The future of stupid fears

This post is about fear.  Specifically, about stupid fears.  Those are not the realistic concerns we may have about ill health, economic stress, or living in a war zone. Instead, these  fears are either literally fantastic, as in made up of delusions, or, while based on tiny grains of truth, have been blown far out of proportion into large-scale cultural terrors.

The occasion for writing this post isn’t anything in current events.  It’s not about Trump or wars or opioid deaths.  Instead, it’s because I finished reading Barry Glassner‘s very good The Culture of Fear (first published 2000). It was good fodder for my ongoing critique of tv news. Here I’ll summarize highlights, then speculate about the future and education’s role.

tl;dr – American news media and politicians love terrifying us.  They’ll probably keep doing it.  Education needs to step up to help mitigate these stupid fears.

Glassner wrote his book in the 1990s, so the first edition is very much an artifact of the time, with the pre-dot-bomb web being new-ish and exciting and the Clintons-Gingrich push for mass incarceration.  Some of the fears he addresses are outdated now, like pre-9-11 panics over air safety.

Otherwise, Culture of Fear feels very current.  It addresses a series of panics that were at best exaggerated and at worst cynical ploys deployed for monetary gain or political ends by news media and political figures: crime, from violent crime to drugs; children in danger; mothers misbehaving;  black men being terrifying; medical concerns so strange and removed from evidence that Glassner labels them “metaphoric illnesses.”  In fact violent crime experienced an extraordinary and very welcome decline throughout the 1990s, most children are safe, and most likely to be endangered by their families, and so on.  These are stories told in defiance of statistics, bits of horror pried loose from a less horrific context to win eyeballs and to sell ads.

One of my favorite Gothic TIME magazine covers.

Glassner offers a battery of reasons why we should be concerned about such fake fears.  For one, some can lead to very real harm, as when fake medical panics, like the very stupid anti-vax movement, lead to real world sickness (175).  For another, they serve as distractions from closely related issues, as when we learn more about people going postal and less about workplace safety (28).  Similarly, Glassner sees the protracted debates over a so-far unproven Gulf War Syndrome as drawing attention from criticizing the conduct of the first Gulf War itself (158).  Such fears can fruitlessly draw down political energies, as when government and corporate time was spend exploring hypothetical air safety issues when they could have gone to mitigating the far, far more dangerous, and very real, death, injury, and damage causes by car crashes (198) .  They can also lead to bad policy, as when the hilariously stupid TIME magazine cyberporn panic helped drive the equally stupid Communications Decency Act (1996).

The cumulative effects of being immersed in stupid fears can help convince us we live in a world more terrifying than it really is, what some researchers have called mean world syndrome (44).  This can lead to deranged politics, as when Trump builds a presidency on largely fantastical fears of immigrants committing crimes.  Mean world can also feed on itself; some people may become so scared they spend more time at home watching tv news, which then terrorizes them even more (45).

The storytelling aspect interests me.  Culture of Fear argues that media and political fear-mongering teaches consumers and voters to see problems in terms of stories about heroic individuals, rather than about social or political factors.  The contexts get set aside, replaced with more relatable tales of villainous criminals and virtuous victims, which Glassner calls “neurologizing social problems” (217). There is also a curious, quietly conservative politics of the family involved.  Such fears emphasize stranger danger, which is actually statistically very rare.  Instead, they minimize the far more likely source of harm most American face: our family members (31).

On top of those problems, many of these mongered fears can further anti-black racism.  Throughout Culture of Fear the author reminds us how many of these narratives turn on scary black men threatening good white people, usually women.  Chapter 5 is all about how media and politicians create black men as figures of terror.

Glassner adds some interesting points about why these particular fears are so popular.  One is the way fake fears reveal cultural anxieties, much as horror stories do (208). Another is the idea that, for journalism, media leaders can shape content based on their own worldview, or: “news is what happens to your editors.”  By that he means “editors – and their bosses… [and] their families, friends, and business associates”(201). Hence, for example, the appeal of stories about air travel, since those demographics are more likely to fly.  Hence the focus on suburban terror, since these populations are more likely to live there.

The books doesn’t always sit well with me, possibly because of the passage of time. It sees 1990s-era stories of pedophile priests as overblown, which misses the way clerical sex abuse actually became a very established and significant fact (35ff).  Glassner is also quite fair and balanced in his critique of news media, more generous than I am, if I can lift a slogan from perhaps America’s most noteworthy fearmonger, Fox News.  He takes care throughout the book to note when journalists actually reverse course and either share information about realistic fears, or instead critique stupid fear-mongering from politicians and other media outlets (xxx, for example). I find all too few examples of this laudable style.

But what really ratcheted up the power of Culture of Fear is that everything I’ve described above was in the 2000 edition.  Glassner went on to issue a second edition in 2009, which showed these fake fears persisting and getting worse.  An extra chapter dwells, unsurprisingly, on the war on terror, reminding 2019’s reader of how the Bush administration used fears ranging from exaggerated to fictional for political gain.  Since 2000 several new dreads appeared, including fears of mold and environmental illnesses (229).

