“Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures. ... They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.” - George Gerbner
Kids can’t play outside anymore. There are pedophiles patrolling every street corner, waiting to abduct little Johnny and little Janey if they’re let out unsupervised. Best keep them indoors and sedentary.
Come on … haven’t you ever watched the news? The papers? Law & Order: Special Victims Unit? It’s a different world now.
Terrorists are bent on destroying us. They’re everywhere, too, just like the perverts. They’re out there, building pressure-cooker bombs and learning to fly jetliners (but not land them) as we speak. Best be suspicious of everybody. Especially if they belong to certain – *ahem* – religions or ethnic groups.
What, did you sleep through September 11th, 2001? Or July 7th, 2005? Or April 15th, 2013? It’s a different world now.
Teenagers who wear black or listen to angry music or play violent video games should be watched closely, lest they pick up a gun and start executing their classmates. Expel them at the first sign of trouble: a gloomy poem or an angry Internet post or a fist shaken in anger. Arrest them, too. Zero tolerance may seem harsh, but it’s best to play it safe.
Don’t you remember Columbine? Virginia Tech? Sandy Hook? It’s a different world now.
Except that perhaps it isn't. It isn't a different world, or at least it shouldn’t be, and it certainly doesn’t need to be. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves if it’s the school shooters and terrorists and child predators among us who’ve changed our communities so drastically for the worse … or if the real problem is actually within ourselves. Perhaps we should wonder if atrophied reasoning skills and a willing surrender of common sense might have something more to do with it. Perhaps there’s not really that much wrong with the world at all, but we have simply allowed fashionable paranoia to overwhelm our senses and alter how we perceive it.
Perhaps we should find a mirror and look our reflections in the eye before shrinking in fear from the harm we see – or think we see - in the face of every stranger.
“We will not allow the terrorists to affect our freedom or way of life,” was one of the earliest battle-cries to rise from the ashes of Ground Zero, coming straight from the mouth of no less than the President of the United States … and yet a cursory glance at the way political climates have changed in the past decade would suggest that terrorist attacks – from 9/11 to this year’s Boston Marathon bombings - did little else BUT change the way people think about freedom and civil rights. The same can usually be said of other high profile incidents of violence, or even perceived trends in certain kinds of violence, such as school shootings, stalking (PDF file), and child abduction.
A culture of fear begins to grow, which leads to a culture of victim-hood, a sense of powerlessness against the onslaught of hostility that’s supposedly all around us. It begins to affect our behavior, altering how we relate to other people. And a large part of what shapes and drives these changes is our entertainment and news media.
Debate about the influence of violence portrayed in books, television, films, and video games has smoldered for as long as those things have existed. The final verdict has never been clear, mostly because there isn’t one; it fluctuates as studies come and go, some flawed and some not, some biased and some unbiased, many distorted one way or another for the sake of an agenda. But the conventional wisdom has always been that violent media creates violent people.
Critics of such media – often politicians with voters to appease or agendas to push – have long cast television viewers, film buffs and gamers as mindless automatons, ready to accept every action movie they see or first-person shooter they play as an instruction manual for how to behave. Statistics – not to mention common sense - don’t bear that assertion out. Millions of people indulge in violent entertainment and don’t shoot up their school or workplace. And yet the moral battle rages on.
(For a truly definitive word on video game violence studies, check out Grand Theft Childhood. Despite the unfortunate, alarmist-sounding title, the book is fair, cool-headed and very enlightening, putting a lot of the long-standing criticisms of violent games to bed).
George Gerbner had a somewhat different and far more compelling take on the effect of violent media. There was an effect, of that Gerbner was sure, but not the one everyone expected. Gerbner suspected that the way the world was portrayed on television affected people’s attitude towards the real thing. As a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, he developed what he dubbed “cultivation theory,” which in a nutshell (click here for the full explanation) is the idea that our negative attitudes are built gradually, over a very long period (perhaps a lifetime), mostly as a result of what we see on television. If the world we see depicted on the screen is one where violence is commonplace, where rapes and school shootings and terror attacks are the norm, viewers’ perception of reality starts to become seriously skewed.
