Fear has become an integral part of our everyday lives. We are continuously being bombarded with reminders of our real and imagined vulnerabilities. Long gone are the days of FDR’s proclamation: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We are told with an alarming frequency of new things we are supposed to be afraid of. Those range from an out-of-control influx of terrorists pretending to be refugees and illegal immigrants with criminal dispositions, to the way we regulate the bathrooms used by transgender individuals.
Is there a way to combat and overcome some of these messages of fear? I believe there is. As I noted in my book Why? What Makes Us Curious, curiosity is the best remedy for fear. Dread feeds off ignorance, rumor, and misinformation. Lack of knowledge makes us less free to make up our own minds and more susceptible to political rhetoric. One of the clearest manifestations of freedom is the ability to follow your curiosity to wherever it takes you, as long as you don’t infringe on other people’s freedom and you’re guided by certain ethics. In the words of author Vladimir Nabokov, curiosity is “insubordination in its purest form.” Irish novelist James Stephens also recognized curiosity’s powers. In his philosophical novel The Crock of Gold he wrote: “Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will; indeed, it has led many people into dangers which mere physical courage would shudder away from, for hunger and love and curiosity are the great impelling forces of life.”
It is worth remembering that there were entire periods in the history of humankind throughout which oppressive regimes, harsh imposers of strict religious orthodoxy, or narrow-minded societies, deliberately built walls around certain types of knowledge. The Middle Ages, for instance, are famous for dogmatic assurances having dominated all thought, and entrenching for more than a millennium Aristotelian incorrect views in the physical sciences, the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system, and Galen’s ancient theories in anatomy. It was as if curiosity had frozen solid during medieval times. When Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition on February 17, 1600, he defiantly told his judges: “Perhaps your fear in passing judgment on me is greater than mine in receiving it.”
A spirit of inquisitiveness eventually started to awaken, culminating in the so-called “scientific revolution,” with the emergence of a culture that put empirical observations first. Dramatic discoveries stemmed out of the simple realization that humans did not have all the answers — that both the microcosm and the macrocosm had still to be thoroughly explored.
Attempts to suppress curiosity were not exclusive to ancient or medieval times. They continued even into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Acts aimed at smothering inquiry and exploration have not been limited to discouraging the sciences either. Literature and the arts have not been spared. In 1937, for example, the Nazi regime organized in Munich the Degenerate Art exhibition, whose sole purpose was to convince the public that modern art represented a malicious plot by Jews and communists against the German people. In the Soviet Union, libraries were repeatedly purged of books by Descartes, Kant, and William James, as well as the Gospels, the Quran, and the Talmud, because all of those were deemed “harmful” to society. The Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet ordered the burning of hundreds of books in 1973. Most appallingly, on October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala Yousafzai in the head because of her inspiring campaign for the education of young Pakistani girls. All of these acts resulted in fearful societies.
Curiosity should be stimulated, cultivated, and kept vibrant. Shunning the results of climate science, denigrating the media, cutting budgets for medical research, eliminating endowments for the arts and the humanities, and zeroing out support for public radio are perhaps more subtle ways to stifle curiosity than dynamiting the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by the theocratic Taliban government in Afghanistan, but their effects are similar. Without curiosity and the vehicles that enhance it, false ideologies become dogmas. Through curiosity, on the other hand, even fear itself becomes just another natural phenomenon to be thoroughly investigated.