The culture of fear is a new phenomenon growing among the American citizens. It refers to the tendency to adopt irrational scares, especially when advanced by the media, politicians, and monomaniacal advocacy groups. This qualifies as paranoia associated with issues such as road rage, breast cancer, pedophiles, blacks, immorality, plane crashes, among others. Glassner and Wainwright provide the reader with statistics to debunk most of the misrepresentations advanced by the media.
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Masquerading ‘experts’ who in reality are phonies with dubious qualifications being trotted up to back the media’s prejudicial notions are exposed with the backing of statistics. An interesting point that Glassner brings to attention is how these journalists seem quick to brush aside genuine experts who seek to discredit their generalizations of solitary incidents into ‘trends’.
Glassner’s ‘The Culture of Fear’ is quite a revelation of matters concerning misplaced fears based on delusions by the press. It touches on issues than include fear for airline safety, road rages, teenage pregnancies, monster moms, youth violence, terrorism, crack babies, pedophilia, kidnappings, overemphasis of diseases such as SARS and West Nile Disease, feminists’ banter on silicone breast implants, and racial stereotyping among others (Glassner 2010, p. 3).
It also provides an explanation of why people succumb to these ploys by the media, politicians and lobbyists. Finally, Glassner offers suggestions on how to counter these irrational fears propagated by such falsities. Wainwright’s ‘A Sociology of Health’ is a complex text on health issues.
For the purposes of this paper, the focus is on chapter two, which discusses ‘Doing Better, Feeling Scared: Health Statistics and the Culture of Fear’. Wainwright’s work is a reflection of Glassner’s many concepts, with more emphasis laid on the statistics, to debunk the paranoia that comes with ignorance. However, he gives a detailed explanation of the nature of ‘actuarial risk’ (Wainwright 2008, p. 91). This paper will discuss both authors’ contributions jointly.
The culture of fear is not new: it continues to breed with the sustaining efforts of the opportunistic politicians seeking votes from the public by playing on people’s emotions through mass media.
It thrives on sensationalism and exaggerated reports of occurrences to keep people tuned in and single-minded advocacy groups that exaggerate the prevalence of certain diseases and conditions to solicit funding. Unfortunately, these extreme, albeit spectacular depictions are detrimental to society in terms of propagating further hardships and eclipsing the real, and usually less popular problems.
For instance, Glassner posits that the widespread anti-breast cancer campaigns spread fear among affected parties, making it less likely for daughters whose mothers had breast cancer to conduct screening tests. He also gives the example of the hype over illegal drug usage, such as marijuana, cocaine, and heroine.
Focusing on these abusers shifts our attention from the abuse of legal drugs and the negligent prescription of wrong medication by health practitioners. Another instance is the decline to handle violent crimes by instigating bans on gun ownership and possession. The media works on the philosophy ‘if it bleeds it leads’ which explain the gross exaggerations and christening of incidents into trends. It happens when there are several sequential or even sparse occurrences of newsworthy events.
A good example is the youth killings in Littleton Colorado, which earned the title ‘monstrous youth’. Such generalizations of specific people’s crimes into an entire category’s nature are a major reason why paranoia spreads among the public. “Entire categories stand out as innately dangerous…” (Glassner 2010, p. 9). Consequently, parents no longer trust public schools.
Politicians are notorious for their scare mongering, especially during campaigns. Glassner quotes Richard Nixon who once stated, “People react to fear, not love…They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but its true” (Glassner 2010, p. 15). Surely, if that is the motto of politicians, then the country is in for a great scare. The last group addressed in this category is lobbyists, who single-mindedly misrepresent the prevalence of certain diseases and conditions to hike funding, or in support of their ideologies.
A good example is the feminists who launched an anti-silicone breast implants campaign until the FDA banned them in 1992, yet extensive research found no connection between these implants and deteriorated health of individuals who had them (Wainwright 2008, p. 148). The issue of health and fear also occurs in the form of people feeling healthy, yet believing that they will fall ill.
Countless journals constantly present data in millions of Americans with rare diseases, epidemics like SARS, West Nile Disease, and the Gulf War Syndrome. All this is at the expense of numerous Americans ‘actually’ suffering from malaria and malnutrition, among other dangerous conditions. It seems ironical to note that these figures once combined or summed up come up to over 500 million Americans yet the last census only accounts for less those 300 million citizens.
Glassner proposes that there be a shift from the sensational to the mundane if change is to occur. “We have the resources to feed, house, educate, insure, and disarm our communities if we resolve to do so…We can choose to redirect some funds to combat serious dangers that threaten large numbers of people…At election time, we can choose candidates that proffer programs rather than scares” (Glassner 2010, p. 210).
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He notes that whereas in the last three decades the crime rate has declined by almost thirty percent, press coverage has shot up to 600%! The result of this discrepancy is the appearance of an increasing crime rate. The same applies for many other societal vices on the decline such as suicide rates and abortions.
The public will always be vulnerable to deception by opinion leaders because most people cannot reason probabilistically, and they lack understanding of the rules of inference and statistical evidence. Education on probability may be of help, but the burden lies on the deceivers to correct their ways. The society needs to take accountability for its actions, or lack of actions, especially in failing to route for corrective policies, instead of blaming drug addicts, or blacks, or other marginalized groups in need of welfare and respite.
Glassner, B., 2010. Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition. In The Culture of
Fear. New York: Basic Books.
Wainwright, D., 2008. Chapter 2, Doing Better, Feeling Scared: Health Statistics
and the Culture of Fear, In A Sociology of Health (pp. 89-96). Oregon: Sage Publication Ltd.