The perils of our play-it-safe society
Be afraid. Be very afraid. That's the message we Americans receive
daily from everyone from government officials to newscasters, environmentalists
and corporate marketers. Let's face it: like sex, fear sells. But
has hyperactive fear-mongering become corrosive to American society?
That's what a growing number of social critics and sociologists
are concluding. In a nation so proud of its pioneering spirit, the
culture of precaution, they say, is turning us into a bunch of chickens.
Even before 9/11, Americans -who like to think of themselves as
the world's most rational people - seemed particularly susceptible
to waves of catastrophic thinking. We collectively obsess over one
deadly terror after the other. If it isn't West Nile virus, then
it's SARS. Today it's the avian flu. Tomorrow we'll be cowering
from something else.
Are we more fearful because the world has become an infinitely
more dangerous place? Probably not. Studies have shown that the
level of fear people feel is often disproportionate to the risk
they actually face. For example, elderly folk are considerably less
likely to be victims of crime than young people, yet they tend to
worry about it much more. And sometimes, we simply worry about the
wrong things. While avian flu, which has never killed an American,
grabs headlines, heart disease strikes down more than 1 million
of us a year.
To some extent, fear is a luxury, the product of affluence. Kierkegaard
called dread "the dizziness of freedom." Have you ever
noticed that people in relatively safe suburbs tend to be more hysterical
about crime than are denizens of the inner city? David Ropeikof
the Harvard School of Public Health, who specializes in risk, argues
that that's because people in the suburbs have time to be hysterical.
"People in the city have to struggle more to get by, stay healthy
and survive. And these day-to-day realities fill up more of their
radar screens," he says. On the other hand, affluent people
in the 'burbs, who have "fewer direct challenges to their comfort
and health," have a "bigger space on their screens"
to worry about more abstract fears.
Further, although city dwellers are also worried about crime, they
have to negotiate its perils every day and therefore have the information
with which to put it into perspective. By contrast, people who don't
live in high-crime areas lack the practical knowledge that allows
them to accurately assess the threat they face. And when people
don't have enough facts, worrying becomes their only form of self-protection.
The intensity of fear may also have to do with how much one has
to lose. Those who have little tend to calculate risk differently
than those who have more to protect. For people who feel they have
nothing to lose, risks promise a higher payoff. Conversely, those
who have a lot sometimes adopt strategies of "loss avoidance."
Frank Furedi, a British sociologist and author of "Politics
of Fear," argues that a combination of wealth, security and
anxiety about the future is making Western cultures increasingly
risk-averse. Westerners, he argues, have turned safety into an end
in itself, deluding themselves that there are no such things as
accidents or natural disasters. When something goes wrong, we assume
that someone must be to blame, which drives the false belief that
all bad things are avoidable if only we take the right precautions.
And because all risk is believed to be manageable, over the last
few decades risk has become a huge business.
Consultants dispense advice on risk communications, risk management
and risk analysis. Experts warn us of so many dangers it's hard
to keep track. Are eggs still bad for cholesterol, or did a new
study disprove that? And how about alcohol? Should we avoid it altogether,
or does a glass a day do a body good? The prescriptions are murky.
And in this culture of anxiety, we no longer need to face danger
to be consumed by fear. The illusion that we can cheat death if
only we're clever or disciplined enough has profound social and
psychological consequences. Parents become afraid to send their
children out to play. Strangers seem more threatening than ever.
To avoid harm, we insulate ourselves from real life. The climate
of fear and precaution dampens our zeal for the kind of adventure
and experimentation that leads to progress. Although we once may
have hoped to spend our collective energies trying to make the world
a better place, today we are increasingly willing just to play it
published in the LA Times, 5 March 2006