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N. 40, August 2003
Are we afraid of the wrong things?
I have an acquaintance of mine who tells me that he is worried whenever
I get on a plane (which is more often than most people, though I’m not a
golden level frequent flier). You know the reasoning: those things (the planes)
are heavier than air; we were not meant to be flying thousands of feet above
the earth; surely you heard about how the airlines are cutting on maintenance
because of increasing costs; etc., etc., etc.
Interestingly, this same friend of mine is not the least bit concerned about
the fact that in order to get to the airport I have to drive on a road, Alcoa
Highway, that the locals have nicknamed “I’ll Kill Ya Highway” because of
the high number of accidents. Never mind that the statistics clearly say
that riding a car is much more dangerous than being on a plane, that if we
were meant to do anything, that probably did not include racing at 60 miles
an hour on asphalt, and that there is not an iota of evidence showing that
airlines have been slacking on repairs (to the contrary, study after study
shows that the airline industry -- including commuter planes -- has become
increasingly safe over the past decades).
Are we afraid of the wrong things? That is certainly the thesis of University
of Southern California’s sociologist Barry Glassner, whose The Culture of
Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things should be mandatory reading
for people like my friend. Glassner makes an interesting point, and backs
it up with tons of anecdotal as well as statistical evidence. We are more
afraid of terrorism than of dying of ill effects caused by the operations
of our own industries, and yet the latter is a much higher cause of death
than the former. We are convinced by the media that it is very dangerous
for anybody to walk city streets because of “random” crime. But, as Glassner
points out, violent crime is anything but random: just consider that a black
man is 18 times more likely to be murdered than a white woman.
The examples can be multiplied almost endlessly, but a regular pattern emerges.
We tend to be afraid of things that are constantly in the news, even though
the media have a stake in ratings (and therefore in high-emotional impact
stories), not necessarily in informing us. We tend to be unduly impressed
by personal stories, either recounted by people we know or broadcasted by
talk shows, and often lack the overall frame of reference to reasonably interpret
those stories. Surely there are genuine examples of, say, the IRS “persecuting”
some poor chap well beyond the boundaries of reasonableness. But does that
constitute a pattern of abuse of ordinary Americans by the tax people? More
importantly, does that require a special Congressional investigation, and
perhaps passing laws to curb such ghastly abuses of power? Maybe, but the
answer is to be found in independent investigations of the problem based
on large numbers of cases, not on the occasional horror story, as regrettable
or even worrisome (nobody wishes to become the next “anecdote”) as that may
Is there a national conspiracy by the media, the government, and the military-industrial
complex to keep Americans worried about the wrong things? Hmm, yes and no.
On the one hand, it is simply natural for human beings to respond emotionally
to personal stories and to yawn when faced with statistical analyses. It
is also understandable, if borderline unethical, of the media to go for the
gory aspects of life, as unrepresentative of reality as they may be, rather
than for the more mundane but more relevant ones. Glassner even suggests
that perhaps we tend to fear the wrong things because they neatly substitute
fears of things for which we either can’t do much about or are in fact partly
guilty of. For example, it may be that an obsessive interest in the relatively
few cases of children killed by their mothers makes us feel better about
our own deficiencies in our everyday exercise of the same role (along the
lines of “well, at least I’m not as bad a parent as that”).
On the other hand, think of the recent and still unfolding story about President
Bush “doctoring” the truth about Iraq’s nuclear program and why the US went
to war. (I’m sure that if it were Clinton denying having received a blow
job in the oval office we would not be ashamed of using the word “lying,”
and perhaps even of thinking out loud about impeachment.) That one does indeed
seem a case of the Government purposely manipulating our feelings for rather
Do we have a defense against being afraid of the wrong things? Can we hope
to channel our fears where they belong? (After all, fear is a genuinely useful
reaction, if directed to genuine threats.) Yes, but the answer is going to
make you yawn and wishing to turn the page or jumping into another area of
cyber space. The answer is slow, painful, continuous education of ourselves.
A process that is mostly up to us, that requires reading widely and discussing
openly, that can eat into your TV or golf time, and that would make you more
sociable only with the NPR-listening crowd. Then again, perhaps the greatest
responsibility of the citizens of a democracy is exactly to educate themselves,
if nothing else in preparation for the next trip to the voting booth.