Thursday, 22 December 2011

Culture of Fear

     I'm disappointed in the way we've been moving towards a culture of fear over the last decade or so. Franklin Roosevelt was quite right in saying it's the only thing we have to fear, and as Frank Herbert wrote in "Dune", it is the mind-killer.
     The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the most obvious trigger for the current descent into fear-driven politics, and I need not go on at any length about how spectacularly terrifying those events were. Much has already been written about how fear drove us as a society to engage in a whole lot of silly and self-destructive behaviour. Fortunately, we managed to avoid the consequence that was the chief objective of the architects of the plan, which was for a U.S. overreaction to spur a global jihad against it, though it was touch and go for a while. (In fact, I suspect that this particular attack may have unwittingly prevented the global jihad it was meant to incite; imagine if the invasion of Iraq had proceeded without the windfall of international sympathy and support received by the second Bush Administration following the attacks.)
    But we certainly have harmed ourselves in innumerable ways owing to our disproportionate and largely unthinking fear of further attacks. We endure ridiculously intrusive and inconvenient security screening at airports, and thousands of people are further inconvenienced by their mistaken inclusion on no-fly lists, little of which has any actual positive effect on making us materially safer, though the whole process does seem to show that we're especially cowardly and weak if we're afraid of what a grandmother might do to us with a set of nail clippers. This is especially silly when one considers that it's actually been heroic and unarmed passengers who have foiled most airborne terror attempts since 9/11, starting with United Flight 93 on that very day.
     Just as silly, and far more shameful, has been the move towards what are euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation techniques", more properly called torture. We've known for centuries that torture is generally not very good for getting useful intelligence out of people who will say absolutely anything to get it to just stop, please stop. Yet the desire to get tough and take off the gloves is overwhelming when you're afraid. That's natural, of course. But those who advocate the use of torture are really telling us that torture (or the threat thereof) would work on them, too. (They might not work on particularly determined subjects, and when we're dealing with people who are happy to blow themselves up, it might not be appropriate to assume a lack of resolve on the part of our opponents.)
     Here in Canada, our Conservative Government is happy to exploit the culture of fear through its omnibus crime bill. Despite the fact that crime rates have been consistently dropping for years, they made much political hay about their promise to "stand up for victims and get tough on crime". Never mind that the policies they're about to implement will be disastrously expensive and very probably lead to rising crime rates (unless that's their cunning plan -- "See?! Crime rates are rising! We need to get even tougher!"). The psychology is virtually the same as that behind the torture advocacy: Maybe if we can make criminals/terrorists more afraid of us than we are of them, we'll at least be the least afraid people in a world of fear.

     I want to argue that that's a dismal and fruitless approach. For one thing, the more afraid we are, the more powerful the use of terror becomes, not only by our enemies but also by the governments that are supposed to be protecting us. After all, the more we fear being accused of terrorism, or being beaten or pepper sprayed, the more we'll strive not to make waves or trouble for those in power, even if our complaints are legitimate. That's simply not a recipe for a healthy society (although it may not be that those who crave power are really interested in a healthy society). The cure for fear is not simply more fear.

     The answer I'd like to propose is this: Don't be afraid. Or more precisely, don't let your fear cloud your judgment or make you act foolishly. It's natural to be afraid, but courage is a matter of controlling fear so that one can remain rational and make good choices.
     Easier said, than done, perhaps. Aristotle said that courage was a matter of knowing what properly to be afraid of. I'm not sure I agree with that completely. Sure, there are times when the instinctive fight-or-flight response is useful, but by and large, I don't think that the problems that face us today are ones for which being afraid (and therefore reacting in a fear-driven mode) is appropriate. Being afraid of crime should not make us vote for foolish policies, and being afraid of terrorists should not make us waste resources on pointless security theatre; however afraid we are, we should still strive to act rationally about these sorts of threats.
    It occurs to me that one of the ways to overcome fear is, in a way, through more fear. Consider terrorist attacks, for example. The idea of being blown up or burnt to cinders by a terrorist attack is frightening, to be sure. But is it worse to die that way than, say, being blown up or burnt in an industrial accident, or a car crash, which is a far more likely threat. Or is it worse than dying of cancer or stroke or some other terminal disease? Because hey, I don't want this to come as too much of a shock, but you are going to die some day, and chances are it's not going to be entirely pleasant. No need to dwell on it, of course, but we really should get over the idea that if we're safe from terrorists, then we'll live out long and happy lives free from pain and suffering. If you accept and even embrace the inevitability of your own (quite probably painful) death, then the people who try to use your fear of death to control you suddenly lose a lot of their power.
    And really, that's the only power they have, relative to us. It's not as if terrorists or other criminals have access to huge armies, after all; that's why they resort to using things that are readily available to just about everyone. I drive a car; If I chose to, I could use it to cause a helluva lot more death, pain and property damage than the shoebomber was ever able to inflict. We decent folk are potentially every bit as scary as any terrorist; it's just that we have properly developed moral instincts that prevent us from engaging in such stupid and pointless mayhem.
    That isn't the case when our governments attempt to intimidate us. The state does have access to more force than we do, as well as the power to enact laws. Yet the basic principle still applies: they cannot use fear against us unless we let them. Indeed, as important as it is not to fear terrorists and criminals, it is even more essential that we not fear our government. Perhaps the best way to combat that is to remember that our governments, at least in democratic countries, belong to us and are accountable to us. That means we need to continually assert our authority as citizens, not only by voting in large numbers (another reason why I'm worried by declining voter turnout) but by engaging in vigorous public discourse wherever the opportunity arises, including (I hope) in the comments sections of blogs like this one.


