We All Fear What We Don’t Understand


We all fear what we do not understand.
― Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol

I suspect that this quote actually pre-dates Mr. Brown’s 2009 book, but the original source is proving elusive. A longer, perhaps more telling version:

What we don’t understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. And what we cannot control…we attack.

The author seems to be the exceptionally prolific, and in this case insightful, “unknown”.

All I can say is that humans apparently don’t understand a great many things.

The left is afraid of the right.

The right is afraid of the left.

The working class fears the corporations.

The technologically challenged are afraid of their computers.

Christians are afraid of Muslims.

The list goes on…

Unfortunately, the solution is hard. It requires work. It requires self-examination.

It requires being willing to acknowledge that your fear is based on a lack of understanding, and then a willingness to take the time and effort to understand. Few are willing to set aside their preconceptions to question their own assumptions.

It’s actually much more complex than that. Many won’t even acknowledge that there is fear. They’ll proceed directly to “attack”. Resolution then means walking the progression backwards:

  • stop attacking that which you cannot control
  • stop trying to control that which you judge as evil
  • stop judging as evil that which you simply fear
  • start trying to understand that which you fear

The problem? Each step requires self-awareness, which is something that precious few seem to have. Each step requires thoughtful evaluation, which takes time and effort few are willing to invest. Each step requires objective, unbiased information, which few are exposed to outside of their echo-chamber.

The result? It’s much easier to let often unacknowledged fear guide you, let a crowd of like-minded do the thinking for you, and proceed down the path: fear to evil to control to attack.

At times like these I sometimes marvel that the human race survives at all.

But then I run across additional variations of the quote, such as this:

We often fear what we do not understand; our best defense is knowledge.
– Tuvok (Star Trek: Voyager)

Which reminds me that we live in an age of unparalleled access to information and knowledge. As bad as things may feel today, the ignorance of the past was far worse.