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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Pedagogy of Fear

My Grandpa was a smart man, who no doubt would have been interested in arguments about the construction of manhood and its consequences. Still, I'm not sure that knowing this intellectually would have solved our dilemma.
Brent Malin

Issue #50, June 2000

When I was four or five years old, I recall getting into a fight with my brother Bryan at my grandparents' house. While this was only one of countless skirmishes between the two of us, it somehow sticks out in my mind, largely, no doubt, because of my grandfather's reaction.

As Bryan and I wrestled on the ground I remember beginning to cry, struggling to get loose from the position into which he'd contorted me. More frightening than Bryan's full-nelson, however, were my Grandfather's boots stomping wildly as he yelled at me, upset that I had broken into tears rather than standing up and holding my ground. This is a vivid memory, not only for the terror I recall feeling in the face of Grandpa's red-faced anger, but because it was my first conscious recognition of my induction into the cult of manliness. Here I was in obvious pain and yet I was the one in trouble! The light went on in my youthful head as I realized why.

Grandpa Malin was no tyrant and certainly no stereotypical macho male, especially by the standards of southwestern Kansas. He was one of a handful of Democrats in the town of Liberal, Kansas — so named because the citizens had been liberal with their water supply to visitors, not for their political beliefs. He always met Bryan and me at the doorstep of their house with a teary eye and a happy hug. Though a grandson's love and admiration cloud my memories, he seemed a sensitive New Age guy before such a thing existed. And yet at this one vivid moment — the only such incident I can recall — his intense dedication to hyper-masculine ideas of strength came through with a dramatic conviction, passion, and anger. While Grandpa Malin was no hyper-masculine tyrant, he could somehow not free himself from the emotional baggage he felt in confronting and educating my manhood.

Grandpa was embroiled in a confrontation with fear and its near relatives: embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace, panic, worry, and concern. Anxious over the manhood of his youngest grandson, he would frighten me into obedience. Out of love, he surely thought, he would educate me on the humiliation of being less than a man. He would scare me not purely for the sake of punitive discipline, but to teach me about the discipline of fear. Grandpa would, in essence, teach me to be afraid, to understand the humiliation that awaited me if I dared shed tears or demonstrate some other unmanly behavior. While that education had no doubt started before this particular moment, this incident sticks out most vividly today. I was not only learning about manhood; I was learning to fear.

Learning to Fear

Our education into the discipline of fear begins early, and not only in terms of the gender ideals we're meant to live up to. Along with our other daily lessons, we go through an intricate process of learning to feel — remorse ("Sit here until you can tell me what you did wrong"), guilt ("How do you think he felt when you said that to him?"), and, of course, fear. Although no formal curriculum exists, the pedagogical tactics are well in place. What are "dunce caps" and "sitting in the corner" but tools for teaching the unembarrassed child to keep his or her unruly actions in check? I recall my third-grade teacher, Ms. Davis, hitting me in the head with a textbook for talking in class. Her intention was surely, in part, for me to fear her. Her blow let me know that if I acted up I might be hit again. However, the effect was also to embarrass me in front of my peers. "Called out," before the class, I felt the terrifying glare of twenty eight-year-old eyes all "uhhhhmmmming" in shock at our teacher's punishment.

We were all learning, both that we would be embarrassed if we did something wrong, and that embarrassment itself was something to fear. I knew fairly early that my parents (and, by implication, myself) would be embarrassed if I went out of the house "dressed like that", and that they would be ashamed to have a child who "acted like that kid did", although I was surely "that kid" for other parents. We were to learn these lessons well because those who didn't — those who didn't fear authority, feel remorse, or worry about humiliation — would surely wind up as delinquents, mobsters, and serial killers. After all, aren't psychopaths people who don't feel an obligation to the social order, who don't fear the consequences of a breakdown of social rules, or the endangerment of their safe place within it?

