BE AFRAID. Be very afraid. That's the message we Americans receive daily from everyone from government officials to newscasters, environmentalists and corporate marketers. Let's face it: like sex, fear sells. But has hyperactive fear-mongering become corrosive to American society? That's what a growing number of social critics and sociologists are concluding. In a nation so proud of its pioneering spirit, the culture of precaution, they say, is turning us into a bunch of chickens.
Even before 9/11, Americans — who like to think of themselves as the world's most rational people — seemed particularly susceptible to waves of catastrophic thinking. We collectively obsess over one deadly terror after the other. If it isn't West Nile virus, then it's SARS. Today it's the avian flu. Tomorrow we'll be cowering from something else.
Are we more fearful because the world has become an infinitely more dangerous place? Probably not. Studies have shown that the level of fear people feel is often disproportionate to the risk they actually face. For example, elderly folk are considerably less likely to be victims of crime than young people, yet they tend to worry about it much more. And sometimes, we simply worry about the wrong things. While avian flu, which has never killed an American, grabs headlines, heart disease strikes down more than 1 million of us a year.
To some extent, fear is a luxury, the product of affluence. Kierkegaard called dread "the dizziness of freedom." Have you ever noticed that people in relatively safe suburbs tend to be more hysterical about crime than are denizens of the inner city? David Ropeikof the Harvard School of Public Health, who specializes in risk, argues that that's because people in the suburbs have time to be hysterical. "People in the city have to struggle more to get by, stay healthy and survive. And these day-to-day realities fill up more of their radar screens," he says. On the other hand, affluent people in the 'burbs, who have "fewer direct challenges to their comfort and health," have a "bigger space on their screens" to worry about more abstract fears.
Further, although city dwellers are also worried about crime, they have to negotiate its perils every day and therefore have the information with which to put it into perspective. By contrast, people who don't live in high-crime areas lack the practical knowledge that allows them to accurately assess the threat they face. And when people don't have enough facts, worrying becomes their only form of self-protection.
The intensity of fear may also have to do with how much one has to lose. Those who have little tend to calculate risk differently than those who have more to protect. For people who feel they have nothing to lose, risks promise a higher payoff. Conversely, those who have a lot sometimes adopt strategies of "loss avoidance." Frank Furedi, a British sociologist and author of "Politics of Fear," argues that a combination of wealth, security and anxiety about the future is making Western cultures increasingly risk-averse. Westerners, he argues, have turned safety into an end in itself, [b]deluding themselves that there are no such things as accidents or natural disasters. When something goes wrong, we assume that someone must be to blame, which drives the false belief that all bad things are avoidable if only we take the right precautions.
And because all risk is believed to be manageable, over the last few decades risk has become a huge business.
Consultants dispense advice on risk communications, risk management and risk analysis. Experts warn us of so many dangers it's hard to keep track. Are eggs still bad for cholesterol, or did a new study disprove that? And how about alcohol? Should we avoid it altogether, or does a glass a day do a body good? The prescriptions are murky. And in this culture of anxiety, we no longer need to face danger to be consumed by fear. The illusion that we can cheat death if only we're clever or disciplined enough has profound social and psychological consequences. Parents become afraid to send their children out to play. Strangers seem more threatening than ever.
To avoid harm, we insulate ourselves from real life. The climate of fear and precaution dampens our zeal for the kind of adventure and experimentation that leads to progress. Although we once may have hoped to spend our collective energies trying to make the world a better place, today we are increasingly willing just to play it safe.
has hyperactive fear-mongering become corrosive to American society?
is turning us into a bunch of chickens
That is my big concern, that we have turned into a bunch of ninnies that cannot stand up for ourselves.....