08 June 2015

The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner

Why do we fear things? I’m not talking about being afraid of spiders or heights. Why do we, as a people, fear drugs and terrorists and teenage mothers? In THE CULTURE OF FEAR, Barry Glassner posits that we fear in microcosm what we are, as a society, uneasy with in macrocosm.

The subtitle explains it: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & So Much More.

I no doubt added this book to my to-be-read list some years ago. The book itself is five years old. I suspect I saw an interview on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report and thought it sounded interesting.

Indeed, it was fascinating. The first edition was written before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and so it ended up offering a rather nostalgic picture of the American psyche. Glassner dissects the ways that politics, mass media, and our own prejudices create irrational fear of statistically unlikely events: despite people being more likely to be struck by lightning than to die in a plane crash, the FAA is frequently lambasted for “failures” of safety; scares of flesh-eating bacteria, rare and contained, take on frightening proportions when the reports of the victims fill the nightly news. (That segment reminded me of the 2014 Ebola scare in many ways).

Glassner argues that the things we become hysterical about are really just cover for our underlying problems. Rather than focusing on the easy availability of guns, for instance, people chose to focus on “killer kids.” Rather than focus on the fact that most children subjected to abuse are victims of parents, family members, or adults they already know, people obsess about stranger danger and online predators.

Glassner is quite damning about the role the media plays in all this, and he is equally damning of politicians, but what is saddest of all is that it all comes down to us: we as a people have to be better and smarter about our fears.

THE CULTURE OF FEAR was an insightful book that made me really think about the things I worry about and the weight I give to stories on the news. I hope it has made me a smarter citizen, and I hope it will do the same for others, too.