When all that unites us is our fear


At New Statesman magazine, Hugh Aldersley-Williams quotes Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky’s Risk and Culture,

“people select their awareness of certain dangers to conform with a specific way of life”. He worries that we may reach a state in which “all we have in common is our fears”.

Actually, it’s very unlikely we’ll reach a consensus on our fears. The question of risk is a vexed one. According to Ulrich Beck, modernity is the process by which progress is overtaken by its negative side effects, so that the side effects, especially pollution of all sorts, become the main event. This is the ‘risk society’ in which we are increasingly defined by our status vis a vis threats to life – we take ‘social risk positions’. In stark contrast, Frank Furedi sees this as shamefully defeatist. For Furedi human ingenuity is the flame that burns eternal and there is no threat that isn’t in the end a wonderful opportunity. He disparages Beck’s thesis as ‘the culture of fear’. So who is correct? My money is on something known as grid-group cultural theory (developed by Douglas, Wildavsky and others) which proposes there are four mutually antagonistic cultural perspectives which institutions and individuals in them can adopt. Beck speaks for ‘Egalitarianism’, Furedi for ‘Individualism’, but there are two others, “Fatalism’ and ‘Hierarchy’. All coalitions of risk (eg the idea that wearing seatbelts in cars has saved lives, see the work of John Adams) are no more than fairly unstable temporary agreements between two or more of these.

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