Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fighting the Culture of Fear is THE Centrist Issue

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.

18 comments:

Paul Gross said...

You would enjoy John Stossel's book, "Gimme a Break". He frankly admits that TV overhypes certain risks in the interest of generating viewers and that he engaged in same early in his career. EG the exploding Bic lighters. However the things that are actually threats are either boring or are so accepted that few pay attention to them.
I do think that Moore is guilty of exactly what you are talking about and that is overhyping what is a realtively small risk. Canada does not have the large metropolitan areas that we have where there are large concentrations of underemployed, poor people where much of our gun related crime takes place. New Orleans crime problem was just highlighted by the hurricane. I think the real problem in those areas is not that the culture is so different, but that the culture has broken down.

Gruntled said...

Well, I didn't read Moore as hyping the risk in "Bowling for Columbine," but instead trying to explain the large disparity. One might make a case, though, that he does hype fear in "Fahrenheit 9/11." Also, are not Toronto and Montreal real cities.

Denis Hancock said...

Our two main politial parties do much to promote fear. In years evenly divisible by four we are treated to what seems like a contest of who can scare the voters the most.

Does it seem that the fear factor has gained in the past 20 years? It does to me.

If our political parties would do more to unite the country rather than divide the country, politics might be a little more pleasant. Or at least tolerable...

Gruntled said...

Do the parties, as parties, have an interest in uniting?

Denis Hancock said...

Uniting with each other or uniting the country behind a vision?

I guess my dream is that the political parties campaign on their vision for America and tell how their platform is best for the country.

Instead we have campaigning that is based on telling the American people how evil and dangerous the other side is, and how a vote for "them" is going to cause irreparable harm to the country in general and themselves in particular.

The result is that there seems to be no middle ground in politics. You have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Maybe I'm living in a dream world, but I thnk we deserve far better than that.

Gruntled said...

Amen. Parties have a structural incentive to be more partisan than is just. A voter who wishes to remain just is pushed, willy-nilly, to be less partisan, if not formally independent. I am an institution builder by nature, so I am loathe to formally dissassociate myself from the party, but I am much less partisan than I used to be.

The Doug said...

I loathe TV news, finding it to be exactally as you had said. Though it take so much more effort I prefer to get my news from reading the New York Times. I've also found that foreign news sorces such as the The London Times and Canadian news shows provide news that actually effects you, or for that matter is interesting. I recommend, if you have the means, downloading an one of the "Crossfire" shows with John Stewart as guest.

Tom Strong said...

Well said. While I agree that TV is a prime culprit, it's hardly alone - all news sources rely on sensationalism, because sensationalism is what sells (Blogs definitely included, by the way!) As a result, we have the most violence of any advanced nation because we insist on making everything for sale.

Moore is definitely guilty of overhyping risk. I found it rather sad that in BfC, he makes the terrific point that it is American culture that leads to all our gun deaths, but then proceeds to ignore his own argument for the rest of the movie. The same goes for Farenheit 9/11 - he makes some legitimate criticisms of the Bush Administration, but spends most of the movie trying to build said criticisms into an unconvincing conspiracy theory.

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. Even non-sensationalist t.v. is drawn to stories with pictures, rather than stories that are important. Like most faculty members I know, I start the day with National Public Radio (or National Professor's Radio, as it might be called). They are much freer to go with stories that can be carried only in words.

Jon Stewart going on Crossfire killed it. Perhaps we should get him invited on some other shows. O'Reilly, anyone?

ken mcintyre said...

With regard to the uses of television, I recall Richard Rorty extolling the promise of television as a means of getting otherwise uninterested Americans involved in political issues by manipulating their emotions. I believe that he claimed that the US would never have become involved in Bosnia had the tv networks not shown pictures of the civil war. Of course, Rorty is not notable for his faith in the rationality of the common folk, and his suggestion leaves open the question of who should be in charge of choosing the issues on which to manipulate the public. By the way, I find that the actual reporting done on NPR is often as manipulative as that done on tv, but, without the pictures, it just doesn't work as well.

Jason Stone said...

Professor Weston:

First of all, I'm glad to have found your excellent blog via Centre's website. I look forward to reading your posts.

Your analysis of the culture of fear and the media's complicity in creating it is very spot on.

Gruntled said...

Rorty the pragmatist might find it sometimes useful to manipulate the masses with fear. His great-grandfather, Walter Rauschenbusch, might have used an emotional appeal, but his Christianity was not based on fear.

Jason, welcome to the conversation. I look forward to your future comments.

Adriana said...

I just want to say how happy I am that you finally read this book...only 6 years or so later, of course. I actually refer to this in my journalism class - not that my students are writing hard-hitting pieces, but it's always nice for them to understand what the business says it's doing vs. what the business actually does to sell a product.

Gruntled said...

I actually read it when you first suggested it, and thought of using it in class, but I thought too much of his particular arguments focussed on guns. His main point, though, is very apt and widely applicable.

Anonymous said...

A very interseting analysis. As a canadian we still get the same attempts to manipulate with our media as well. Contrary to Mr Gross's comments we do have signifigant gun issues in most of our larger cities.
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20051202.wshooting1202/BNStory/National/

I will have to read this missive being a good prebyterian myself...

Blessings
J

Gruntled said...

Michael Moore reported that Torontonians routinely leave their doors unlocked. I know that is common in small towns everywhere, but I think it rare in large American cities. Do you know, J, if this is true?

Dawn said...

I realize that this blog is ages old, but I have lived in the Greather Toronto Area for years and have not once locked our doors (whether we're home or not). We've never had a single burglary and we're not afraid at night.

Dawn S.
devms22@yahoo.ca

Gruntled said...

That is so encouraging about Toronto. Why do you think Canada in general is less fearful than America, even in large cities?