Is the culture of fear likely to continue?  I fear (see what I did there) that it will, at least in the United States.  Our politics clearly adore fear, notably from the Trump administration and its emphasis on immigrant-driven carnage.  Our news media continue to worship at the altar of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

In fact, as I started writing this post yesterday, I clicked to to see if I could find some examples of their beloved scare-mongering.  Right away I found a splendidly shrieking example right on their front page:

Please note that that screen capture is of the entire first screen, from side to side, eating up every pixel of that extremely valuable real estate.  Of all the stories CNN could purvey, from climate change to AI, they choose another outlier, a Gothic tale that has little to do with lived reality.

Impressed by this, I scrolled down the CNN main page, thinking that “below the fold” might appear actual news.  Instead, the second screen carried on with the parent-killing first:

CNN she killed her parents screen 2

Suspects, media, even ghosts.  Note the fiery if not bloody red font for the sheriff’s video.

Remember that CNN is the opposite of a fringe news service.  Between Fox and MSNBC it occupies a neutral, middle ground.  It is, putatively, the sober center.  And it simply adores scaring the hell out of us.

So yes, I think it’s likely this trend can be simply extrapolated into the future.  Other trends will intersect with and amplify it.  Personalization, for example, should help target our fears more precisely, aided by AI.  Watch for AR/VR/MR instances of stupid fears.

What does the likelihood of even more stupid fear-mongering mean for education?  It simply means, as I said years ago, we have to teach people to resist this stuff.  In our quest to teach digital literacy we should encourage students – of all ages – to avoid tv news, or to sample it judiciously, with great skepticism.  We should assist them in recognizing when politicians fire up fear campaigns based on poor facts.

Many educators already do some form of this.  But it’s easy not to.  Social media and mobile devices are far sexier than tv news.  The renaissance in tv storytelling has cast the entire television enterprise in a better light, I think.  And Americans do have this habit of romanticizing old technology in the face of the new.  It takes some effort to remember to subject it to scrutiny.  And when it comes to politics, well, politicians peddle terror because it often works.

If Glassner is right about the negative impacts of such fear – the misdirection of resources, the creation of bad policy, the encouragement of mean world syndrome, the furtherance of racism – the promulgation of real damage – then educators need to take steps to instill a critical stance among students that dismantles the structures of stupid fears.

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8 Responses to The future of stupid fears

  1. Anthony Ortolani says:

    Good article.
    This topic can become one your annual posts; The Best in Stupid Fears 20_ _

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Oh, that’s a fun idea.
      Maybe I should crowdsource it, seeking nominations.
      And then there needs to be some kind of hilarious thing as the award’s symbol. ..

  2. Bob Goldstein says:

    Please find another word than “stupid”. We are all prone to psychological excess fear, and I’m guessing I already have some “stupid” fears, I just don’t know which ones. They aren’t the ones you mention, but they are there. Evolution favors a little too much fear, as opposed to not enough. Hard enough to convince someone his/her fear is out of proportion; call it “stupid” and you will make exactly zero headway.


    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Bob, I appreciate that. Thank you for pushing back.

      I admit to writing in part from frustration, and in part from the desire to get people to pay attention. Shocking sometimes works – but, as you point it, it can also cost. Americans adore our fear-mongerers. In some ways we haven’t progressed that far from the Puritans staring out at the dark, haunted woods.

      I would distinguish between the stupid fears we individually experience and those foisted on us by the media and politicians Glassner identifies. The latter can work with, amplify, and remix the former, certainly, but they then end up producing something on a different order entirely.

      But if “stupid fear” is too clumsy and irksome a term, what’s a better one?

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    I used to use parts of Glassner’s book to teach critical thinking and numeracy in sociology. In my sections in criminal justice I also used Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Students got it.

  4. Tom Haymes says:

    I read Glassner way back when and constantly cite him. I wish he would do a 3rd edition. Does he reverse course on the priests in the 2009 edition? I spend a lot of time on how and why the media does what it does. The news is for entertainment value so it’s no surprise that the lurid takes pride of place.

    This is particularly true of television news and even more so the 24-hour cable outlets. It’s a lot cheaper to read police reports than to do actual journalism and your ratings will be higher to boot. These are businesses and it’s important never to forget that their motive is profit first and that any information transmitted is secondary. Even the NYT has to appeal to a niche market, albeit a fairly discerning one, and that impacts their coverage.

    This is not a new thing. As human beings we’ve always had to discriminate between bad information and good information. Like all technology, the modern media has just accelerated the speed and frequency that we have to do that. It takes work to back check stories and put them in proper context and this is a primary challenge of education, particularly in a political science class like mine. This is not a digital issue. It’s a literacy one.

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