How fear destroys the human personality

Anxiety: The longing for security

Many people nowadays live with the fear of not being able to keep up with the rapidly changing society. The sociologist Heinz Bude explains how worries about the future shatter our coexistence

GEO WISSEN: Professor Bude, you observe how general moods change over time. How do you describe the mood of the Germans?

PROF. HEINZ BUDE: One feeling in particular currently determines the mood in Germany, but also in all other western nations: fear. It affects all areas of society, determines politics and the economy, but also the private life of every individual. The feeling knows no social boundaries; it unites people who otherwise don't have much in common. It's often the only thing they can talk to each other about.

What are people so afraid of?

In recent months, of course, a specific fear has developed, for example of terrorist attacks or the crime of people who have fled to Germany from other countries. In my opinion, however, all of these are just symptoms of a far more fundamental fear that has developed over the past few decades: the fear that life will not always be good. That prosperity is fleeting, that professional positions and social respect cannot be achieved or can be lost. It is the vague premonition that the good is always fragile and fleeting - and that the future can be worse than the present. Every second German citizen, according to the results of a representative survey, is worried about the future.

But weren't people also afraid in the past?

Fear is a completely natural feeling; people have been fearful at all times. But the Second World War marked a turning point in the history of fear in the societies affected by this global event. Because he has divided the fears of the generations from one another. Since then, there have been those older people on one side who lived through the war or its immediate aftermath in their youth. For them, fear is associated with existential, life-threatening situations, with hunger, pain and fear of death. These people determined private life in Germany for a long time; they spread courage and optimism during the decades of reconstruction and the economic boom. They couldn't help but look to the future with confidence. If they were afraid, it was of a specific threat from outside: violence, natural disasters or military attacks, destruction by atomic bombs or destruction due to environmental damage.

And that is different today.

Exactly, at least that's my thesis. Over the years, those post-war generations have grown up who have so far experienced life as comparatively good, as safe and comfortable. They live feeling that the worst is not behind them - it is ahead of them. You are afraid of the future. Because they are gnawed by the no less grueling worry that it won't always be as good as usual. This fear is so diffuse, so difficult to grasp and fight, that it can become overwhelming.

Where does this fear come from?

People are beginning to doubt the promise that they will be safe in the rule of law and welfare state. It used to be said: if you stumble, you will be caught; whoever no longer knows what to do is advised; who is threatened is protected. And those who are disadvantaged by their origins receive compensation. Society promised: If you make an effort, if you educate yourself and don't let yourself down too much - then you will lead a life with which you will be satisfied. But all of this is no longer certain; Society can no longer keep these promises. Today more than ever it depends on each individual whether he lives in prosperity, health, perhaps even contentment.

Why can the welfare state no longer keep its promise?

Because society is becoming more and more diverse, the collective breaks down into individual ways of life. The possibilities of how a life can develop are almost endless today. At any point in life, people have an abundance of options. That makes it so difficult to form a state that gives everyone equal prosperity and security.

But having more options is an enrichment. Options give people the chance to live according to their own needs.

Yes, but the fear of making the wrong choice is greater than the joy in the variety of possibilities. Even the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard came to the conclusion in the middle of the 19th century: The greatest horror that a person can experience is the realization that there is no one to make decisions for them - but that everyone has to be active in order to live their lives shape. In other words: nothing scares us as much as the freedom to be able to decide for ourselves. Because we can't just make one choice - we have to!

We are free, but do we feel coerced?

Exactly. We want to use the freedom, but do not have the power to decide. Instead, we keep as many options as possible open to ourselves, rarely and with great reluctance to commit ourselves. Because we are always worried: Am I good enough? Am I doing the right thing, can I do the right thing, do I want the right thing? Such questions are far more pressing today than they were in the past. The fear of doing something wrong lurks everywhere: choosing the wrong education, the wrong course of study, the wrong job, the wrong partner. In short: people fear not making the optimal choice.

Why is this so pressing?

Society is currently changing so dynamically that it seems downright disastrous to us to commit ourselves: Anyone who decides to hold on to something, as it were, threatens to stand still, slip off, fall behind. There is always someone who could be even better, even faster, even smarter. Income, education, personality, relationship, outfit, sex, children: there is far more competition everywhere today than in the past. Three processes in particular have contributed to this in the past few decades: globalization, liberalization and digitization.

Can you explain that?