  1. I'm often amazed at how people choose to fear the little things while ignoring the big ones. People who are terrified of hantavirus, of terrorists, of nuclear power, of chemicals added to food and water, are still more than willing to drive to work every day.

    Fear causes us to focus too much on the details and fail to see the big picture. It leads to large amounts of effort being directed at relatively trivial things while completely ignoring the significant issues we face.

    Being tougher on crime and the response to 9/11 are both excellent examples; both actually worsen the problem they seek to address by trying to stamp out symptoms rather than examining root causes.

  2. *Raised eyebrow* What is this Unknown nonsense, blogspot?

  3. I think you're right, except that I'm not sure we CHOOSE to fear these things. Our attention is naturally drawn to some thing more than others. The mundane, the commonplace, the well-known are just too easily ignored, as are the things we just don't see. I'm reminded of what, to me, was easily the scariest thing in Jurassic Park: the extinct fern. A T. rex is scary, sure, and velociraptors too, but let's face it: we humans are darned good at killing megafauna. But invasive species of plants, insects, mollusks? We've no clue how to deal with these things, and they do staggering damage. But Hollywood doesn't make blockbuster thrillers about zebra mussels, and for good reason: they're just not photogenic. But that doesn't mean they're not very serious problems.

  4. Any time the politicians are ranting about a particular topic and the media is totally focused on it -- I start asking myself what they're trying to hide. We get so focused on one topic that we have blinders on. So if the politicos are carrying on about Iran, what is going on elsewhere in the world that we really should be keeping an eye on? North Korea? Another ENRON or Madoff fiasco? What the heck is going on and nobody is talking about it???

    Meanwhile, they're bargaining our rights away, laying law upon law upon law and it's all so unnecessary. Someone should be going through the existing laws and saying "Hey, wait a minute. We already have a law about that. Enforce the laws that are already in place!"

  5. Interesting point, though I'm not sure it's necessary to postulate a true conspiracy to conceal global events, since sadly the market economics of media often do a much better job anyway. A glamorous murder or spectacular car crash just seem to attract more audiences, so most of the time there's no need to coordinate press coverage. But you're certainly right that when our collective attention is focused on fluff, we're likely missing something more important. (And it's also true that there are stories that the press might actively want to avoid covering.)

    With respect to rights and laws, well, you're quite right, there's good reason to be alarmed, and that's sort of what I was getting at in my last paragraph. It's worst when our own governments use our fear against us, to justify seizing more intrusive and draconian powers. To oppose these efforts, we need to cultivate courage.

  6. I think the idea that those who believe torture works are admitting it would work on them is very insightful.

    I also find it interesting you hit on something I've seen elsewhere of the difference in outlook between those of the United States and of counterparts in places like Canada and Britain. The United States overall perspective [certainly not some individuals, particularly of religious persuasion of any sort] is a view that "death is optional."

    I have a lot of things in my current day-to-day life to fear, actually. Realistic fears.

    So do people who, for example, are homeless or can't pay heating bills.

    I seem to recall that someone in another venue we've shared once posted that as the the U.S. government, one of the two things it needs is an enemy to pursue [and take attention of those in power/authority.]

    Perhaps more true also of the Canadian government than previously supposed?

    Perhaps that kind of need of the power brokers is at the bottom of these kinds of perspectives.

  7. "Death is optional." Nice way to put it. Of course, it's NOT optional, and believing it is is a major contributor to cowardice. Hmmm. This denial/repression dysfunction suddenly makes me think of sexual puritanism and how often THAT goes awry. Interesting. I need to think about this more.

    But yes, all of us have realistic things to fear more than we should fear terrorism or crime or getting autism from vaccines. Even so, my point is that we should never let that fear control our deliberations. Yes, we need to take them into account, and act rationally so as to prevent what we fear from coming to pass, but the blind panic fight-or-flight response doesn't help us deal with homelessness, bills to pay, chemotherapy, or any of a thousand other genuine modern fears.

    (Yes, alas, our Canadian government is currently composed of a Conservative majority, who seem all to eager to emulate American mistakes more than American successes.)