The following is the transcribed text of a live 18 minute long interview I had, invited by CBC Radio Sounds Like Canada program with host (the illustrious and famous) Shelagh Rogers, June 10, 2004.
Brief Context Before the Interview
I got up early in the morning to make it downtown through the busy workday traffic to be a little early for my first interview (possibly my last?) on national radio regarding fearology. As I was first offered a coffee by the CBC staff and refused, I had to use the washroom one more time, as the staffer advised “best to do it now”—because, once in the studio On Air there was not going anywhere for anything. That’s radio biz! How exciting, and a little terrifying; I mean not only was I going to be live, but I was being interviewed by a very sharp seasoned interview hostess, Ms. Rogers, who has interviewed thousands of people on this program and has talked with the top people in fields of science, literature, politics and well just about anything else the programmers wanted on the show. I used to listen to it at 8:00am every morning at certain periods in my younger days. I hadn’t listened to it for a long time.
How did I get on the program? Well, I don’t recall all the details now, 12+ years later. I had a few other public media connections that year and there was a lot of fear in the air with the recent war aggression of the USA and NATO allies, in the crazy post-9/11 era. So, I had a call from some program person and we chatted for 10 minutes, she liked where I was coming from, and thought the “fearologist” identity I was playfully using at the time would be interesting to catch the CBC viewers attention and give Rogers a chance to play with me On Air—gulp! This lady phoned me back an hour later or so and said, “Okay, be at the CBC Studio at 5:30am to go live on Sounds Like Canada...”. Honestly, I was so stunned by having this attention from mainstream media to my work on fear. I heard only “be there on time”... (earlier)... okay, I said, and next morning off I went on the bus.
I found out after the interview that the CBC website for Sounds Like Canada had “The culture of fear has become a catch phrase of life in the 21st century. From politics to business to our own personal lives; fear rules.” Yes, we were all becoming aware of what it feels like to live in a post-9/11 era, a culture of fear! And, that’s what my dissertation was all about. And, before I went to grad school, I had begun this investigation in 1989 with founding the In Search of Fearlessness Project in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
As the CBC studio technicians hooked me up with all the gear and microphones and got me a cup of water, I sat quietly in the darkened studio. Listening to Roger’s in Toronto live talking to Canada. Wow, what a hype that was. I was in Vancouver, and we were going to talk across the air waves and this country I was born and raised in. We were going to talk about my passionate work. I had just finished my dissertation on fearless leadership in the culture of fear, in the Education Faculty at UBC, and I was looking for a break like this. I got a huge break during my first year of my dissertation (2000) when I won a three-year full Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council fellowship for big money, at least to me. I’d never won anything in my life, not like this. As I sat there waiting, I thought to myself I deserve this chance to talk to Canadians about my work. Why? Because it was important to them and their future, or so I believed; and, also because they are the taxpayers who supported me to complete the research by providing funds for that fellowship. Likely, without them I wouldn’t have been able to afford to stay in graduate school to complete it.
Now, I look up at the control booth in the studio. There was the famous 20 second warning, then the finger count down by the director, as I moved up closer to the microphone in front of me. I tried to anticipate her first question. Where would she start? I had no idea. I had to wing-it, because there was no turning back. She started the 18 minute ecstatic dance with me, which I’ll never forget:
S (Shelagh): Wherever we turn there’s something new to worry about. Even as we head to the polls, the rhetoric has turned from why you should vote for one party, to why you should be afraid of voting for another. According to Dr. Michael Fisher, ‘fear’ isn’t even an emotion anymore. It’s the lens through which we view our lives. And Michael himself is proof of that. He’s a self-described fearologist. Dr. Fisher is in Vancouver this morning. Good morning!
M (Michael): Good morning Shelagh.
S: To begin, what’s a fearologist?
M: Well, a fearologist is somebody who studies the relationship of fear with, basically, Life. And that fear is not just what I’d call psychological fear but actually cultural, sociological, political fear.
S: And how did you become a fearologist?
M: Well, basically, I’m not trained in fearology. It’s hard to find anywhere that will give you a degree in that.
M: But as an educator, when I was studying education, I became interested in how fear is basically, such a core part of the curriculum. It’s a core part of the way teachers interact with students, teachers with teachers, parents with teachers, on and on.
S: Give me an example, in the school of how fear is just a core part of the curriculum?