Globalization brings individuals and societies all over the world into contact, but also into competition with one another. In the past, ideas and profits were only contested on a regional level, today there seem to be no limits to competition. Until the 1990s, people in Germany did not feel too much of this. The focus was on the growing together of West and East Germany. Growth served to make the world a better place. But then new laws changed, for example on protection against dismissal and unemployment assistance, the welfare state and the labor market - this is how the Federal Republic faced international competition. Since then, the credo has been: We have to grow, increase productivity in order to be able to keep up - competitiveness at all levels. All of this is an expression of liberalization: deregulation in the economy and individualization of the individual in society. In this way, we are all able to act globally to an ever greater extent, disregard existing rules - or create our own.

And what role does digitization play in this?

In a sense, digitization is the technological fuel for globalization and liberalization. Whether in production or services, in medicine, mobility, energy or media: it is revolutionizing every segment of society.

But all of these developments also do a lot of good.

Yes, the situation is paradoxical. People live comparatively well in Germany; the country emerged stronger from the global economic crisis of 2008 than it was before. The number of unemployed has decreased, the economy is growing, and the welfare state has become more effective. But the enormous competition means that hardly anyone feels secure in their position in society. People are no longer worried about being discriminated against or threatened by others, as they used to be, but rather as individuals because of a wrong decision to slip and fall down. It is not necessarily the objective situation that scares people - but the feeling of being at a disadvantage compared to others.

Does the rapid pace of change really frighten all citizens equally?

Of course there are individual profiteers, both politically and economically. Every change attracts apocalyptists, false prophets and demagogues, who intensify outrage and use it for their cause. But the majority of people, whether young or old, female or male, West or East German, do not really feel up to this change. They are driven by the belief that things must always go forward. People feel the need for values ​​that offer support and do not dissolve immediately. In gainful employment, but also in family life and in leisure activities, you are spoiled for choice: there could be, there always has to be something better. This worry cannot go away. It is not just about the feeling of not being able to keep up with others, but even more about the fear of not making full use of one's possibilities.

"Many live with the feeling that the worst is still ahead of them."

What are the consequences?

More and more people feel exhausted. And that applies to the highly educated academics as well as to the less qualified contract workers. At some point, the fear that you could make the wrong decision turns into the fear that the right decision is no longer possible: that everything will only get worse. What remains is a fragile self that seeks help from therapists and doctors, but also from spiritual saviors, scientific advisors or technical instruments. All of this is currently experiencing a tremendous boom and is forming its own kind of industry.

And how do worries affect society?

Fear trickles into the pores of society. The community loses cohesion, loses consensus - the stable foundation on which most have so far been able to agree. The fear of no longer finding a place for oneself in the whole gives rise to mistrust: towards the system, the rich, the press or the political class. One can then seek security in affects directed against others who are to be blamed for the misery. That is the reason why hatred has become socially acceptable. Hate enables the ego to feel strong, to attract attention, and to experience power - it is the fastest way to get a sense of effectiveness. That is why movements are forming everywhere that are directed against something - that are united by distrust and hatred of others: Some express their displeasure at Pegida demonstrations or chant hateful slogans, others march through the neighborhood as vigilantes, others sympathize with the “alternative für Deutschland ”, the Front National in France, politicians like Donald Trump in the USA - or, in extreme cases, with terrorist organizations like the so-called“ Islamic State ”.

Many people get angry because they believe that they can no longer be heard - that they are no longer allowed to say anything.

People who react in this way suspect a tyranny of the opinion makers, who always only reproduce their own picture of reality, but ignore or even disregard the worries of the "common people". They accuse the “lying press” and the “political class” of distorting reality and pursuing their own interests. In studies that I undertook together with the psychologist Ernst-Dieter Lantermann, we called a group that spoke up particularly loudly and felt ignored, “the embittered”. These are people who are well educated, have relatively good occupational positions and have average incomes - but who are nevertheless dominated by the feeling that they have remained below their possibilities in their lives. They see Germany being praised as a strong economy, but they consider that to be a lie of tricksters and exploiters.

How come

These are the losers of the silent revolution in our society that has affected middle management or the service class of the welfare state. Their posts have become redundant and their skills are no longer in demand. As a result, careers have been broken off and life balance sheets have been devalued. In addition, there is the spread of “winner take all” markets in the “creative class” or in the liberal professions. Rankings for all kinds of things provide information about who is the best orthodontist in Hamburg, the best kitchen designer in Berlin or the best psychoanalyst in Freiburg. Those who are at the top of these rankings receive a lot of prestige, attention and high fees. For the rest, the majority, there is hardly anything left.