Gerbner called this conclusion “Mean World Syndrome.”
In other words, the reason you can’t take toothpaste on a plane and nobody lets their kids play outside anymore isn’t because there was a sudden population explosion of terrorists and child-snatching perverts. It’s because we have a ratings-based, profit-driven news-media that shows little interest in details or statistics or true in-depth analysis. A media that’s always eager to tell us what new horror is poised to kill us and our entire families next. There’s a saying in the industry – if it bleeds, it leads.
Dr. Gerbner’s theory seems very plausible. The press certainly would bear a substantial chunk of the burden, but not all of it. Take Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an example. The show is about police officers investigating sex crimes. As such, every episode tends to feature a child molester, rapist or other abuser, and the “special victims” (often children and young women) left scarred by them. The stories are fictional, of course, and the large majority of viewers will understand that. The nature of the format, however, demands that new situations involving rape and abuse be created on a nearly weekly basis. That means that the New York City depicted in the show may (by dramatic necessity) be substantially more dangerous than the real thing.
This is in no way meant to be a criticism of SVU or a veiled call for censorship. Episodic TV is what it is, and it has its merits. But if we keep Gerbner’s cultivation theory at the forefront of our minds, we can well imagine how years of watching SVU – as well as shows like Criminal Minds, Homeland, 24, and a host of other police procedurals and thrillers – would begin to paint a picture of a grim, dangerous world; a Mean World. And because the process is so slow, so gradual, even the most level-headed among us might start to be affected.
It isn’t all about the media, of course - there are other problems that contribute to the climate of fear. A lot of leaders and authorities seem ever-poised to roll out sweeping new legislation or regulation in reaction to a single incident, and many of their constituents often appear willing to let them. Coolers heads are left to step in and say wait, stop, let’s not be too hasty here … but there’s never any guarantee that they will prevail, through either their numbers or the strength of their arguments.
This brings us to the elephant in the room: how smart people are versus how stupid they can be. Or, to be slightly less harsh, how well they are able to think critically. Critical thinking isn’t rocket science: it’s really just about questioning everything you’re told and doing your own research. That’s not rude or reactionary. It’s in your own self interest to dig for the truth, even if it’s just the cake recipe passed down through three generations that never seems to come out right when you do it.
If you’re so afraid of terror attacks, you should do a little digging on the stats. If you’re terrified your kids are going to fall victim to a classmate with a grudge and a gun, find out how likely that really is. It might actually change how you live your life, and for the better.
Few people seem to actually take the time to do that, however. Too much effort, perhaps. Not enough time. But one would think that if your fears are causing you to lock your sons and daughters indoors, or wring your hands over being attacked in your home or your workplace or the street, you’d want to make a little effort to see if the world is really as bad as it seems. If you don’t … well, it sort of brings this experiment in blind submission to mind.
Ultimately the responsibility for countering the culture of fear lies with us, each individual citizen. We DO have the numbers and the strength of reason on our side. It’s easy to blame the government or the media, to moan about the politician calling for more surveillance cameras or the consistent nastiness of the evening news. But as of right now, those people still answer to us. We’re only as powerless as we think we are.
Vote the authoritarian bad guys out of office.
Change the channel when the news starts getting morbid and sensational, or just turn the set off altogether, and start doing your own research into current events. It's that simple.
If we don’t, the harder it will be for successive generations to undo the damage.
Remember those monkeys.
FURTHER READING …
Media critic Neil Postman’s books (particularly Amusing Ourselves to Death and The Disappearance of Childhood), while not specifically about the culture of fear, do deal heavily with critical thinking skills and how they seem to be dwindling as technology advances.
George Gerbner’s Mean World Syndrome (trailer):
An interesting blog, no less than an epic love letter to paranoia. A good example of what the culture of victim-hood can produce: