When someone refers to fear, one tends to assume it means the primal, paralysing kind, the knife’s edge that cuts into our rationality until all that remains is adrenaline, instinct and the will to survive. While this fear has not and will not go away because the forces of crime, war, hunger and anything else leading to desperation still exist in each and every society, there is another variety.
It is small and constant, and sometimes hard to detect. It is insidious, and clouds judgement not through a sudden panic but through attrition. It can be rationalised away or its existence denied. It motivates and demotivates. It is ruthlessly persistent and, like waves crashing on cliff, will win if not diverted. If we term the former as feral, we can name the latter existential.
Existential fear is the creeping fear of failure, harm, death or loss. It is an almost pathological fear of change. This fear is shared by a great many people and its effects lead to the frustration of many a revisionary and revolutionary alike. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Dr. King uses the phrase negative peace to describe the phenomenon of people who may, in principle, believe that the colour of one’s skin should not hold them back from opportunity, but are afraid of the consequences of a change to their society.
Consider an even more recent example — those who deny climate change. NASA’s estimates at scientific consensus shows that a whopping 97% of scientists currently publishing (in relevant fields) agree that humans are causing a warming of global temperatures. However, recent work by the Pew Research Center show that only ~50% of Americans believe humans are causing climate change, and that only 57% of Americans believe that scientists hold a consensus on the issue. Perhaps a reason the human cause question is so much harder to believe for the public is the implications of that belief — that unless the technology and habits of a whole global population were to change soon, large swathes of the land we take for granted today will become uninhabitable, not to mention the loads of other consequences predicted by the scientific community. That change, of course, would have broad political, social and economic ramifications that could certainly evoke a fear of that process, not to mention a fear of the destination because it could cause some concessions on the part of the population.
This, of course, goes hand in hand with what author and academic Jared Diamond calls creeping normality (also known as the sorites paradox among other things), or a long-term gradual change which, due to its slow progress is disguised in the minds of the public. When answering the question of how Easter Islanders could possibly chop down the last tree on their island, Diamond said:
Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.
That inability to comprehend slow changes, along with an existential fear of doing anything to alter the situation precipitated certain disaster for the human populations of Easter Island. It is the same thing Dr. King saw in what he referred to as the white moderates — slavery brought about a gradual set of events which led to the abolition of slaves, which led to the very moment when the white moderate refused to support the need for systematic change in the very fabric of society to accommodate the descendants of the slaves so they could live in dignity.
The fact is, of course, change happens. It also needs to happen, because humanity needs to advance. But if stagnant creeping normality makes people blind to the gradual downturn of their own situation and they refuse to accept a dose of medicine to fix it, they become the biggest obstacles to that necessary change. Of course, bigots and climate change deniers will go down in history as being on the wrong side of it (along with countless others of a similar mindset). But, as Dr. King points out, the worst are the people in the middle that sit back and feast on the mediocrity of today. People love to blame the Koch bothers for the millions they have sank into denying scientific certainty or Bull Connor into his tireless efforts to put down anti-segregation protests in Alabama. Yes, those people are going to be remembered as the adversaries of progress.
But you know who the real culprit is? We are. The existentially afraid, stupid, ignorant mass of people who wander through life refusing to act on what we know is right simply because it requires work. It is we that are the molasses through which people of stronger character than ourselves have to wade through, sometimes drowning on the way, to give us what we don’t yet know will make our world better. Perhaps the world is moved not by Ayn Rand’s Atlas but by a Sisyphus, whose punishment is to roll a boulder up a hill all day, only to watch it roll back down at the very apex, to begin anew the next sunrise.