The Culture of Fear

The Culture of Fear ~ Barry Glassner (Excerpt from the book)

People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true ~ Richard Nixon.

“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,” said the ultimate master of terror, Alfred Hitchcock. Fear mongers regularly put his wisdom to use by depicting would-be perils as imminent disasters.

We had better learn to doubt our inflated fears before they destroy us. Valid fears have their place; they cue us to danger. False and over-drawn fears only cause hardships.

Panic drivern public spending generates over the long term a pathology akin to one found in drug addicts. The more money and attention we fritter away on our compulsions, the less we have available for our real needs, which consequently grow larger.

Television news programs survive on scares. On local newscasts, where producers live by the dictum, “if it bleeds, it leads,” drug, crime, and disaster stories make up most of the news portion of the broadcasts.

To blame the media is to oversimplify the complex role that journalists play as both proponents and doubters of popular fears. It is also to beg the same key issue that the millenium hypothesis evades: why particular anxieties take hold when they do? Why do news organisations and their audiences find themselves drawn to one hazard rather than another?

Mary Douglas, the eminent anthropologist who devoted much of her career to studying how people interpret risk, pointed out that every society has an almost infinite quantity of potential dangers from which to choose.

Societies differ both in the types of dangers they select and the number. Dangers get selected for special emphasis, Douglas showed, either because they offend the basic moral principles of the society or because they enable the criticism of disliked groups and institutions.

From a pyschological point of vidw extreme fear and outrage are often projections. Allegations of children being raped allowed conventional wives and mothers to speak out against men and masculinity without having to fear they would seem unfeminine. “The larger culture,” Nathan and Snedeker note, “still required that women’s complaints about inequality and sexual violence be communicated through the innocent, mortified voice of the child.”

From the point of view of journalists and editors an ideal crime story – that is, the sort that deserves major play and is sure to hold readers’ and viewers’ attention – has several elements that distinguish it from other acts of violence. The victims are innocent, likeable people; the perpetrator is an uncaring brute. Details of the crime, while shocking, are easy to relay. And the events have social significance, bespeaking an underlying societal crisis.

The success of a scare depends not only on how well it is expressed but also, as I have tried to suggest, on how well it expresses deeper cultural anxieties.

Psychologists call this the availability heuristic. We judge how common or important a phenomenon is by how readily it comes to mind. Presented with a survey that asks about hte relative importance of issues, we are likely to give top billing to whatever the media emphasizes at the moement, be cause that issue instantly comes to mind. Were there a reasonable correspondence between emphases in the media and the true severity of social problems, the availability heuristic would not be problematic.

And to finish,

“You know the reason why i said “Yes”? Because I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of living in a country where every decision that we have made over the last ten years wasnt for something, but it was because people told us we had to fear something. We had to fear people who looked different from us, fear people who believed in things that were different from us, fear people who believed in things that were different from us, fear one another right here in our own backyards. I am so tired of fear, and I dont want my girls to live in a country, in a world, based on fear.” ~ Michelle Obama


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