The price of fear

Written By: - Date published: 1:02 pm, July 5th, 2009 - 33 comments
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It’s hardly controversial to comment that our media peddle fear. Nor uncontroversial to comment that a cowed individual is a controllable individual.

Many remark on our 6 O’Clock News leading with, lingering over and sensationalising the random stabbing or shooting and also that on our fictional TV programmes are increasingly dominated by fearful scenarios such as murder, violence, kidnappings and such like.

Linda Clark reflected an all too prevalent mentality resulting from this culture of fear on Sat when she and her guest discussed the overbearing supervision and molly coddling of today’s kids. Although stating her awareness that she does not allow her kids the same freedoms she herself enjoyed as a kid, she tied herself in knots attempting to understand her own actions. She eventually pleaded ‘Everyone else does it’ or words to that effect as a justification and explanation for having them on a short leash.

So far, so bad, but according to these studies it is not simply the case that being presented with ‘unsafety’ will, over time make people boring, fearful and malleable.

Fearful people are denied, both by others and themselves, experiences that might allow them to draw their own conclusions on the veracity of any stated danger or threat. Their perceptions are received, not developed. Because of this, the legitimacy of a growing negative orthodoxy that insists, for example, that we must be tough on crime, that homeless people are intrinsically bad, that kids are the enemy, that Muslims are dangerous, that immigration is bad and so on, cannot be questioned.

As the fearfulness and its concomitant measures of cotton candy wool safety measures dance in a vortex of decreasing, reinforcing spirals, it gets expressed in wider and ever more encompassing contexts from TV News to TV programmes to school rules to government policy to every day ‘everybody knows that!’ scenarios. And the narrowing parameters of orthodoxy constrict the discourse of both the left and right of the social democratic spectrum and brings us closer to, well a ‘wonderful’ One World wrapped up shit smeared cotton candy wool, I guess.

Bill

33 comments on “The price of fear”

  1. roger nome 1

    Many on the right appear to have had a sheltered existence in white, suburban neighbourhoods, relying only on the prejudice of their parents and their similarly ignorant peers for the formation of their world-views. It’s sad, because the bigotry they accrue from this experience becomes so emotionally entrenched that it’s impossible to shake without them having a broader life experience (which they avoid, due to their prejudices). Then everyone else ends up paying for their ignorance.

    I know it’s cheesy, but i couldn’t help but think of the following song in relation to this post.

    • Bill 1.1

      Unfortunately, the phenomenon is far more pernicious and widespread in its effect. It is definitely not limited to the right wing of the political spectrum.

      If it was there wouldn’t really be a problem. The problem is a constricting orthodoxy encompassing the whole of society rather than just a right wing section of it.

      • Anita 1.1.1

        While the problem isn’t restricted to the right wing, it benefits the right.

        I heard Garth McVicar talk about increasing the amount and profile of crime reporting (by increasing victim availability to the media) being a conscious strategy of the Sensible Sentencing Trust.

  2. Anita 2

    I have a rather tenuous theory, which I shall try out here destruction by application of brute logic welcome 🙂

    One of the drivers for fear vs confidence holding on to the old vs reaching out for the new  is intergenerational dynamics. The older generations are fearful on behalf of the younger, the younger rebel against the strictures of the older and seek out new experiences.

    As the extended family has broken down, we have moved from a three generation structure to a two generation one. With extended families the grandparents are the most fearful and conservative within each family, the children the most fearless, and the parents are held in the middle: fearful for their children but reacting against their parents’ fears, controls and anxieties. In the current two generation families the parents are the oldest and they don’t have the close proximity of their parents to react against.

    I imagine conversations where grandparents say “don’t let Chris go to the playground alone, 12 is way too young for that!” and the parent react against it “Chris is a sensible kid, and the playground’s just next door so I can keep an eye out from the kitchen window!” Without that over-conservatism and reaction, there is no check and balance on anxiety and the parent takes on that over anxious role personally.

    • Bill 2.1

      The evidence just does not support the idea that social anxiety and fear are linked to age.

      If perceptions are shaped by experience and an older person has accrued a diverse set of direct social experiences to base their perceptions on, then they may well become less intolerant and fearful as they age.

      • Anita 2.1.1

        Are you saying that people have measured fearfulness of crime etc and found it isn’t linked to age? (If so, do you have refs?! I need those refs for something else I’m working on 🙂 Or that you think that if someone studied it they wouldn’t find that?

        • Anita 2.1.1.1

          Ok, I just went for a quick look and I can find stats pointing in a variety of directions, including a number which I’d argue show that fearfulness of crime is linked to social isolation, and that social isolation is linked to old age in a modern urban society in which extended family networks have broken down. I can never work out which studies are publicly available, but this has a public abstract, tho it’s pretty old.

          • Bill 2.1.1.1.1

            I’d argue that the information being fed to the isolated person will shape their perceptions.

            So somebody who is isolated and having it suggested every day and every night that harmful criminals are stalking their streets or that Jews, Catholics or whoever are plotting nasty shit then, hey, they’ll probably buy the line.

