A culture of fear? Consumerism, education and global politics in 2014

I recently read somewhere that the sale of SUVs and other large, bulky and ‘safe’ vehicles had increased sharply in the USA immediately after 9/11.  The analysis was that people, rendered fearful of everyday activities by events over which they had no control, were subconsciously choosing to fortify and protect their families in ways they could control, e.g. the kind of family car they bought.

Then I watched a documentary about the advertising industry, and how the whole basis of consumerism is based on fear – fear of being left behind, fear of social ostracism (e.g. the Listerine campaign which suggested that unless you used their product, you would have bad breath which might even prevent you marrying), fear of germs, etc etc etc.

I began to think about fear, and began to see other signs of how pervasive it is.  Maybe it always has been; but when I was a student 20-odd years ago, we had no tens of thousands of pounds of debt looming over us.  No one I knew had a job during term time.  Our grants were enough to live on (albeit frugally).  We got involved in protests – marched – joined Greenpeace – protested against the Poll Tax.  Worried about the state of the world, and looked for ways to change it.  It never occurred to any of us that these activities would be a hindrance in finding jobs in the future.  Very few of us were desperate about our grades – all work and no play seemed a poor way to make the most of a university education.  At some point in the final year, it began to dawn on some that they might have to start looking for a job.  But for most, this was the first time we had seriously thought about it.  Most decisions about O levels or the new GCSEs, and A levels, had been made on the basis of what subjects we were good at, and enjoyed, rather than with analytical care to ensure those choices got us into the courses which would ensure a career path.  There were exceptions, of course, for example my sixth-form friend who was thinking about medicine and who therefore made sure she did biology, rather than physics, at A level.  But I recall little fear about the future.  Something would turn up.  Even for oddballs like me with a particularly esoteric humanities degree.

I listen sadly to the 18 year olds of today, and their parents, worrying about fees, debt, finding part-time work in term time as well as in the holidays, juggling workloads, choosing student clubs and societies according to what they think will look good on their CVs, and for the most part doing degree subjects selected for their future employability, rather than interest, passion or a thirst for knowledge.  What happened to learning?  What happened to impassioned debate over 3am coffee about historiography or philosophy?  What happened to the ideal of a university education for the sake of broadening the mind and producing a generation of people who could think, use their critical faculties, make cogent arguments, be analytical?  I grieve for that – education (even at school) seems now to be utilitarian, geared to passing exams and gaining qualifications which seem to be of less and less value with every year that passes.  And fear is now in the education system pretty much from the reception class onwards.  How can this be making the world a better place?

The whole consumer culture seems to be based on fear, too – I must buy this or that or my children won’t love me/my friends will think I’m tight-fisted/people will laugh at me/I’ll be a failure because I don’t have the latest thing.  Even the housing sector is fuelled by fear: if I don’t own my own house (even if the mortgage company actually owns most of it) I will be at the mercy of my landlord, and have no security for my family.  That’s quite apart from the concept of consumption, and home-ownership, as a mark of status.

And then of course, there is Gaza.  And Syria.  And Ukraine.  And the ebola virus.  Everything becomes something to be afraid of – the flight to see far-flung family or to go on holiday.  The person at the airport who looks unwell.  Where will the next war flare up?  Is there anywhere left that is safe?  What is our personal equivalent of buying an SUV after 9/11?

My challenge to myself is simple (but not easy).  Will I too live fearfully, the safe space I occupy becoming smaller and smaller with each new danger?  Or attempt to see the world around me not as threat, but as gift and opportunity?  To ask myself what really makes me safe (not much – most big things are beyond my control in this globalised world) and what is instead just a waste of money, time and energy?  To attempt to live a life that is about growth, not the shrinkage of fear?

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