Extremists try to win the hearts and minds of the majority through fear. The culture of fear is equally a weapon of the left and the right. What they most want you to fear is what will happen if the other side wins.
Barry Glassner published a good book, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, in 1999. He details the ways in which many of the things which are high on most Americans’ fear lists – pregnant teen girls and murderous teen boys, rising rates of drug use and violent crime, epidemic new diseases and plane crashes – are actually quite rare, and most of them are getting better. From recent news we might add a fear of pedophiles and serial killers, and, of course, terrorism. Glassner’s point holds true about these fears, as well: they are rare, and they are not getting more frequent.
Michael Moore made a similar point in Bowling for Columbine. In talking about shooting deaths, he used the wonderfully rich comparison of the United States and Canada. Both societies have many guns and a gun-accommodating culture. Yet their gun death rate is a small fraction of ours, even when adjusting for their much smaller population. Moore attributes the difference to a different culture – American culture promotes fear much more than Canadian culture does. Indeed, in the middle of the film, Moore interviews Barry Glassner about the culture of fear, while they are both standing at the street corner in South Central Los Angeles which was the heart of the Rodney King riots. Presumably, two middle-aged white guys – geeky, slow, obviously defenseless white guys, at that -- should have been at risk and felt fear in the heartland of black rage against white society. (In fact, most of the perpetrators of the Rodney King riots were Mexican-Americans, and most of the shop-keeping victims were Asian-Americans – but that did not fit the CNN story line). Yet, sensibly, they were not fearful, and were treated in a civil, even friendly, fashion by everyone they met.
Television is particularly egregious in selling fear. Television is actually, I think, a very bad way to find out what is going on. Television is driven by a need to show pictures. Most important things that happen do not produce interesting pictures. Most real news, in other words, does not make good television. So television shows good pictures – fires, car collisions, plane crashes, bombings, riots, shot and beaten bodies, and, when all else fails, crying victims of the above. These pictures give us the impression that these are the most newsworthy events. Rarely is that so. Since most people get their news from television, this mistaken impression is widespread in society. The cable news stations, if anything, make the problem worse, by repeating a few shocking headlines and pictures, and filling the rest of the time with reporters’ opinions. Local news stations answer the cable challenge with “how your innocuous possessions can kill you” stories. The best television news show, the PBS “Newshour,” is very boring television, indeed – all talking heads, with almost no pictures at all. And the “Daily Show” is a funny parody, but it is frankly fake.
Of course there are real threats in the world. There are terrorists, and tsunamis, and tsetse flies. But for most people most of the time, these are distant threats. Yes, millions die every day, and many of them from preventable causes. But the cause of prevention is also advancing every day, too. The fact that we know about deaths from around the world does not show that there are more deaths around the world, as much as it shows the great improvement in our news-gathering capacity. The fact that the 2004 tsunami was a worldwide cause for compassion shows improvement in the world. Even in the most dangerous places in the world, most people live without being attacked. Many of the bad things that happen in the world – drug addiction, alcoholism, gun-shot wounds, sexually transmitted diseases – mostly happen to people who live risky lives. If you don’t fool around with drugs, booze, guns, and sex, you are very unlikely to suffer any of these bad outcomes.
Sociology is a great help in combating the culture of fear. Sociology, more than any other science, in concerned with distinguishing the normal from the rare. We look at the whole bell curve, to see what is likely to happen to most people, and which things happen only rarely or mostly to those who live in the extreme ends of society. Of course, we should fight bad things, even if they are rare or are only likely to happen to other people.
But we need not succumb to a culture of fear. The facts, I believe, support a culture of cheerfulness.