what begins in fear usually ends up in folly -- 1/08/16

Today's selection -- from The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner. Every society faces thousands of risks. How do these societies choose which risks to highlight most prominently, why are the ones chosen so often ones that represent statistically among the smallest, and what is the cost to these societies of that culture of fear?:

"To blame the media [for our culture of fear that is disproportionate to actual risk] 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 millennium hypothesis evades: why particu­lar anxieties take hold when they do. Why do news organizations 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 criticism of disliked groups and institutions. In Risk and Culture, a book she wrote with Aaron Wildavsky, the authors give an example from fourteenth-century Europe. Impure water had been a health danger long before that time, but only after it became convenient to accuse Jews of poisoning the wells did people become preoccupied with it.

"Or take a more recent institutional example. In the first half of the 1990s U.S. cities spent at least $10 billion to purge asbestos from public schools, even though removing asbestos from buildings posed a greater health hazard than leaving it in place. At a time when about one-third of the nation's schools were in need of extensive repairs the money might have been spent to renovate dilapidated buildings. But hazards posed by seeping asbestos are morally repugnant. A product that was supposed to protect children from fires might be giving them cancer. By directing our worries and dollars at asbestos we express outrage at technology and industry run afoul.

"From a psychological point of view extreme fear and outrage are of­ten projections. ... Within public discourse fears proliferate through a process of ex­change. ... Conservatives also like to spread fears about liberals, who respond in kind. Among other pet scares, they accuse liberals of creating 'chil­dren without consciences' by keeping prayer out of schools -- to which liberals rejoin with warnings that right-wing extremists intend to turn youngsters into Christian soldiers.

"Samuel Taylor Coleridge was right when he claimed, 'In politics, what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.' Political activists are more inclined, though, to heed an observation from Richard Nixon: 'People react to fear, not love. They don't teach that in Sunday school, but it's true.' That principle, which guided the late president's political strategy throughout his career, is the sine qua non of contemporary political campaigning. Marketers of products and services ranging from car alarms to TV news programs have taken it to heart as well.

"The short answer to why Americans harbor so many misbegotten fears is that immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes."


author:

Barry Glassner

title:

The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More

publisher:

Basic Books a member of the Perseus Books Group

date:

Copyright 1999 by Barr Glassner

pages:

xxxiv-xxxvi

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


COMMENTS (4)

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MH

January 9, 2016
"Notice the open quotation mark beginning numerous paragraphs, with no closing mark. Is that me missing something, or an error?"

When you quote several paragraphs from the same source, you put opening marks at the beginning of each new paragraph, but you only put closing marks at the end of the entire quotation. Er, unless *I'm* missing something in your question. :)

JohnSmith

January 8, 2016
philobiblon - Ah, I see, thanks. I don't receive the email, I simply have http://www.delanceyplace.com/index.php as one of my browser's home tabs, seems more straightforward to me.

I've been in lengthy discussion with the estimable Mike Belliveau of preventharm.org over the ugly, tedious, and under the radar blame machine associated with climate change activism. I'm practically a Marxist but I know an ugly mob when I hear gathering. This little excerpt was refreshing for the Mary Douglas quote on disliked groups coalescing the focus of activist action. (PS I just corrected my username.)

philobiblon

January 8, 2016
@hoopalalia
The open quotes are Delancey Place's way of setting off the extract from the introduction. I agree that it's a bit awkward; putting the intro in italics might be better (but maybe some email programs can't deal with that). On your main point, much as it pains my anti-capitalist soul to admit it, I have to agree with you.

JohnSmith

January 8, 2016
Notice the open quotation mark beginning numerous paragraphs, with no closing mark. Is that me missing something, or an error? And notice Glassner misuses the too-often misused, "beg the question" (as "It is also to beg the same key issue ....") To beg a question (or "the same key issue") is NOT to, "invite" that question or issue. Interested people can look up the details.
~~~~
To the substance of the matter. Mary Douglas' observation that societies select dangers in part, "... because they enable criticism of disliked groups and institutions ..." has a wonderfully clear analogy in today's climate change activism. The wheel has slowly turned to where now it is popular to directly associate atmospheric warming with a specific, "disliked group," the wealthy.

It's embarrassing for a liberal progressive person to watch environmental activists twist themselves into knots vilifying a small class of individuals, when for instance a lower middle class person who runs a lawn mowing business for a living probably spews more greenhouse causing gas into the atmosphere than a billionaire living large on Martha's Vineyard. At the same time you don't hear climate change activists suggesting immediate population control, which is as obvious a factor in resource consumption as a huge wart on your nose is a factor in your appearance.


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