Phobophobia

In recent weeks and months, we have seen events that are not the event. The drama around these events is not the events themselves, but the anxiety about the events, and then even the anxiety about the anxiety about the events. That is the real event. The events in Ferguson, Missouri are less about the tragic death of a young black man than about anxiety about his death, and then anxiety about anxiety around his death. The real event in Ferguson is America’s anxiety about its anxiety that America is still a racist nation.

Likewise, the news in the recent cancellation of the Sony film, The Interview, is about a number of things, but is perhaps less about hacking on the part of North Korea as a foreign and enemy power, than it is about how they have been able to exploit to their own advantage things said in personal e-mails on the part of company executives Amy Pascal and Scott Rudin, that are construed as racist. The company’s apparent subsequent capitulation to Al Sharpton as a result of the hacking is more important than the hacking itself. He is now to have a say in how Sony conducts itself in its future productions (we will see how it falls out).

The issue is not about whether Pascal and Rudin conduct themselves in public or as company executives as racists, but whether they have secret anxiety-ridden thoughts, masquerading as humor, that are deemed inappropriate. It is worth noting that the words, “appropriate,” and “inappropriate” now occupy the place that the ethical language of “right” and “wrong” used to occupy. One wonders exactly what Al Sharpton’s secret, and perhaps, “inappropriate” thoughts are, but about that, no one cares, or dares to ask.

I recently spoke with a highly placed official in my own city. This person was fearful that once again, that evening, one of the major traffic arteries between here and a nearby large city, would be shut down by protesters, protesting in solidarity for the oppressed of Ferguson, Missouri.

What is this protest about? I don’t think it is about any event. It is about our anxiety about an event, and on top of that, our anxiety about our anxiety about that event. These were almost 100%, white, affluent, protesters.

We may now have reached the stage of “phobophobia.” Here is the Wikepedia definition of phobophobia: “a fear of phobias, or the fear of fear, including intense anxiety and unrealistic and persistent fear of the somatic sensations and the feared phobia ensuing. Phobophobia can also be defined as the fear of phobias or fear of developing a phobia. Phobobphobia is related to anxiety disorders and panic attacks.”

America and the West have become phobophobic. Ferguson and Sony are just illustrations that our events are less and less about events, and more and more about our anxiety ridden response to these events. The real event, the newsworthy event, is the anxiety, and then the anxiety about the anxiety. The event itself becomes distant and is only an occasion for the real inner drama inside of and between persons who may only be observers.

Now, I suppose the human race has always had some element of phobophobia about it. But in the past, phobophobia has been a religious phenomena. But it strikes me that anxiety about anxiety is becoming an increasingly common and convoluted secular phenomena. We are further and further from events themselves. In America, the issue we face is probably not racism, it is a fear that we might be racists or even a fear that we might fear that we are racists, thereby proving that we have some speck of traceable and detectable element of racism still in us. This is more like the inner diseases that confessors have always been aware of in dealing with morbidity and scrupulosity in diseased consciences.

This has overtones of Staupitz (Luther’s confessor) dealing with Luther, before Luther’s discovery of justification by faith. Luther found every speck of impurity in himself, and felt compelled to confess and find absolution, for every transgression. And of course, the effect of that was to multiply both real and imagined transgressions. The oddity is that now it is the secular, the officially godless, who find themselves obsessed with scruples and impurities, and who cannot find any adequate absolution.

This in fact, is what Puritanism evolved into as Luther’s subjective torment became one of the major mainstays of an entire religious movement. We may be seeing the playing-out of secular Puritanism. English Puritanism became increasingly not about salvation itself, but about assurance of salvation, about knowing that I am one of the elect or the saved. Puritanism abounded in subjective paradoxes around anxiety about ones’ own salvation and whether or not one possesses this.

All of this emphasizes that modernity is actually faux Christianity and beyond that, faux Puritanism, and has as one of its pervasive themes, salvation. But even beyond that, perhaps its most pervasive theme is assurance of salvation.

Rev. Rich Bledsoe was until recently a hospital chaplain in Boulder, Colorado. He is currently in transition.