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Culture of fear is a term proposed in a variety of sociological theses, which argue that feelings of fear and anxiety predominate in contemporary public discourse and relationships, changing how we relate to one another as individuals and as democratic agents. Though each of these theses may provide different accounts for the sources and consequences of the trend they seek to describe, most share the basic claim that this is a relatively new phenomenon with important and potentially harmful implications. Many commentators who endorse this view are found on the political left, and some make more specific allegations about cultural manipulation by opponents on the political right.

Variations on the thesisEdit

Several different social commentators have offered a Culture of Fear thesis, each with a distinctive emphasis. They may be categorised along a spectrum, from those which consider the phenomenon to be consciously directed - a deliberate policy of scaremongering - to those which treat it as arising spontaneously out of historical developments, as a reflexive response to other changes in human society.

Constructed fearEdit

Among those tending to argue that a Culture of Fear is being deliberately manufactured might be counted linguist Noam Chomsky, journalist Alex Jones, sociologist Barry Glassner or polemical filmmakers such as Adam Curtis and Michael Moore, who has been accused of cultivating the very thing he has spoken against [1], [2]. The motives offered for such a deliberate programme of scaremongering vary, but hinge on the potential for increased social control that a mistrustful and mutually fearing population might offer to those in power. In these accounts, fears are carefully and repeatedly created and fed by the mass media and other sources - through the manipulation of words, facts, news, sources or data, in order to induce certain personal behaviors, justify governmental actions or policies (at home or abroad), keep people consuming, elect demagogic politicians, or distract the public's attention from allegedly more urgent social issues like poverty, social security, unemployment, crime or pollution. Such commentators suggest that we consider a range of cultural processes as deliberate techniques for scaremongering. For example:

  • Careful selection and omission of news (some relevant facts are shown and some are not);
  • Distortion of statistics or numbers;
  • Transformation of single events into social epidemics;
  • Corruption and distortion of words or terminology according to specific goals;
  • Stigmatization of minorities, especially when associated with criminal acts or degrading behaviour;
  • Generalization of complex and multifaceted situations;
  • Causal inversion (turning a cause into an effect or vice-versa).

Still, it is quite possible that certain fears have a reward feedback of their own and hence become emphasized and repeated without any deliberate effort, and are only later taken up and used as a means of scaring people into buying certain goods and services or into voting a certain way.

Emergent fearEdit

At the other end of the spectrum, fear is presented as a sensibility that emerges from every corner of contemporary society, spontaneously. Frank Furedi, the Hungarian-born Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent (UK) exemplifies this end of the spectrum with his books, Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectations (1997) and Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2005). Furedi's account locates the source of the phenomenon in what he characterises a 'failure of historical imagination', a symptom of what he identifies as the exhaustion of 20th century systems of political meaning.

It was my experience of the 1995 contraceptive Pill panic that motivated me to write Culture of Fear. I carried out a global study of national reactions to the panic, and it quickly became clear that the differential responses were culturally informed. Some societies, like Britain and Germany, responded in a confused, panic-like fashion - while countries like France, Belgium and Hong Kong adopted a more calm and measured approach. [3]

By Furedi's account, a universal sense of fearfulness pre-exists and underpins the expression of fears by media and politicians. While media and politicians might amplify and exploit this sensibility, their activities are not decisive in its cultural production. Furedi levels the charge at various 'anti-establishment' or 'liberal' voices that they are at least as complicit in the exploitation of fears (ecological catastrophe, for example) as the 'establishment' that is more commonly held to benefit from the culture of fear.

Lack of fearEdit

The same process of creating fear can be used to dampen it either by trivializing or outright ignoring the problem, a kind of death by apathy. It's hard to be scared of something which doesn't exist. Examples of this are the issues of asbestos, lead, cigarettes: until people could conclusively prove harm, all these problems were swept under the rug. Another example could be the idea of not reporting on wars to give the appearance they don't exist.

Case studiesEdit

Each of the above commentators has picked out examples from recent public discourse to illustrate their case. In each case, the general argument is that the nature of the threat described in public discourse is out of all proportion to the real risks and harms entailed. Different commentators focus on different aspects of such cases - for example, one will focus on how stories might be distorted as they filter through the national media, while another will concentrate on the receptivity of the audience, or its willingness to alter its behaviour or voting preferences. For each case, there may be several experts and organizations who dispute the implication that the issue is unduly exaggerated.

Political context and criticismEdit

Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore are two of the most controversial figures on the political left in the United States. The policies of George W. Bush, especially his conduct of and rhetoric surrounding the War on Terrorism and the 2003 Invasion of Iraq have been a prime target of criticism from the left. Adam Curtis has also criticized the War on Terror, and Frank Furedi founded the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain. In this context, the "culture of fear" is purportedly generated by the Bush Administration and its allies, in a top-down effort to increase support for strong military and domestic security operations. In a broader domestic political context, some liberal critics claim that conservative politicians and moral leaders try to make people afraid about things such as crime or illegal drugs both to influence public opinion and personal behavior. They see fears as being intentionally amplified by the media at the behest of the rich, conservative owners of media companies.

The idea of a society-wide "culture of fear" might be perceived by liberal allies and conservative opponents as a shorthand for cultural manipulation for conservative political purposes.

There are several alternative views:

  • That in some cases where they are allegedly manufacturing fears, politicians are actually reacting to public opinion (rational or otherwise).
  • That the concerns highlighted are legitimate, but liberal critics do not agree with the proposed or necessary solutions, so they wish to de-emphasize the problems.
  • That commercial media outlets are simply maximizing their audience, and scary information happens to be one thing that grabs people's attention. (Some would even argue that this serves the public interest.)

Liberals have also been accused of their fair share of scaremongering to suit their own political agendas, especially on issues of environmental protection, biotechnology, and certain types of personal safety issues (such as gun or food safety). However, it is unclear that liberal advocates such as Chomsky and Moore would agree that these concerns are illegitimate, or include them under the rubric of a "culture of fear".

On issues that have not become strongly associated with left/right political controversy, an explosion of overblown fears in the public discourse might be labelled by other commentators as "scares". Typical diagnoses include a lack of scientific or general education among the public, intrinsic human biases in the assessment of risk, a lack of rational thinking, misinformation, and giving too much weight to rumor.

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