On the eve of a new presidency, Americans are singularly poised to challenge the things that scare us silly
This article was published with What Are You Afraid of? —great writing on anxiety, fearlessness, bombs, the economy, science, and what scares us.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt took the stage and delivered his first inaugural address, he beheld legions of frightened Americans. The year was 1933. A quarter of the nation was unemployed.
As he bellowed those now-famous words—the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—Roosevelt couldn’t have fathomed the face of his country a mere 75 years later. For there’s no doubt that “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” seizes the citizenry more tightly today than ever before.
The dangers of modern life have a stranglehold on people’s imaginations. Sociologists call the phenomenon risk society, describing cultures increasingly preoccupied with threats to safety, both real and perceived. And while the human species is prone to miscalculating risk, there’s more at work here than frazzled modern nerves: Americans are fearful. Truly fearful. When they’re asked, a majority say with certainty that the world is more dangerous than ever before. Even in the face of evidence that negates this misperception, there is no relief. We lock our doors, say our prayers, and still can’t get to sleep.
For the first time in history, fear is tearing society apart. In the past, fear has engendered solidarity—as it did in the 1950s, when nuclear anxieties bound Americans together. Contemporary fear throws wedges between us. This isolation, in turn, renders the public ever more fearful. What’s more, media outlets, politicians, and businesses all have learned to capitalize on this distinctly modern sense of dread, and thus profit from finding ways to cultivate it. Until we find a way to resist fear, we’ll live at the mercy of these emotional entrepreneurs—and in doing so, be party to the personal, cultural, and political consequences.
The good news is that on the eve of a new presidential administration, in the midst of two intractable wars and an economic crisis, we are singularly poised to challenge those things that scare us most.
Fear is not a new emotion. Throughout history, it has marked societies and even mobilized them, whether they were facing down plagues or the threat of nuclear annihilation. What’s unique about 21st-century fear is how people experience it. Since the 1980s, society at large has bolted frantically from one panic to the next. Fear of crime reduced us to wrecks, but before long we were also howling about deadly diseases, drug abusers, online pedophiles, avian flu, teens gone wild, mad cows, anthrax, immigrants, environmental collapse, and—let us not forget—terrorists.
“There isn’t a single fear that defines our era,” says sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation and Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right. “What we have is a more promiscuous, pluralistic form of fearing. The very important implication to this is that while my parents feared together, you and I have a more isolated, private experience. We fear on our own.”
A recent report from the World Social Summit underscores the degree to which fear has become a personal matter. Published in September 2008, “Fear in the Mega-Cities” surveys citizens of 10 urban hubs around the globe, among them London, Mumbai, and Beijing. Highly individual fears like physical or mental suffering and death top the list of anxieties, followed by preoccupations with being left out or falling behind, especially economically.
“Collective fears, in comparison, seem not to be excessively important,” write the report’s authors. In New York, the top-ranking fear, outstripping even fear of a terrorist attack, is “not being able to maintain the same standard of living in the future.”
In the past, common fears bound communities together. They were a source of shared identity and engendered camaraderie and trust. “Americans born roughly between 1910 and 1940 were a particularly civic and trusting generation,” write Pamela Paxton and Jeremy Adam Smith in the Fall 2008 issue of Greater Good; facing down monumental challenges like the Great Depression and World War II required people to depend on one another, fusing communities together.
The individual way we’ve come to experience fear contributes only to isolation and feelings of helplessness. Instead of seeing support or solutions, we add to our grim roster of perceived threats.
One explanation for the incapacitating nature of contemporary fear is that our brains simply are not wired to process modern life. In his 2008 book The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t—and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger, journalist Daniel Gardner unfolds the ways we fail to assess risk properly, as well as the sobering consequences.
Our subconscious mind issues lightning-fast judgments about danger based on principles that evolved during our cave-dwelling days. One such rule of thumb, what Gardner calls the “example rule,” dictates that the easier it is to gin up a memory of something, the more likely it is to be a repeat threat. This gut instinct served us well when it steered us clear of places where humans often met with hungry predators. Today, though, the nightly news stocks our subconscious with frightening images of plane crashes, superbugs, and child abductions; faced with related decisions, our guts make the decidedly wrong calls.
Gardner points to the 12 months after 9/11, during which, researchers now know, an understandably large number of people heeded their guts and avoided flying. Fear itself put millions of additional people in cars. Flying, however, is vastly safer than driving, and in that one year, traffic fatalities on U.S. roads spiked. An additional 1,595 people lost their lives. At the end of the year, air travel numbers returned to normal, and traffic fatalities resumed their disconcerting but regular rates.