Still, to say that fear is socially constructed is to miss the point of its intricate working in our daily lives. Certainly we learn to fear, with complex chains of meaning communicating to us the lessons of fear. Just as we often speak of dominant "ideologies," we might also talk of dominant "emotionologies," these complex structures of feeling into which we are supposed to fit. This is not to say that we all feel things the same way, but rather that we receive a set of emotions within — or against — which we must maneuver. We disclose the public-ness of these emotions in phrases like "You shouldn't be angry about that", "I can't believe they let that piss them off", and "You shouldn't let them scare you." Here, fear and its friends are not our own, but held in some communal stock of public pathos.

So, while fear and its fellows are publicly and socially constructed, there is nothing simple about their creation. This is not simply because fear manifests itself so obviously in our bodies. Panic attacks — those heart-pounding, pulse-racing, overheated reactions to "fearful" events — are, for many people, very real manifestations of fears that have been cultivated within us from an early age. But in addition to these overt bodily manifestations, fear is also complexly wired into our social networks. In third grade, "Brent peed his pants" could echo throughout the McKinley Elementary School before recess had even ended; the entire school knew that I should feel humiliated by my accident and, certainly, enhanced that humiliation for me. Though I know today that the sing-song chant of third-graders is nothing to fear, at the time this humiliating rebuke meant the end of the world. And what of the far less comical humiliations my peers and I unloaded upon each other?

Well-Dressed Kiddies

Fear is a very real social construction with profound consequences in our everyday lives. As such, it is an important component of the cultural processes with which we concern ourselves on a daily basis, and one too often overlooked by cultural critics. If we take fear seriously as a specifically social phenomenon, rather than only as a personal experience, then we open our eyes to the intricate workings of a variety of cultural practices.

For instance, media researchers are fond of discussing the "third-person effect" as a clear and measurable instance of media effectiveness. Very simply put, the third-person effect is the tendency of people to judge that the media effects other people more strongly then themselves. Show someone an advertisement for a commodity, this research suggests, and while viewers will claim to "see through its rhetoric," they'll imagine that those "other people out there" won't be able to. As far as they're concerned, this ad will have a strong effect on everyone but them.

For those less inclined towards social scientific research, this might not seem that interesting or useful an observation. Coupling this concept with an attention to the workings of fear, however, suggests some interesting ways in which to think about media in our everyday lives. If, for instance, a fifth-grader judges that a Nike commercial will have a powerful effect on all of his or her classmates, it makes sense that they might fear the humiliation of going to school without sporting the trademark swoosh. After all, if you've spent your formative years getting an education in embarrassment, why would you abandon it now?

Such an understanding suggests the ways in which an attention to fear can complicate our thinking about the cultural processes in which we spend our lives struggling. One way of thinking might have us believe that these middle-schoolers are convinced of the coolness of Nike or Levi's, or that, like little consumer drones, they buy into the hype of "Just Do It" or whatever other slogan might float their way. A focus on fear, however, suggests a more subtle and sinister undercurrent of persuasion. Indeed, these fifth-graders need not believe in the coolness of Levi's, but only fear the humiliating consequences of being left behind. Young fifth-graders no doubt want to go to school knowing they won't be picked on, knowing that they won't have to fear the vicious fifth-grade eyes as they walk the dangerous path through the lunch room.

This analysis proposes a different notion of power than the "on-high" ideological power cultural critics often find themselves discussing: a power rooted in the collective discipline of fear. The strong appeal of that pair of Levi's relies, in part, on a fifth-grader's well-educated fear. Here, fifth-graders draw on storehouses of fear — fear of embarrassment, of humiliation, of "being different" — that they have stored over the years. They borrow from this body of fear and impose it on each other's looks, mutually constructing the potentially humiliating space they all occupy. Even peer compliments can serve as reminders of this mutually constructed space of fear: "Nice shirt" easily translates into "I've got my eye on you!"

