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August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things? 
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Post August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
This thread is to discuss Massimo Pigliucci's August 2003 Rationally Speaking column entitled Are we afraid of the wrong things?

N. 40, August 2003

Are we afraid of the wrong things?

I have an acquaintance of mine who tells me that he is worried whenever I get on a plane (which is more often than most people, though I'm not a golden level frequent flier). You know the reasoning: those things (the planes) are heavier than air; we were not meant to be flying thousands of feet above the earth; surely you heard about how the airlines are cutting on maintenance because of increasing costs; etc., etc., etc.

Interestingly, this same friend of mine is not the least bit concerned about the fact that in order to get to the airport I have to drive on a road, Alcoa Highway, that the locals have nicknamed "I'll Kill Ya Highway" because of the high number of accidents. Never mind that the statistics clearly say that riding a car is much more dangerous than being on a plane, that if we were meant to do anything, that probably did not include racing at 60 miles an hour on asphalt, and that there is not an iota of evidence showing that airlines have been slacking on repairs (to the contrary, study after study shows that the airline industry -- including commuter planes -- has become increasingly safe over the past decades).

Are we afraid of the wrong things? That is certainly the thesis of University of Southern California's sociologist Barry Glassner, whose The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things should be mandatory reading for people like my friend. Glassner makes an interesting point, and backs it up with tons of anecdotal as well as statistical evidence. We are more afraid of terrorism than of dying of ill effects caused by the operations of our own industries, and yet the latter is a much higher cause of death than the former. We are convinced by the media that it is very dangerous for anybody to walk city streets because of "random" crime. But, as Glassner points out, violent crime is anything but random: just consider that a black man is 18 times more likely to be murdered than a white woman.

The examples can be multiplied almost endlessly, but a regular pattern emerges. We tend to be afraid of things that are constantly in the news, even though the media have a stake in ratings (and therefore in high-emotional impact stories), not necessarily in informing us. We tend to be unduly impressed by personal stories, either recounted by people we know or broadcasted by talk shows, and often lack the overall frame of reference to reasonably interpret those stories. Surely there are genuine examples of, say, the IRS "persecuting" some poor chap well beyond the boundaries of reasonableness. But does that constitute a pattern of abuse of ordinary Americans by the tax people? More importantly, does that require a special Congressional investigation, and perhaps passing laws to curb such ghastly abuses of power? Maybe, but the answer is to be found in independent investigations of the problem based on large numbers of cases, not on the occasional horror story, as regrettable or even worrisome (nobody wishes to become the next "anecdote") as that may be.

Is there a national conspiracy by the media, the government, and the military-industrial complex to keep Americans worried about the wrong things? Hmm, yes and no. On the one hand, it is simply natural for human beings to respond emotionally to personal stories and to yawn when faced with statistical analyses. It is also understandable, if borderline unethical, of the media to go for the gory aspects of life, as unrepresentative of reality as they may be, rather than for the more mundane but more relevant ones. Glassner even suggests that perhaps we tend to fear the wrong things because they neatly substitute fears of things for which we either can't do much about or are in fact partly guilty of. For example, it may be that an obsessive interest in the relatively few cases of children killed by their mothers makes us feel better about our own deficiencies in our everyday exercise of the same role (along the lines of "well, at least I'm not as bad a parent as that").

On the other hand, think of the recent and still unfolding story about President Bush "doctoring" the truth about Iraq's nuclear program and why the US went to war. (I'm sure that if it were Clinton denying having received a blow job in the oval office we would not be ashamed of using the word "lying," and perhaps even of thinking out loud about impeachment.) That one does indeed seem a case of the Government purposely manipulating our feelings for rather sinister ends.

Do we have a defense against being afraid of the wrong things? Can we hope to channel our fears where they belong? (After all, fear is a genuinely useful reaction, if directed to genuine threats.) Yes, but the answer is going to make you yawn and wishing to turn the page or jumping into another area of cyber space. The answer is slow, painful, continuous education of ourselves. A process that is mostly up to us, that requires reading widely and discussing openly, that can eat into your TV or golf time, and that would make you more sociable only with the NPR-listening crowd. Then again, perhaps the greatest responsibility of the citizens of a democracy is exactly to educate themselves, if nothing else in preparation for the next trip to the voting booth.

"When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward,for there you have been, and there you will always want to be."