So people's fears that they no longer have a secure economic basis, that they can no longer meet the demands, are by no means irrational?

First of all: every fear is justified. You shouldn't be tempted to deny that people are afraid. What people feel and how they see the situation is real because it has certain consequences for their behavior and their relationship to the world as a whole. But it is fatal: Fear can break free from its origins and, as it were, feed itself. Suddenly dangers, conspiracies, lies, threats lurk everywhere.

This excessive mistrust is what some typical German attitude calls "German fear".

This goes back to the Romantic era, when writers, poets and musicians tried to express an unhappy consciousness. This was also noticed in other nations. Since then, the word “fear” alone - similar to “Weltschmerz”, “Security” or “Mood” - has been considered so German that the English language, for example, has not developed its own term for it but has simply adopted it. To this day, Germans cling to the stereotype of thinking apocalyptically, of loving the unreal. But I cannot see that this attitude is particularly peculiar to us. On the contrary: to the global economic and financial crisis of 2008, no society in the entire OECD area reacted as prudently and prudently as the German one. The phenomena of the frightened society are evident in all western nations today.

The "crisis" is everywhere.

In fact, the “normal” state from which the “crisis” deviates no longer exists. At all times, a capitalistically structured and open society struggles with one exception, one challenge, one problem. Because the crisis is a principle of capitalism. Without a crisis there is neither growth nor development. If something new is to be created, something old has to give way somewhere. However, that does not mean that everything always turns out well. Today it is becoming increasingly clear that capitalism cannot be had without a crisis. That makes the mood of society more and more irritable, more and more fearful.

So will the fear only increase?

Yes, because it is contagious. Individuals may feel a very well founded fear. But many are afraid of something that they only know from descriptions by others. Fear is a mood that reinforces itself in groups. Even people who previously thought they were calm and confident are gradually becoming insecure. Fear is not spread by tribunes who have the crowd in hand. Today it is clear that people infect each other with their fears.

»Fear trickles into the pores of society. Losing cohesion "

What role does social media play?

You drive this dynamic beyond measure. The interpretation of the situation by journalists has been abolished here. Instead, there is a general whisper on social media: Everyone has heard something somewhere, at some point and can make it available to a large number of people - the perfect breeding ground for fear.

Will fear still be the dominant mood in our country in 20 years?

Yes, because the most pressing problem facing society will be inequality. We will have to get used to the fact that there are far more and far greater differences than there are today. There will be less and less a predominant life plan. The ways of life and thinking will be so diverse that we will always have to live with the fear of not feeling secure in a majority - but of having to assert ourselves. Just as people complain about the emergence of a white lower class in the United States today, groups that were valued a generation ago are being pushed into social marginalization.

How can people overcome this fear?

The most important thing is to distance yourself from fear.But that is not possible purely voluntarily and purely spiritually. As a victim of Stalinist terror, the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin once recognized that carnival cultures, all forms of parody or comedy, always draw from fear: they ridicule what arouses fears, turn the terrifying into the grotesque.

"Laugh at the fear": Doesn't that sound a little cynical?

I'm serious: The laughing person can win over fear, because laughter is just as involuntary as fear. Both states overwhelm us, overwhelm body and mind. The laughing man gives up control for a moment. But this loss of control arouses positive emotions, it does not weaken us - it strengthens us. As long as there is still a lot of laughter in a society, fear cannot destroy it.

But it hardly helps a society if politics is limited to laughter.

Of course - that only applies to the individual in his or her social circle. The community as a political collective has to deal with fear differently. Whoever wants to overcome fear is all the more addicted to it. The ostentatious optimism expressed in Barack Obama's slogan “Yes, we can” was a program to drive the fear out. Obama tried to encourage people with exuberant confidence. But that won't work again. The political leaders of the future will have to show a sense of where fear comes from and how it can be countered. This undoubtedly requires a special personal strength. Whoever wants to rule fear must not radiate fear of people's fears.

It's a fine line. That is exactly what radical-thinking politicians from left and right do.

Yes, that's how demagogues work. They say: “I feel for you, I speak for you!” And they not only recognize the fear - they also stir it up. Politicians who can stand up to the demagogues must not avoid fear. You must not let problems disappear in bureaucracy and expertise, with committees and expert reports. Again: Fear can only be overcome by those who publicly acknowledge and endure it. Because only those who have the courage to look fear in the eye can recognize: Where there is fear, there is also hope - the hope that it could be different from what it is. So fear doesn't have the last word.