The Public's Fear

This Levi's dilemma is, of course, miniscule in comparison to countless other ways in which fear has been socialized into our everyday lives. Fear, humiliation, embarrassment, panic, all stretch through our cultural fabric in elaborate and complicated ways. Not only are we socialized to fear, but fear often emanates from other cultural forces that seem, on their surface, to have nothing to do with emotion at all. What is "cultural capital," for instance, but an elaborate mechanism of fear and humiliation? The idea that this or that way of speaking, kind of knowledge, or sort of "taste" can amount to a particular type of capital demonstrates the elaborate forces of fear. When parents or teachers instruct us to feel embarrassed if we don't speak properly (as when a kindergarten teacher asks "I don't know, can you go to the bathroom?") or — more likely — to fear those uneducated masses who don't know enough to be embarrassed by their own improper speech or unruly tastes, then the effects echo throughout the culture we produce.

Likewise, state apparatuses are as much emotional as ideological, which is to say that they both contribute to our education in fear and that they exact an emotional toll on the bodies that pass through them. In his compelling ethnography, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, Philippe Bourgois explores the levels of emotional struggle confronting a group of crack dealers. He deftly illustrates the sort of emotional wreckage that social structure can inflict. Discussing one crack dealer's attempts to hold legal work, Bourgois notices the intense emotional toll the "legitimate" work force takes on him: "The most profound dimension of Primo's humiliation, was not being called illiterate but, rather, having to look up in the dictionary the words used to insult him." Given this education in humiliation, it makes sense that Primo would feel afraid in his future attempts to gain legal work. Such are the consequences of our unbridled but well-disciplined fear: it is a terrifying circuit that exacts a price upon virtually everyone, whether inside or outside our precious social order.

Is this all to suggest that we are simply "feeling machines" programmed with fear and other emotions that are beyond our control? This would under-estimate the complex workings of fear in our lives. Certainly we all fear things differently and fear different things. But these individual differences don't negate the powerful public nature of fear, whether derived from lunchroom stares or workplace gossip. We might say that people feel fear, but not under conditions of their own choosing. That is, fear is a very real social construction within and against which we are supposed to struggle. However we manifest our individual fears, we are always subject to that communal pathos into which we are meant to become educated.

This should also not suggest that fear is a static condition, transmitted from the past and given to us as some unchanging emotional reality. Certainly fear must have a history. My third-grade friends and I lived in fear that the Russians might at any moment fire on us with one of their dastardly nuclear bombs. I imagine that third-graders today would be less afraid of nuclear missiles and more afraid of gun-wielding peers. This is the stuff of their education, offered to them by the media as well as within schools that must keep on the look-out for the random gun or pipe bomb. In these historically contingent moments, fear, humiliation, panic, and embarrassment are not given, but constructed out of the stuff of changing epochs.

Despite these various changes, the lunchroom gaze still somehow manifests its terrifying power in multiple and varied ways. It's important to understand these powers, not only because we live with fear continually, but also because it suggests the complicated pull of the social order within which we daily struggle. If we theorize culture without considering the dynamics of fear or emotions, we naively underestimate the potential for social change. If the social order has as much to do with emotional imaginaries as with ideological values, as much to do with emotionology as with ideology, then unveiling the hidden mechanisms of cultural structures, while important, is only one part of the job. It is just as important to find ways to disrupt the fear and other emotional forces underpinning those ideologies.

My Grandpa was a smart man, who no doubt would have been interested in arguments about the construction of manhood and its consequences. Still, I'm not sure that knowing this intellectually would have solved our dilemma. Our larger problem will be to imagine ways to think through, or perhaps feel through, the public gaze and its myriad emotional consequences. In short, how should we unlearn the fear to which we have devoted such a powerful curriculum?

Brent Malin teaches in the Department of Communication at St. Olaf College and is a doctoral candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.

Copyright © 2000 by Brent Malin. All rights reserved.