A year or so ago I wrote an post asking “Are we needlessly scaring ourselves to death”? My feeling was that we do indeed needlessly scare ourselves to death by not putting threats into perspective. Used in the post were statistics about terrorist attacks via airlines and the likelihood of actually being a victim of terrorism in such a situation. As you might imagine, given the number of passengers, flights and miles traveled, the risk per se is statistically miniscule. But that doesn’t keep the population at large from being “scared” of the threat or condoning limits on liberty to hopefully prevent even that tiny percent of successful attacks.
That brings me to a larger point. The evolution of “scaremongering”. Frank Furedi hits on the issue I’ve observed over the years since technology and the internet have given communication a rocket boost that we apparently haven’t quite adapted too. Scaremongering has become a competitive growth industry:
[T]he massive growth of fearmongering campaigns and crusades over the past quarter of a century has been unprecedented. Fear-fuelled grandstanding becomes most extravagant in relation to the very big catastrophic hazards that apparently threaten the survival of the planet itself. The list of potential planetary disasters is growing all the time. International terrorism, climate change, influenza-type pandemic, the AIDS epidemic, overpopulation, obesity, disastrous technological accidents – these are only some of the many mega-hazards that are said to confront humanity today.
Scaremongering also has a powerful impact in the arena of individual health. Health scares targeting women and children in particular have become a flourishing enterprise in recent years. Health scares are often linked to anxieties about food or the alleged side effects of drugs, pollution and new technologies. Personal security is another important area for fearmongering. Anxieties about crime, immigration and anti-social behaviour are regularly promoted by law-and-order groups. The environment, of course, is now treated as a potentially huge problem in it own right. Anything that has an impact on nature is said to store up big disasters for the future.
With so much to fear, it’s not surprising that there is now an intense level of competition to grab the attention of the public. Scaremongering has become a highly competitive enterprise; contemporary public debate often takes the form of countering one hysterical plea with another.
He’s right. And the result is a confused public and a debate that spirals out of control with little of substance being offered in the way of constructive dialog and argument. It is instead replaced by competing attempts to scare the public to one side or the other. We see it everyday in the so-called political debate. In many cases as debate about any issue is reduced to scaremongering. And while many of us may understand that, there are even more that don’t.
Complex issues are reduced to tag lines and sound bites. “Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan will kill old people”. Bumper-sticker scaremongering which opponents to such a plan consider successful if it goes viral and becomes the conventional wisdom. And those who throw things out like that know, for the most part, that the average American isn’t going to take the time or make the effort to research the plan and attempt to understand it. He who gets the first meme to go viral out there wins, even if it is blatant nonsense.
And the Democrats or left aren’t the only side which does that (although I’m of the opinion that it is something the left does more than the right based on my observations). Looking at many of the social con arguments on the right examples can be found that point to the fact that they’re not at all averse to a little scaremongering to advance their agendas.
The result, however, is ironic. In an era in which unprecedented information on just about any subject or issue are available to just about everyone, we find narratives and memes created by scaremongering to still be accepted at face value by majorities of people. And that sort of success – scaremongering – breeds imitation. If it works for side A, side B certainly isn’t going to eschew it.
Consequently, as Furedi points out, scaremongering has become highly a competitive enterprise of claim and counter-claim.
The problem, of course, is the fact that there are things we should be very concerned about, but we have difficulty breaking them out of the clutter of issues being fearmongered. We also have a tendency to dismiss legitimate claims out of hand, if they sound like fearmongering, because so many of the hyped up issues turn out to be so much nonsense.
Information and perspective are two very important tools in the war against scaremongering. In my estimation, the battle against the scaremongering alarmists of AGW is a case study in how such scaremongering should be countered.
But there are so many things these days, as Furedi points out, that are being given that treatment that it is not only exasperating but somewhat depressing. We can’t make rational decision based in irrational and over-hyped issues, but we do it all the time. Look at what Germany just did with its nuclear power based on the experience of a island nation hit by a tsunami. That’s likely to happen there, right? Pure fear expertly exploited.
Fearmongering is something which has to be guarded against and fought. One of the best ways to do so is obviously through offering facts and perspective instead of a counter claim based in fear. Unfortunately, for the most part, it seems the sides prefer fear to facts, and that does us all a huge disservice and can be potentially – and I say this advisedly so as not to be branded a “fearmonger” – catastrophic if the wrong policies are implemented as a result.