M: I think the main thing is students are being judged and evaluated continually, and standards of success and failure, those are the common ways. Never mind the sort of social climate that can often happen in a school where students feel under surveillance—nowadays they’re walking through metal detectors and all those kinds of things. So it builds this kind of climate, what some educators have called the culture of fear. So basically, we start looking for fear and that’s when fear starts to turn into a lens—you know, staff, etc., security systems. When fear moves from kind of a psychology to a collective culture of fear.
S: Michael, you don’t expect them to do nothing?
M: No, that’s for sure. It’s the quality of the action that matters, Shelagh. And when fear leads, the reality is distorted. It’s a basic, almost law, of our perception. And security experts, who have any integrity, have criticized the false security and expensive security people end up with, all because fear is making the decisions. I mean the suspected criminals of the fire bomb incident are in custody and going to trial in the next few weeks. The probability is very low for something like this, but the entire Jewish community is being put into chronic ‘high alert’ as its leaders, with all good intention, are constructing a culture of fear by redesigning the educational institutions around this incident. That is the real crime—with lasting consequences. Their fear is working overtime for the ‘terrorist,’ not for the good of the quality of lives of the children. I mean just think of how they could be spending that extra three million on educational materials and support teaching staff—and the real sad part is that they would likely never be able to get people to donate that much money so quickly if it weren’t for fear. Yet when it comes to reacting to a rare dramatic incident, the community rallies with the money. That’s how a fear economy works. The lawyers, insurance companies, and security companies are laughing all the way to the bank.
S: So fear becomes a part of the hidden curriculum?
M: Exactly. I wish every parent, teacher and community leader would read the latest book on the culture of fear by Dr. Giroux, on how fear is being constructed through a cultural politics by elites in government, the military, and corporations—he says we are abandoning the young people of Gen X and Y. Democracy is being undermined by a culture of fear in a post-9/11 world. Giroux’s point, and mine, is that it doesn’t mean we don’t take action against terrorists, it means we don’t undermine democracy and all quality of life in doing it.
S: Michael, what is responsible for that?
M: Well I think you know media has unfortunately....
S: I’m leaving the studio.... [chuckles]
M: [chuckles] I know. I was just ready, you are going to shut the mic off here. I think it’s pretty clear that, Bowling for Columbine by Michael Moore, was a clear indicator of the impact that media has on constructing fear. So, I’ve been using this term, culturally constructed, or culturally-modified fear.
S: And Bowling for Columbine would be the culture of fear, leading to gun culture?
M: Gun culture and where we get in situations where one-third, for example, statistics, of housing starts in America are actually walled-communities. So, just think that one-third of housing starts are actually in gated or walled-communities.
S: Is the media it, Michael? Or are there other sources for the blooming of the culture of fear?
M: Well, I think there are obviously deep sources, as human beings are very vulnerable creatures to being frightened. But the worst part is that we’ve got a memory system that basically, can accumulate ideas about those fearful experiences, through trauma and those sorts of things. Then we start building organizations that actually are based on fear and they continue to replicate, to continue a certain kind of lens on fear. It breeds. So, I’ve been actually using the phrase that ‘fear’ is more like a virus itself.
S: Hmmm... I guess I’m not really as familiar. You know I can divide the world from before September 11, as far as the term “culture of fear” goes. How much did the events of that day do to crystalize this?
M: It absolutely crystalized it. I’ve been tracking the literature on who’s been talking about the “culture of fear” among sociologists and political scientists, and what’s certainly happened since 1994, Shelagh, even before 9/11. In 1994 roughly, there was a real increase in the people starting to publish articles about the culture of fear, and this was in business magazines, anthropological, all kinds of disciplines.
S: Why 1994?
M: I think there was a very interesting study that indicates why. This professor of sociology in the United States was doing a study on media and newspapers. And he found that around 1994 that major newspapers and news media were hiring entertainment consultants almost simultaneously. And they got on the bandwagon that news was something that had to get people’s attention. So, what’s the best thing to get attention is....
S: Yell fire!
M: Yeah. So, what his researchers tracked, is that when they looked at these media and newspapers, they looked at headlines and leadlines in stories. And the number of uses of “fear” in those headlines and leadlines of stories increased by 300-400% within months after hiring these entertainment consultants. So, they’d found the formula. Did that increase the readership or did that increase people watching their shows? I don’t know. But it certainly was an increase in this idea that building a culture of fear, builds within people, almost an antennae just waiting to hear the next fear story.
