Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Fear

by Euclides Montes (@Gatulino)

You’re on the night bus, on your way home after a night out on the town. A group of boisterous hooded teenagers get on the bus, perhaps having a laugh about something or other. You can feel the mood change in all of your travel companions. It darkens. The fear can almost be seen by the naked eye. These are no longer teenagers, you see, but they are instead the shadowy demons from Ghost who have come to claim your peace or maybe even your souls. Never mind that 9 out of 10* of all bus journeys will always end up as intended: just a bit late, with us iPoded Britons looking grumpily for a free seat. I could have used many other examples to highlight the explicit fear that I think permeates our society but in all of them, the result is always very clear to me. Even though the odds are stacked heavily against the things that scare us – be it gun crime, immigration causing an uncontrolled increase in our population or the PC brigade trying to ban Christmas – the fear of these things happening is here, it’s obvious, it’s pervasive and, I feel, it’s here to stay. And so, to my ponder. Is this fear understandable? More importantly, is there anything or anyone perpetuating the fear? And for what purpose?

Where to begin? For a start I believe that there are many anthropological/ sociological/ biological explanations of what ‘fear’ is but this post will not attempt to tackle these philosophical musings since the author cannot really claim to have the academic nous to put forward a definitive appraisal of the explanations! However, in the spirit of a good ponder, I have been wondering what it is that drives these waves of fear in our societies, for the simple reason that it’s as clear as day to me we are suffering from a terrible case of collective heebie-jeebies. Since we haven’t got too much space, and time is always a commodity, let me plant my flag and declare my stance on this issue.

I believe that as a species, our brains are wired into feeling fear. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of heights. In short, fear of the dangers that in evolutionary terms have been with us for a while. We have now taken those fears and translated them, writing them into the complex socialised system we know as a society. We have understood them, given them fancy names and tried to master them but these fears are part of our biological imprint. They are part of what ‘we’ are. Now, here’s where my piece could be seen as a tad controversial because I believe that what’s different about this particular moment in our social history is that we have not only tried to master our fears but we have also managed to use them as tools of social control. This has happened to such an extent that we are at a stage where we are being constantly bombarded by fear-mongering from all directions with one single purpose: someone wants to sell us something. And in order to do so, our primeval ‘fear’ has been, and continues to be, exploited.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not simply talking about the McDonalisation of our private fears. After all, fear has always been used to sell almost anything that needs selling. A religious system, a dodgy war, a government campaign, the latest brand of toothpaste, a xenophobic ideology. In fact, this has become such a repetitive process that we have taken the next logical step in this tale and “The Fear” is now a permanent feature of our daily lives.

And who’s perpetuating this fear on a daily basis if not the media? I’m not saying they’re wholly responsible for this state of affairs but they are certainly liable for at least some of it. The newspapers and news channels that we go to get our daily dose of facts are suddenly now using this sales technique for their own agendas and that worries me.

If fear is part of our psyche and it is being exploited indiscriminately to sell whatever it is you’re supposed to be buying, where does the responsibility of the media start? This question arises because, in my opinion, this was a bad year [and maybe even a bad decade] for journalism. For every positive achievement by the media, there were 10 scaremongering pieces out there. For every Transfigura, there were your Dunblanegates and your racist fau pauxs. For every Aaronovitch, you had your Jan Moirs and your Littlejohns. All in the name of sale figures.

Why? It’s an issue that goes to the very meeting point of our modern society and our primeval fear. We have readily-accessible information everywhere and suddenly every click and every sale is worth a lot more than before. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that certain sectors of the media want you to be in a constant state of fear, scared of everything. It would seem that tales of teenagers killing are better for sales than reporting on fiscal deficits or Prime Minister’s Question Time.

Some of you might say that business is business after all but here is where my ponder hopefully becomes yours. Shouldn’t newspapers be more responsible? Shouldn’t we expect them to be a positive force in our society? Don’t get me wrong, ‘the fear’ came first in this ‘chicken and egg’ scenario but I believe that a few fat cats have made a omelette of it and the result is that suddenly our bearded neighbour becomes a jihadist, a vaccine becomes a poisonous arrow and our children become the goblins who haunt our trips back home from the pub late at night. ‘The Fear’ is here and here to stay. And now the weather...

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  1. Very intersting stuff. Have you read Dan Gardner's book on fear? Good job I've got a copy. You can have it for Xmas.

  2. Fear would appear to be necessary for survival. First time mum's tell me how they can't sleep because they are scared that their baby may stop breathing, cry, need feeding or just want comfort. Despite urging women to use their intellect to control and distance themselves from fruitless fears, the media provides an ongoing series of horror stories that evoke irrational responses, perpetuating a lucrative fear from birth.

  3. Media does their part, but the advertising and marketing world really amps it up. The well-known insider slogan is: "Fear sells."

  4. Excellent piece as usual Euclides.

    What worries me a little is there's no acknowledgement of personal responisbility. It's easy to blame the media whenever anything goes wrong, and to paint journalists as sleazy, but at the end of the day are they not just putting voice to the sentiments that pervade our society?

    Yes the likes of Jan Moir and Littlejohn overstep the mark (to put it mildly), but why do we blame the media instead of just blaming them as the bigotted individuals that they are?

    I'm not trying to absolve Murdoch and his cronies of any responsibility, I just think there's a lot of risk in falling back on the comfort of being able to blame the media intsead of looking closer to home first.

    Perhaps ultimately our fears are not born out of frontpage headlines, but rather from more deep rooted discriminatory values that we find uncomfortable to face head on? Just perhaps.