            But if they know some Jews or Catholics or are out and about enough to know that the streets are by and large pretty safe then they can develop their own perception as a counterweight to whatever the orthodoxy of the day is saying.

            Again. Nothing to do with age per se. Perhaps the person has become more isolated as they got older and so more subject to countervailing orthodoxies….but the determining factor is the isolation rather than the age.

  3. joeb 3

    Great point, expressed in tormented academic prose. A net zero!

    • joeb 3.1

      On the other hand, you get a point for linking to Altemeyer, one of my favourite authors and someone who is great at communicating complex ideas in engaging and accessible language. So you end up in the positive — huzzah!

    • Bill 3.2

      Yeah. Fair comment. But at least I managed to push the point across even if it was screaming and kicking.

      I’ll just be happy if people go and read Altemeyer.

      I hadn’t heard of him up ’til other day but reckon he offers a very useful and important tool for developing a better understanding of socio/political dynamics.

  4. serpico 4

    So what,yawn, we live in a fear factor society.

    • Bill 4.1

      No, yawn, Serpico. That’s not it.j

      Over time the dynamics of authoritarianism (promotion of fear and conventionalism [read the link]) see orthodoxy narrow and become ever more impoverished until we arrive at a fascistic state of affairs by default.

  5. djp 5

    I have noticed this climate of fear (encouraged by both media and govt) in many subjects

    – global warming
    – terrorism
    – sars
    – swine flu
    – bird flu
    – war on drugs

    My theory is it is all about fear and control… first make em afraid, and they are that much easier to control. The media are probably just in it for the eyeballs that such reporting brings… governments, well the more laws the better (for them)

    • Ari 5.1

      To be fair, it’s hard to talk about the need to act on global warming without invoking fear, even if you’re trying not to.

    • Bill 5.2

      All of what you mention jpd.

      And then what Altemeyer terms as ‘right wing authoritarian’ followers buy into the fear hook line and sinker. And what makes a for a right wing authoritarian? Lack of developed perception; a preponderance of received perception.

      So if we look at what we are doing to our kids we might figure out whether they are being encouraged to develop or receive perception.

      Well, spider webs, witches hats, round-a-bouts .in short, all the good shit in playgrounds are all gone. Kids are mollycoddled to the extent that ‘going out to play’or ‘fucking off on your own’ are quaint memories of yesteryear.

      Even walking to school is essentially unheard of now for Christ sake! And Bullrush? Banned. Climbing trees? Prohibited and not unusually attracting punishment. And so it goes on . and on.

      A woman let her 9 year old ride the underground. Castigated.

      A 9 year old accompanies a 3 year old to the swing park. The authorities turn up at the parents’.

      Meanwhile we have a restrictive culture of safety ‘informing’ our sense of danger. Many examples.

      When these kids grow up they are more likely to be authoritarian followers and perpetuate and deepen the dynamics that encourage acceptance of what is and what is not dangerous or and what is and what is not acceptable.

      What’s the old saying? Something like ‘ you have to teach a person to read and think and if you don’t then somebody else will do it for them.’

      Once somebody else is doing the thinking, the authoritarian followers will be willing agents of that persons thoughts and be unable to question the right or wrong of what they are doing….extreme examples might be the followers of 1001 dictators….but other examples are politicians blindly enacting policy in line with economic orthodoxy….or your neighbour reporting you cause your two kids went out to play….

      • jarbury 5.2.1

        I think we’ve seen a slight reverse of that in the last couple of years. Some fantastic rope mountains have been built at playgrounds (like Olympic Park in Avondale) and we have the Walking School Bus – which is about the best idea I have ever come across.

        Maybe the tide is starting to turn?

  6. Fear is debilitating, and has shocking effects on the operation of society. It is fear that makes everyone drive their kids to school each day, causing shocking traffic congestion. Fear drive polarisation, as people only feel safe within the company of those that are similar to them – and over time that simply reinforces the fear of the other.

    It may be my planning/transport background that informs my viewpoint on this matter, but I really think the fact that we often don’t have situations with people of a variety of incomes living together drives the fear. We haven’t got as bad as the gated communities of the USA, but perhaps we are heading down that path. Secondly, the fact that our transport system is very auto-based means that we don’t mix on subway trains or buses as much as might be the case otherwise. Therefore, people from richer areas just don’t mix much with those from poorer areas, meaning often the only time they hear about someone “other-like” is on the news or police 10-7″.

    The media is certainly partly to blame for driving the fear, but so are other issues like single-use planning and our individualised lifestyle/transport system.

    • IrishBill 6.1

      Agreed, Jarbury. I’d also suggest longer working hours and the 30 year political focus on the individual has had a strong role to play in the atomisation of society as well.

  7. sophie 7

    When I was young you only played with kids whose house you could walk to. These days, kids seem to get driven around so much that they lose the ability to start off just going next door to play and then venturing out from there.

    • jarbury 7.1

      Yeah I have made an effort to take my daughter on an many walks around the neighbourhood (usually to the nearest playground) as possible. I think that it’s critical she knows her way around the neighbourhood and feels “grounded” in it – that it’s not something to fear.