S: To what good?
M: Well it scares ourselves. We’re scaring ourselves to death. But what good is it? I think it is really questionable. I think it’s an ethical question we have to face as a society, as a culture. Is, are we scaring ourselves to death? OK. We’re getting people’s attention, well that’s good, cause then you can manipulate that attention. Whether it’s to buy products, whether it’s to vote for somebody or not vote for somebody, as you were saying earlier. So, to what good? That is the question that’s up for consideration. I’m looking forward to basically raising the profile, and that’s part of my work; to raise the profile amongst politicians, leaders, and educators. To really start asking questions about what kind of culture do we want to shape in the future?
S: It’s such an important question to raise, Michael, but at the same time you know that the culture of fear works, people do buy the products, people are afraid of becoming ugly and wrinkled as they get older. In some ways if you point out what it will do, maybe you’re giving people ideas that want to use it, the edge?
M: That’s always the problem, isn’t it, when you uncover something that is a powerful force. It can be used for ‘good or bad.’ Where I come as an educator, is, I’m basically arguing is that what we need to really do is, think about how we are educating our children, for that’s the future generation. And if we can start to actually educate them in a way where they would actually start to recognize in a kind of savvy, a savvy about fear, and see it in all its forms because the tricky part now is that ‘fear’ is not always felt as an actual emotion, and or a feeling, because it’s been so constructed in our everyday life. It actually has become a perceptual lens of seeing the world. Well that’s hard to recognize right?; it’s easier to recognize a feeling. I’m frightened or I’m shaky, but when it starts to become actually a perceptual lens, you actually don’t recognize it. so, when you see an ad or you see a piece in a magazine, or something, to actually recognize immediately, wouldn’t it be nice if a child could just say, “Oh, I recognize that, I learned about that in school and I can see that they’re trying to use fear there.” Wow! That would start to make a difference of discrimination about how we live.
S: So, a lot of this is about a kind of literacy right?
M: Absolutely, that’s right.
S: And reading the world, and reading the messages....
M: Shelagh, the other part of that... it is about a critical literacy, but you know ultimately it comes down to a choice. And when I get to the bottom line of what I am putting out to the world, and trying to communicate to the world—it is that human beings are going to have to make a choice. First of all we’ve got to be able to make that discrimination. Okay, well that seems to be a path of fear and it’s being motivated by fear but now, I have to look at what I am doing as a person. And am I actually starting to make decisions based on that fear, which is actually becoming a norm—right?—a norm way of seeing the world, a norm way of being in the world. So, it really comes down to a choice, and to me. It’s virtually like all the religious traditions always taught that at some point in life you have to decide: Am I going to follow this path or am I going to follow this other path? In the ancient language, in my research, they would use the language “are you going to follow the path of fear, or are you going to follow the path of love?”
S: Michael, who are your role models?
M: Well, I certainly think people like Gandhi, would certainly stand out as one, among many. I think Gandhi was very clear in his teachings about the path of fearlessness, or ahimsa—a concept that basically we are here to not come from fear as a motivator. That’s a high calling. And that’s fear at the highest or deepest levels; it’s not just fear as a feeling. I’m really talking about fear and reality challenging this lens of security. And what happens, I think Gandhi showed, is that if people keep coming from what is secure and what is comfortable, really basic stuff, is that you are likely to be manipulated by people who will sell you that security, sell you that comfort, and then of course, you start to give up your power to make decisions that might be more intelligent or wise decisions and to be able to challenge those forces or those powers that are controlling those decisions. Yeah, I think Gandhi challenging the British and even his own peers and allies, at times he challenged his wife for taking the path of comfort, when she didn’t want to clean the latrines in the ashram.
S: Gandhi is an interesting but obvious choice, perhaps. But what about individuals, Michael, who you can name who have made a difference and faced it?
M: Yeah, I think Michael Moore is a pretty interesting case, the filmmaker. He has certainly done well, which is amazing with his films, Bowling for Columbine, etc., and now his Farenheit 9/11 coming out, which is even more controversial. I think he’s a pretty outstanding character because he is willing basically to stand up to America and American politicians, and some pretty big people in America, and actually put them on film and expose basically how they play a role in building this culture of fear and creating it.
[I seem to have lost the last few minutes of this dialogue transcript... perhaps, I’ll find them someday... and finish this... perhaps... ]