These sorts of miscalculations happen every day: When our guts tell us not to let children play outside unsupervised, the sedentary lifestyle that inevitably results exposes kids to a host of health problems far more dangerous than the slim probability of abduction. In 1999, when sociologist Barry Glassner wrote The Culture of Fear, researchers had discovered that women, by and large, misunderstood the statistical risks of breast cancer, and that overblown fears had kept them from scheduling preventive screenings.
Our brains are poorly equipped to weigh risks that don’t result in immediate negative consequences, Psych ology Today observed last February. One more cigarette, one more fast-food meal: What’s the harm?
Marketers, politicians, and entertainers grasp with precision how brains misfire, and they apply this knowledge to great gain. Fearmongering has worked wonders for everyone from real estate agents hawking gated communities to advocacy groups attempting to recruit members.
“In 1993 there were only a few dozen antibacterial consumer products,” Mother Jones reported in December. “Today, there are more than 9,000, with 2,753 new ones introduced in 2007.” Never mind that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded four years ago that antibacterial soap is no better at preventing infection than regular suds: Sales of antibacterial chemicals are projected to reach $930 million in 2009. If you aren’t afraid of germs, you haven’t been watching enough TV.
As networks battle for ratings and newspapers grasp at disappearing readers, the urge to lead with sensational stories grows. The gap between the reported and the commonplace skews our subconscious stockpile of reference points, while hunger for the next big story inevitably broadens our catalog of things that go bump in the night.
Television shows seem almost single-mindedly intent on triggering our anxieties—and tend to lay the blame squarely on those fools who were not fearful enough. In a recent episode of CBS’ Criminal Minds, a pair of grief-stricken parents blubbered in front of the agents sent to recover their abducted son. The father, it seems, had argued that the 5-year-old ought to be allowed to walk to a friend’s house . . . alone. “I thought we were babying him,” he moans, as the aggrieved mother issues a stony, reproachful stare.
Such story lines are anything but an anomaly. Law & Order (nearly two decades’ worth), the CSI franchise, Dateline’s disturbing “reality” program To Catch a Predator, and more: All exploit our imaginations on behalf of the very worst and least likely possibilities. That we can enjoy these shows as entertainment suggests the degree to which fear has become just another part of life. In the U.K., Furedi says, networks now broadcast public service announcements after frightening programs, providing a hotline for viewers to call if they’ve been disturbed.
The intention may be honorable, but the implication is unmistakable: What you see on TV should scare you. (And if you’re not scared, there’s probably something wrong with you.)
To consider only what the media dish up, however, neglects the impact of our changing roles as media consumers. Increasingly, we seek out news from specialized sources—and this balkanization directly affects the sorts of things we fear. “Not all media agree with one another, and a diversity of panics breaks out among different media audiences,” Skeptical Inquirer’s Erich Goode wrote in December.
Right-wing talk radio shows, for example, battle lefty networks like Air America, each championing the correct fears for its constituency of listeners. What media people choose to consume has come to say as much about their identities as the causes they champion, the candidates they support, and the lives they lead. In this way, the things people learn to fear have become a form of identity.
“If I could ask you ‘How do you feel about terrorism?’ I can pretty much guess the rest of your political views based on [your answer],” Gardner says.
In a telling preelection episode of Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart, reporter John Oliver dove into the crowds at campaign rallies for then–Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. With total aplomb, citizens at each rally expressed their fear, even terror, as to what would happen if their candidate’s opponent were to be elected. Oliver’s conclusion? “There’s no red America, no blue America. There’s just one scared shitless America.”
While the report was meant to elicit a laugh, it also underscores how canned fears tell important stories about who people are. It would be a mistake, though, to presume as Oliver humorously suggests that this fear is somehow unifying. Contemporary fears may be held in common, but they still circle back to the self. Remember Joe the Plumber? At the heart of his query sat the self-centered meme of the 2008 campaign season: What can you do for me? Or, translated into appropriately fearful rhetoric: What will this candidate do to me?
Savvy politicians understand exactly how and when to exploit these tendencies. “In conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear,” writes Alex Gourevitch in the Winter 2008 edition of the journal n+1. “The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.”
Unleashed in service of partisan politics, fearmongering serves not to unify the whole, but to solidify divisions and further our experience of fear as an isolating emotion. Over the past eight years, we’ve seen the politics of fear exploited and used to shape the Bush doctrine, the war on terror, and unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties.
Fear becomes a cycle that is all but impossible for politicians to abandon. Gardner recalls a town hall meeting in early 2008 during which Obama was asked about the politics of fear. He began brilliantly by blasting it. “You could tell this was what he really believed,” Gardner says. But then Obama’s “political mind got going.”
