Culture of Fear

Jul 21, 2006 by

The following is a guest post by my dear friend Chelidon:

Fear is insidious, and it can be used as an excuse to be passive, to be “safe.” And in one of the oldest tricks in the book. we can be force-fed fear by those who have a vested interest in keeping us perpetually afraid — of rapists, of terrorists, and of gays, or “liberals,” or people who don’t look or act like us. And we do live in a culture of fear. What power and freedom do we give up out of the fear of terrorists? What power and freedom do we give up out of fear of rape, of assault, of humiliation, or of just being seen as a ball-buster, an asshole, a bitch, a wimp, not a “real” woman or a “real” man?

Looking at the edges of situations, the boundaries, often teaches something about what’s inside the extremes. Because we’re afraid of pedophiles, of media-hyped myths of poison apples, most kids don’t go out on Halloween anymore, except perhaps to a mall. Children lose the chance to go out on their own and learn to be self-reliant, and to explore grappling with and overcoming an environment which is full of (mostly harmless) fear. They lose that experience of empowerment, of exploring their edges and discovering that they are more capable than they knew, that they can overcome their fears. They lose the chance to make real connections, and have a real experience. Instead, they just get another pre-sweetened neon-lit commercial experience, devoid of any real content, significance, or edgy fun. They learn to hide inside the familiar, and that you can buy the illusion of a safe world, as long as you keep spending and don’t ever go outside the sanitized confines of Bennigans, Gap and Rainforest Cafe, as long as you stay inside the mass-media marketing campaigns and carefully-researched consumer demographics.

Because we’re afraid of rape, or assault, we don’t go out alone for a walk. A bus crashes half-way around the world, two people die, and we hear of it instantly. Should we be afraid to ride the bus? Should we be afraid to take a walk in the woods? We learn to think in worst-case scenarios. Is the chance that I, or you, may be assaulted worth missing out on a perfect sunset, or a midnight walk? Depends on how likely that assault is, perhaps, and it’s impossible to escape the insidious fear when we’re constantly bombarded by horror stories and worst-case scenarios.

But it’s also true that rates of reported rape and assault are down across most of the U.S, and that is, in addition to population dynamics (aging population, shrinking proportion of young males, etc), also, arguably, due to education, some changes in social norms, and, yes, fear — people being, depending on how you look at it, less risky. Is it worth it?

We have had no successful terrorist attacks in the U.S. post-9/11. That may or may not have anything to do with any specific action or actions taken by anyone in government, and there’s no way to make any real causal links, though any number of people are quick to claim credit. There’s no end of people in power determined to milk the situation for all the fear they can generate, and all the power they can grab because people are afraid. How much freedom are we willing to lose in the pursuit of absolute safety? How much risk is “worth it,” and how much is too much?

I don’t have any certain answers, nobody does — if there were easy answers, we’d all have them and it would be a moot point. But asking the questions, and grappling with them, is one of the most important things we do as humans.

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