      I strongly think it’s our obsession with private space and our rejection of public space that has strongly contributed to this climate of fear.

      • Draco T Bastard 7.1.1

        Agreed, the increase in individualism and declining sense of community makes everyone else an enemy rather than the support that you need to live your life to its fullest.

      • Bill 7.1.2

        When I was a kid, there was a football field where we’d all gather to ‘kick a ball around’. Sometimes we’d go from there and get up to all kinds of shit…some harmless, some dodgy. By such behaviour we developed our own understanding of ‘our’ world.

        One day an adult turned up with his kid and claimed he wanted to help us play football better. I’d never heard of the term paedophile or any such like. Anyway, the guy was told to fuck off. Our world was ours. Adults were not welcome ’cause we ‘knew’ they’d moderate our behaviour and activities…take over.

        Contrast with today’s norm. Chaperone your kid. (Potentially) deliver them straight to the paedophile in the 4WD when you take them to football practice because letting them go ‘out to play’ is apparently dangerous.

        I’ll repeat. When I was a kid, we were ‘never’ going to be subjected to dodgy adults ’cause our fun was based on the absence of adults. Of course, we got into lots of potentially dangerous and diverse situations…that cliff face, that swollen river….and we developed our understandings.

        One of which might have been a healthy distrust of authority.

        • jarbury 7.1.2.1

          Absolutely Bill.

          I think a couple of factors are key here

          1) Increased traffic on the roads really does make our suburbs less safe than they used to be. I would personally make all local roads (as opposed to arterial routes) have a 40 kph speed limit, narrow the roads down and widen the footpaths to counteract this.

          2) The whole ‘stranger danger’ climate of fear has been woefully blown out of proportion. A child is FAR FAR FAR more likely to die in the back-seat of a 4WD while being driven to piano practice than from being abducted while walking there. The fact that our streets are generally pretty empty of pedestrians probably contributes to the climate of fear – making people think “heck nobody else walks, no-one would keep an eye on my kid”. This is self-reinforcing and once again results from land-use and transport planning issues in my opinion.

          • Bill 7.1.2.1.1

            I’ll go with that.

            Meanwhile, if I tell my kid to ‘go out to play’ what are they going to do? No other kids are out playing.

            If I have my kid walk to school, no other kids are walking to school. BTW I don’t think these ‘walking school buses’ do much good in reversing the cosseted culture we impose on our kids.

            So we carry on bringing up our kids to be potential wee brownshorts’…. No, I don’t mean they will be shitting themselves with fear hence the colour of their pants….I mean that they are constantly and almost exclusively informed, both covertly and overtly, by authority (parents, teachers, government campaigns, media or whatever) and will be increasingly incapable of questioning what it is that that authority might instruct them to think or do.

  8. Trevor Mallard 8

    And when I was first Minister of Education and was opening a building I asked the assembled kids who was the youngest, picked her up gave her the scissors and she cut the ribbon. Afterwards both the principal and a Ministry official told me I shouldn’t touch kids. After that I picked up a kids everytime I opened a building. This might make the basis of a Red Alert blog sometime but for now it is enough to say that we need to keep on asking ourselves whether new approaches are appropriate.

    • Anita 8.1

      Thou shalt not think that any male over the age of 30 that plays with a child that is not their own is a peadophile Some people are just nice.

      from dan le sac VS scroobius pip Thou Shalt always Kill

      P.S. I am strangely pleased to have posted that quote and link 🙂

    • Ari 8.2

      It strikes me as pretty silly that we encourage positive male role-models not to touch kids, thus fetishising it even more for real pedophiles, and also removing an avenue by which they could safely (and accidentally) out themselves before doing any harm.

      Keep up the physical contact Trev, I’m sure the kids at least appreciate it.

  9. RedLogix 9

    I’ve been thinking about this profound post on and off all day. It touches on a very deep theme in human life. There are two kinds of fear, one that inspires respect and courage, the other loathing and cowardice.

    Deep within all the religions is the notion of the ‘Fear of God’, something intended to remind us that Divinity is something greatly larger and all-pervading that our limited imaginations can grasp. Yet paradoxically we also believe in a loving, forgiving and gracious God. As a person who has worked closely with electricity much of my life, I fear it, yet my knowledge and respect for it allows to me to make and move things, heat and light my world.

    The dark side of fear is the weapon of choice for authoritarians everywhere. It is the darkness that pervades in the absence of light, and feeds on the delusions of the ego. Because their possesions and lives are the only thing of value to many people, they quite naturally see in others only the threat of betrayal and loss. Indeed that those who have the most, will in the end be the most fearful of loosing it, thus becoming prisoners of their own cowardice.

    Oh and dan le sac VS scroobius pip is very 21st century. Not possible when I was a kid.

  10. DeepRed 10

    I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the same kind of people on Planet Talkback who whinge about kids being cotton-wooled, are the same people who cotton-wool their own kids in gated communities. It’ll eventually come to a head somehow.

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