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There is no such thing as “fear of the unknown”

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
Fear of the unknown is a false but widely repeated fear
You're not afraid of the unknown. You're afraid of skeletons.

Hey are you afraid of the unknown?

You will hear, from very intelligent people, that humans generally are.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
― H.P. Lovecraft
“The most destructive force against human progress isn’t natural disasters, disease or global warming…it’s our own fear of the unknown.”
― The first blog that came up when I googled this phrase to make a point

Xenophobia can be explained by fear of the unknown, they say. Fear of death, fear of change — all just fear of the unknown in disguise. And that humans have exerted huge amounts of effort into putting order and predictablity into life. I read recently that industrialised agriculture, which forces crops into predictability, is about removing the fear of uncertainty.

When I was a kid, I overhead my mum and her friends talking about my fear of the dark (I was, at the time, hiding in the hallway behind the living room door, too scared to walk down the dark hallway to my bedroom). They said it was really fear of the unknown.

It wasn’t. It was fear that a monster would grab me from behind and hurt me. Knowing there definitely was a monster waiting in the dark to hurt me would have removed all of the uncertainty and none of the fear.

Similarly: we are not uncomfortable with the general uncertainty of food production, we’re afraid of famine. Say you get a promising job offer in a distant city. But you’re nervous about accepting it. Are you afraid of the unknown (this new city, this new job), or are you afraid you won’t make any friends there, all your old friends will forget you, and the job will turn out to suck?

I’m afraid of death, not because I’m not sure what will happen afterwards, but because I’m pretty sure that’s the end of my consciousness and my ability to communicate with the people I love, and I hate that. H.P. Lovecraft was afraid of black people, Jews, Syrians, Spaniards and Italians, among others, and he gets off pretty damn lightly calling that “fear of the unknown”.

Uncertainty can make a fear worse, because often what you imagine might happen is way worse than what is at all likely to happen. But the thing you’re afraid of is still that catastrophic, exaggerated worst case scenario, not the uncertainty. It’s hard to categorically disprove, because uncertainty is a common presence in everything you’ve been afraid of.

But that’s just because, by definition, you’re only afraid of things that might happen in the future (even if it’s only a few seconds in the future) and there is always uncertainty about future events! The actual fear is the very obvious thing you’ve been worrying about — probably some form of suffering, humiliation or abandonment.

A last note: There are people in this world who deal with fear by making the thing they’re afraid of happen. Maybe your girlfriend is amazing and you’re so afraid of losing her that you’re afraid all the time — so you cheat on her, scuttling the relationship yourself.

That’s one of the few times someone seems to have been more afraid of uncertainty than of the thing itself.

But I would argue they were still afraid of the thing — of losing their girlfriend — they were just unable to manage that fear. They hated being afraid so much that they would rather be regular-miserable than fearful-miserable. There’s still no reason to bring uncertainty into it.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #57 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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