Recently, I was trying to explain the ideas behind the Fear Not project for a grant proposal, and for some reason what came to mind was the American Civil War, and communication during the Civil War, which was fascinating except I knew almost nothing about it and as far as I knew it had nothing to do with any of my work. But I decided to look it up.
I discovered that during the Civil War, new communication technologies such as the telegraph and steam-powered rotary presses are believed to have played a key role in transforming exaggerated stereotypes of North and South into compelling realities, convincing Northerners and Southerners that they were more different than they actually were.
In essence, this was the first time we as a nation experienced the power that mass communication has to influence the way we view the world and each other.
So as it turns out, communication during the Civil War is very relevant to my work. I have spent the past few years exploring the ways in which we, as human animals, are using brains designed for hunting and gathering in small nomadic groups to process information that now actually comes from around the globe.
Because of this, we have an overwhelming tendency to focus on and communicate about what to be afraid of, both in our mass media and in the information we share with each other.
We are also biologically wired to think that if we hear a story about something happening, it means it is more likely to happen to us (in psychological terms, the “availability heuristic”). For the hunter/gatherer, this was great: it meant someone else’s story about a dangerous animal in a particular area would be processed in such a way that we would remember it and be aware of the risk.
But today this gives us a skewed version of reality in which we not only fear far more than is necessary, we also often fear the wrong things, like in the classic example of people being more frightened of plane crashes than car crashes, even though air travel is so much safer that the most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport.
Which brings me to something I learned from my father. As an almost-seven-foot-tall ex-Marine, he was a pretty intimidating man, but he also had to overcome a lot of pretty frightening situations in his life, and he wound up teaching me a lot about how to confront my fears. One of the most important things he taught me was this:
Courage isn’t something you can inherit and it isn’t a personality trait. It is something you work for, something you earn by practicing every day.
In the same way, I think that as a global culture our relationship to fear is something that we need to become more aware of and to work on every day, especially since through mass communication our stories are now affecting not just ourselves but the entire world.
With the Fear Not project, I hope to provide people with a simple and easily accessible but also revolutionary and powerful way to do exactly that.
-Jennifer Maria Harris, founder
Just dying to read more?
The ideas behind Fear Not came from many sources, but for a great breakdown of why we often fear too many things, and the wrong things at that (the “brain science of risk”), you can check out The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain by Dan Gardner.
Fear Not Radio has grown to include hundreds of messages in more than 15 languages from participants ranging in age from 2-82.
Fear Not Indirect Mail has been delivered in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, and Texas in the United States, as well as in England, Italy, Germany, Laos, Quebec, Spain, and Thailand.
Fear Not has been featured in solo and group exhibitions at Root Division, the Red Poppy Art House, a.Muse Gallery, and the Trickster Arts Salon in San Francisco, at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland, at LACDA in Los Angeles, at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, and at the Brisbane Public Library.
Fear Not was created by Jennifer Maria Harris, a visual artist based in San Francisco, California. You can see more of her work here.