of government, it soon came to be viewed as a cause for concern since it could be sabotaged or used for countervailing purposes. Besides, the increasing flows of data gave rise to other concerns. How could data be managed and how could important news be distinguished within the flood of incoming information.
Fears coalesced around industrial technologies, not only in relation to the physical danger that they presented but in relation to the threat that they posed to human autonomy. There were fears that humans were becoming “mechanical” and that machines might acquire consciousness. In some sense, these earlier fears anticipate contemporary fears about the threats posed to our autonomy by artificial intelligence and machine learning.
One way I conceptualise the evolution of political systems is akin to a re-combinatory theory of technology. It’s not as if a sailing boat magically transforms into a steamboat overnight. Instead, there’s a rearrangement and fusion of components, leading to technological progression. This perspective parallels my comprehension of the evolution of power systems intertwined with fear. This reshuffling means old fears are repurposed and redistributed but remain present. Recognising the roots of these fears is crucial, as it allows us to discern significant fears from inconsequential ones. Your point on ‘othering’ resonates; the history of fear is intrinsically tied to the narrative of fearing the ‘other’, the unknown. This fear is often a product of our lack of understanding, leading us to superimpose our apprehensions onto unfamiliar entities. Addressing your point about current fears, my primary concern is the prominent role fear plays in our politics. Rather than championing a forward-thinking vision, we seem to adopt a more defensive posture, engaging in battles on a fearful front. An intriguing viewpoint I find compelling suggests that post-World War II events, including the Holocaust and the atrocities under Stalin, made liberals adopt a defensive stance, prioritising the prevention of potential threats. This led to what political theorist Judith Shklar describes as the “liberalism of fear.” Instead of embracing a progressive future, the focus shifted to safeguarding rights at risk of erosion. I believe it’s imperative for us to recapture a forward-looking political vision, driven by cherished principles and values.
Q: How has the fear of financial & economic crises shaped us?
[Robert Peckham]: Financial crises, such as the 1929 crash, have become exemplars of modern panic and the volatilities produced by a new global interdependency. Such crises episodes produced a new understanding of risk and gave rise to novel theories about contagious panic.
Financial crises also foregrounded issues of trust and responsible government; highlighting tensions between private and public interests, and between national and international priorities.
A key part of my story is the “liquid” nature of fear, the way that it moves across domains. The panic associated with financial and economic crises are inseparable from fears that may originate in epidemics, natural disasters, wars, or revolutions. One could say that fear is always compounded, always plural, even when we think it’s singular. This has become evident during the Covid-19 pandemic where fear of the coronavirus is braided with a myriad other fears: economic fears, geopolitical fears, mental health fears, or existential fears that hinge on the meaning or purpose of life.
Q: What did the pandemic teach us about fear?
[Robert Peckham]: Fears aren’t isolated entities; even if they appear so. They exist in multiples, intertwined. For instance, the apprehension surrounding a virus isn’t just about the virus itself; it intertwines with geopolitical anxieties, economic concerns, and mental well-being worries, all interwoven into the broader tapestry of pandemic dread. Delving deep into the nature of a particular fear reveals its multifaceted layers. Yet, discerning the true essence of a fear becomes a challenge. Each layer of fear unravels another, leading us on a relentless pursuit of its root cause. Reflecting on Obama’s 2006 proclamation about the “audacity of hope,” it now seems like a sentiment from a bygone era. The real challenge, then, is rediscovering an optimistic political outlook. And as you’ve rightly pointed out, against the somber backdrop of conflict, brutality, and sheer terror, the urgency of this task is ever more pronounced.
Q: How should we – as individuals and a society- relate to fear?
[Robert Peckham]: Striking a balance between fear-induced stagnation and fear-driven motivation is intricate. This was a pivotal aspect of the pandemic management—identifying where that boundary lies. The observations from scientific advisory bodies, such as SAGE in the UK, revealed concerns about an insufficient level of fear, causing people to disregard guidelines. Hence, there was an urge to amplify fear. Yet, this same fear had its own set of repercussions. So, where does one set that boundary? The essential takeaway might be the need for a robust degree of scepticism. In democratic environments, you can voice a perspective and subsequently contest it. It’s through this dialogue and expression that a distinction emerges. This process is distinctly challenging in settings where open discourse is restricted, and choices are determined by a select few.
Our heightened aversion to risks sometimes prevents us from addressing certain threats adequately. Recognising that life inherently comes with risks, that mere existence brings along elements to be fearful of, underlines the significance of literature and art. They offer a lens to contemplate these intrinsic fears, providing insights into navigating them.
Additionally, I delve into the notion of the sublime, rooted in romantic thought. Confronted with something overwhelmingly magnificent, like a vast mountain range or an awe-inducing phenomenon, it evokes profound reactions. It broadens one’s horizons, prompting introspection about one’s role in the grand scheme of things. Fear, in this context, has a revitalising power, pushing boundaries and prompting self-reflection. Yet, when taken to extremes, it can be debilitating. Thus, maintaining equilibrium in our perceptions of fear remains vital.