Distractions from fear
The news has become overwhelming in recent months. From the mass shootings in our public places to the first notice of a gun created entirely by a 3-D printer; from the tragic plane crash in San Francisco to the horrific loss of 19 Hotshot firefighters in Arizona – all around us, voices tell us to be afraid. And they’re telling us we should not merely be afraid; we should be terrified – the world around us holds terrors from the minute we wake up in the morning. I’ve said for many years that the most frequent headline in the media is some version of, “Could THIS happen to YOU?”
While not minimizing the tragedies of life, it seems to me that fear has a contagious hold on our society – but it is a different kind of fear than that rooted in the dangers of an accident or approaching wildfire. This kind of fear takes root in a virulent way among some of us who have, perhaps, gotten lost in the echo chamber of the Internet or been too captivated by the evening news. We tend to listen to opinions like our own and stories that feed our fear instead of gathering information and facts from multiple sources. A young woman recently posted a suggestion on Facebook that we do without a president entirely and see how that works. I teasingly wrote back and asked her if she was suggesting anarchy, and she wrote back “That’s what we have now.” I told her if she’d ever been overseas and seen or lived with real anarchy, she wouldn’t say that. There was no reply.
I felt in ways I was echoing a recent column by Leonard Pitts, Jr., the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes for the Miami Herald. In his May 11, 2013 column, he examined what he aptly called “the great American panic machine,” which he described as “the mechanism by which the extreme right works itself into spasms of apoplectic terror over threats that don’t exist.” But it’s not only the extreme right that gives into these spasms of terror; I think the phenomenon is widespread throughout our society right now among people of all political and religious persuasions. Pitts goes on to give some examples:
“‘We’re going to be under shariah law!’
Except, we’re not.
‘We’ve become a socialist county!’
Except we haven’t.
‘There’s a war on Christmas!’
Except there isn’t.
‘They’re trying to take our guns away!’
Except that it is now theoretically possible for a mental patient to manufacture his own gun in the comfort of his aluminum foil-lined basement.”
That’s where the 3-D printer comes in; such a scenario could become quite real. The point that Pitts is making is one that becomes obvious even in this brief excerpt: we are so busy fighting imaginary terrors that we are not prepared for the real threats that do exist.
The media have been complicit in this arrangement for years. Fear sells; scandal sells. The unusual has come to be portrayed as the usual. We have become a society that does not know the difference between news and entertainment, because the media have peddled “infotainment” to us for a long, long time.
We are inundated with scandal, mayhem and murder, natural disasters and more, until we are sure that is the normal run of our daily lives. And we are fascinated; we get to watch a never-ending horror story, and it captivates us. It also makes us sure that what we are afraid of has taken over. The old saying that you create what you fear seems all too relevant today.
At last year’s annual conference put on by my professional organization, the Public Relations Society of America, I started hearing a disturbing definition of the news given by some of the country’s most prestigious PR firms. “News,” several of them said, “is what’s important enough to find me.”
Gulp. That means news is what I prefer to see and hear, what I prefer to digest, what I find compatible with my values and opinions – or what most entertains me. News is contained in those keywords I enter into search engines to find out what I want to know, not necessarily what I should know. We – you and I, the audience out there – are in control now. I tell my students this, particularly when we study social media and what it means for public communication.
Is that healthy for us? To some degree, certainly: we can find information on nearly any subject we want now, and we have a much greater chance to build perspective and garner insight. In addition, the concept of transparency has taken on a whole new meaning. For most of us, doing something unethical or even illegal online means we have about 30 seconds of anonymity left – and that’s not always bad.
But in another sense, it’s one of the worst things that could have happened. We are free to ignore news and opinions that we don’t like or that make us uncomfortable. We are free to talk only with others who share our beliefs. We are free to ignore history, to ignore anything we might ever have been taught about civic life or the structure of society in general. We can concentrate on the alarming, the sensational, the scandalous, and all those things which worry us and entertain us on a daily basis.
In short, we are free to give in to fear. And we do, regularly – you’ve probably heard about the 7-year-old suspended for gunplay using his hands. When we give into fear, we also surrender to a sense of helplessness. We have learned that there’s really nothing we can do. A recent Bill Moyers interview made this point. Media scholar Marty Kaplan, head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, notes: “We are paying attention to the wrong things… we are paying attention to infotainment, which is being spoon-fed to us – and sadly, we love the stuff. The tragedy of journalism now is that it is demand-driven…we have been taught to be helpless and jaded, rather than to feel empowered…”
The consequences of giving into this contagion of fear are at least two-fold. First, we become numb to the next warnings coming down the pipeline, and so may ignore the whole issue of whatever is causing the need for an alarm to be sounded in the first place. Secondly, as Leonard Pitts so accurately states, we ignore or simply overlook those things that truly should cause fear in us. The fact that you can now print a gun using a 3D printer should alarm us, no matter which side of the gun control debate we are on; the erosion of our First Amendment rights continues apace; the corruption of our political system is something we look away from, helpless – and jaded.
I hear echoes of 1967, when Timothy Leary’s misunderstood mantra took hold of so many in my generation: “Turn on, tune in, drop out” – but with more literal electronic meanings today.
Is there anything we can do as individuals to make a difference? My experience tells me there is. Back in 2000, my son, then in the Air Force, was required to start the series of anthrax vaccine shots. He and his wife were thoroughly alarmed, and asked me to look into it. I happened to be visiting them between John’s first and second shots, and so one night I borrowed his computer and spent long hours researching. At first, everything was reassuring. However, the more I dug down through the pixels, the more alarmed I became. Here was a vaccine that was not licensed; that did not have peer-reviewed, published research in back of it; that was causing multiple, severe, life-long health problems including grand mal seizures, complete loss of testosterone, severe hemorrhaging, tumors, cysts, severe bone and joint pain, and more – including death.
Long story short, I joined with others across the nation to protest. Our protests – which included walking the halls of Congress – stayed largely within the military community. We realized that it was only when people were personally affected that we would see a change in the civilian population.
Years later, there was a proposal to conduct an anthrax vaccine research program on children – civilian children. It was soundly defeated. All our years of trying to get the word out had paid off; people had seen our information online, they’d read the stories in the media. They knew enough to be alarmed – and they said no.
Wherever we are, whatever our interests, we can make a difference. We have to make a difference. We need to get involved in our own corners of the world because even the smallest of actions can have a ripple effect. Courage, faith and critical thinking can be just as contagious as fear. Turn on, tune in – and engage.
Kathy Hubbell ran her own public relations firm in Missoula, Montana for 24 years. She is in her 5th year of teaching for Marylhurst in the Department of Communication Studies, and in her 18th year of being a delighted Grandma.
Photo: Intangible Arts // Flickr, Creative Commons license