Covering his bases, the candidate gracefully shifted gears to acknowledge that there are thousands of terrorists out there who would like to do the United States harm, and that he would of course be diligent about protecting American lives.
“The political calculus always favors the politics of fear,” says Gardner. The rhetoric is so dominant that, until just recently, to simply reject it—to declare that the public’s fears are perhaps partially unfounded, if not at the very least answering to miscalculated priorities—would amount to political suicide.
Toward the end of the 2008 election season, however, the John McCain and Obama camps’ responses to the polls stood in sharp contrast, says risk analyst Paul Slovic, a professor at the University of Oregon and president of Decision Research. People operate on two levels, Slovic explains. System one is the gut, our feelings, from which many of our unfounded fears spring. System two is the analytical element, our minds, and people generally reach decisions in a combination of these two modes of thinking.
As the polls began to favor Obama, the McCain campaign’s response was to rely ever more on the gut. Republican strategists “sensed” that the polls were wrong, denied the scientific, and attempted to keep their hopes alive. The campaign strategy descended into triggering instinctive feelings and heightening misplaced fears.
For the first time in a long time there was an alternative: A candidate whose campaign emphasized hope, sacrifice, and trust in fellow citizens. Whose decidedly “system two” approach to answering questions (that is, thoroughly explaining all the relevant details) was so alien that his lengthy responses were at first mocked as being overly wonky. A candidate who said we can do better than this.
And the American public said yes we can.
On the whole, the world is healthier, safer, and more prosperous than ever before. And that, writes Sasha Abramsky in an October issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, could be what makes us so anxious.
“After centuries of technological progress, we think we can glimpse the promised land. We can envision a world in which cancer is merely a coldlike nuisance, in which stem-cell research banishes Alzheimer’s,” Abramsky writes. “But the world today is far from a utopia. My guess is that we have become so fearful at least in part because we fear our intoxicating future’s being snatched away from us.”
If we are to lay definitive claim to that future, then the time to act is most certainly now. Not for decades has there been such an opportunity to reject the isolation and vulnerability to manipulation that contemporary fear has brought us.
“The global financial crisis now presents us with a threat that directly resonates with preexisting social and economic insecurities. In response to the crisis, a global language of fear is emerging,” writes Frank Furedi, the sociologist, in an October issue of New Statesman. Instead of processing the economic crisis as a threat to individuals, we’re talking about it as a disaster that affects the world community—a problem for all that we must address. These are frightening times, perhaps, but for the first time in years it seems our fears are coalescing into collective experience.
Individual fears may rack us with self-centered anxiety, but “people rarely respond to disaster with extreme panic, recklessness, and selfishness,” writes sociologist Lee Clarke in the Summer 2008 issue of Greater Good. It’s a bittersweet silver lining, but economic pains could provide just the sort of galvanizing force we need to recalibrate ourselves toward solidarity. (Or, as John Oliver might say, to become one scared shitless world.)
In this sense, Obama’s presidency couldn’t come at a more fortuitous time. “As powerful as fear is . . . it’s nowhere near as powerful as the combination of fear and hope,” Glenn Hurowitz points out in a December 2007 issue of the Nation. “The politicians we remember as fonts of hope, Lincoln and FDR in particular, were those who had no need to paint scary images with their language—fear had already gripped the land.”
For Obama to make good on the politics of hope, though, the American public must continue to demonstrate the resistance to fear they showed by electing him.
“The solution is ultimately a political one, but at the moment that is a bit premature,” says Furedi. “In the pre-political stage, solidarity needs to be aggressively celebrated and promoted.” Politicians can’t take a pass on the politics of fear until citizens stop demanding answers that soothe their distorted sense of safety. Companies will not stop marketing products based on fear out of the goodness of their hearts.
“Accept that you’re human,” counsels Gardner. Accept that you’re susceptible to misjudgments and miscalculations, and that your instincts might, at times, lead you astray. Learn some of the science, and develop a habit of thinking twice about gut reactions. And then, extend that compassion for human nature to others.
People need not abandon fear altogether. As Slovic points out, our ability to judge risk is sophisticated, and instinctual decisions often serve us well. But when something doesn’t quite seem to sync up, gut to head, then it’s time to pause and at least question what’s causing the discrepancy.
Once people start thinking this way, it’s impossible to stop: Every television program, every advertisement, every stump speech that hangs its hat on scare tactics will be thrown into acute relief. We can give up allowing fears to define us, and focus instead on which ones are worth tackling together. When we do that, we don’t just free politicians from fear-inducing rhetoric or stymie fearmongering marketers; we also give ourselves some much-needed relief. The cause for alarm that Abramsky suggests—that we can see how far we’ve come—will instead give us hope for how far we still might go.