Fear, and what a century-old theologian can teach the modern social scientist

Some researchers have shown that the stress and preoccupation from being poor causes people to think differently and make worse decisions. Because of this, some colleagues and I started thinking what might fear do to the brain and behavior–fear of violence, of crime, of a repressive regime.

Coincidentally, a couple of months ago I picked up Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, one of the most talked-about books of the year. It’s a book about what it means to be black in America today: fearful. Fearful of police. Fearful of thugs on the streets. All because, says Coates, there are people who have the power to destroy your body.

To be honest, Coates didn’t connect with me. Now, there are obvious reasons this might not connect with me (not the least of which is that I grew up a white man in suburban Canada). But I have spent a lot of my career working with people fearful of violence, and so I’m not completely disconnected.

Then my sister-in-law, a successful model and theologian (that’s a different story) heard about my research project and told me I should read Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman was an African American theologian who deeply influenced Martin Luther King Junior. And what I read connected more than any book I’ve read this year.

Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited. There is nothing new or recent about fear—it is doubtless as old as the life of man on the planet. Fears are of many kinds—fear of objects, fear of people, fear of the future, fear of nature, fear of the unknown, fear of old age, fear of disease, and fear of life itself. Then there is fear which has to do with aspects of experience and detailed states of mind.

Our homes, institutions, prisons, churches, are crowded with people who are hounded by day and harrowed by night because of some fear that lurks ready to spring into action as soon as one is alone, or as soon as the lights go out, or as soon as one’s social defenses are temporarily removed.

The ever-present fear that besets the vast poor, the economically and socially insecure, is a fear of still a different breed. It is a climate closing in; it is like the fog in San Francisco or in London. It is nowhere in particular yet everywhere. It is a mood which one carries around with himself, distilled from the acrid conflict with which his days are surrounded. It has its roots deep in the heart of the relations between the weak and the strong, between the controllers of environment and those who are controlled by it.

When the basis of such fear is analyzed, it is clear that it arises out of the sense of isolation and helplessness in the face of the varied dimensions of violence to which the underprivileged are exposed. Violence, precipitate and stark, is the sire of the fear of such people. It is spawned by the perpetual threat of violence everywhere. Of course, physical violence is the most obvious cause. But here, it is important to point out, a particular kind of physical violence or its counterpart is evidenced; it is violence that is devoid of the element of contest. It is what is feared by the rabbit that cannot ultimately escape the hounds.

Also this:

There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.

…Fear, then, becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give some measure of protection from complete nervous collapse. How do they achieve this? In the first place, they make their bodies commit to memory ways of behaving that will tend to reduce their exposure to violence.

The tragedy is that modern social science has very little to say about any of this. If you try to discuss the notion of fear with a normal economist or political scientist, they will look at you oddly, and tell you this is not serious. I speak from recent experience. Unless you make up some stuff about neuroscience or somehow link it to Danny Kahneman, a psychologist who, when invoked, magically bestows legitimacy on all manner of weird ideas. (Then that normal economist or political scientist is still skeptical but no longer thinks you’ve lost your bearings as a scientist)

I got exactly the same reaction when I started running surveys in conflicts ten years ago, studying why rebel groups would abduct children, and what long term effect this had. My dissertation proposal committee told me not to do it. But I believed, and still believe, that you can’t really understand much about the world if you don’t understand violence. Now I would extend this statement to fear. This is the kind of raw material that young scholars, not just Ta-Nehisi Coates, should be mining not scorning.