Sun Aug 03, 2003 1:47 am
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Post Re: August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
Not to beat a dead horse, but there is (in my opinion) no better exposition of this problem than De Becker, Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety, and Security in a Time of Terrorism. What makes The Gift of Fear and Fear Less different from other expositions on these topics is how practical they are. I truly beleive that every woman should read The Gift of Fear, and that widespread attention to these books would have a real impact on society.

Science is neither a philosophy nor a belief system. It is a combination of mental operations that has become increasingly the habit of educated peoples, a culture of illuminations hit upon by a fortunate turn of history that yielded the most effective way of learning about the real world ever conceived. E.O.Wilson

Sun Aug 03, 2003 10:54 am
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Post Re: August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
Once again, no disagreement with any points in the article.

I do wish the humanist, atheist, rationalists would take over a news network or newspaper and give us rationalist a useful news format that cuts out the sensationalism (and sports, sorry) and give us real news and analysis of history behind news and possible course of action for those of us who are concerned.

I wish there was a greater concern for real issues such as the coming crisis of civilization not prepared to switch from oil to non-oil economy in less than 20 years, and the ensuing massive depression such a switch will have if we are not prepared; a greater concern for "tragedy of the commons", such as human overpopulation, extinction of species and wild places, and air and water pollution.

Those who worship the faceless god of free enterprize and capitalism believe all problems will solve themselves without charity if all people are free to do as they please especially in an unregulated market. Yet we see an encyclopedia of problems that occur without law and regulations. It is the "Tragedy of the Commons" that force us to have laws and regulations. Those free enterprize folks have yet to come up with an answer to "Tragedy of Commons" concept. They fail to understand that both free enterprize and democracy unbridled almost always involve self destruction. Free enterprize is destroyed by monopolies and trusts who manipulate government to secure their place. Democracies are destroyed by the mob majority who believe truth and morality are determined by majority (tell that to Galileo and Columbus!)

So we have regulations to prevent monopolies (until recently) and we have the Bill of Rights to protect individuals from the "mob majority". These are only stopgap efforts to counteract the "Tragedy of Commons" phenomena. We have yet to devise any perfect solution, as the phenomina of evolution of both genes and memes always find a way around our solutions.

I consider the above as real fears for any one concerned for the long term survival of civilization and of life. The rest? Well, we all die some day. I fear dying without a meaningful life, without contributing to something greater than concerns for my mortal life, with no chance to pass on the stick in the marathon to the next runner with a cause.

Sorry for the lengthly post.

Monty Vonn
"Meme Wars!"

Mon Aug 04, 2003 10:26 am

Post Re: August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
I was born fearful: loud sounds would send me scurrying to a hiding place; forms I saw in the night would paralyze me with images of strange and alien creatures lurking in wait.

When I was older and learned a bit of history, I realized that FDR was right: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." With that maxim in mind I began a life-long journey out of despair. I have learned not to fear but to try to understand. I early on dispelled my fear of flying (with due regard to Erica Jong) and my fear of heights (20 years in a Chicago skyscraper can work wonders). I have lost my fear of sudden and loud sounds thanks to young people and their testosteronized sound systems camouflaged as cars.

And recently, by watching Fox News (sic), I have begun to lose my fear of strange and alien creatures. Oh brave new world!

Thu Aug 07, 2003 4:52 pm

Post Re: August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
One the issue of "are we afraid of the wrong things" I'd point out the fact that a good number of politically active people believe homosexual marriage is something to be afraid of, somethign capable of doing as much damage to society as global warming, which is dismissed on the grounds that "scientists can make the data say whatever they want."

In response to a letter about the 10 Commandments and how they provide a "bulwark" against social decay, I sent this letter in:

Regarding the Ten Commandments, I wonder how many proponents of displaying them on public ground realize that at least two of the Hebrew Commandments (which are not limited to ten) are against the United States Constitution. It is not so much the religious nature of the Commandments that bothers me (if it were the Wiccan Rede or Buddhist Noble Truths, I wouldn't really be offended), but that they contradict the Bill of Rights:

1. Having false gods is protected under freedom of religion. Obviously every sect except a tolerant few will think their god alone is the One True God. Without this protection in the U.S. Constitution, we would be about as secure in our rights as the average African or Middle Eastern country dismembered by religious infighting.

2. It is unclear what constitutes a "graven image" but I am pretty sure they are protected speech.

It's nice that some of the commandments reflect laws found in secular societies. Killing people is bad. Adultery is cruel. Coveting...well, coveting is what keeps our economy strong until we find something better than competition for status and bling-bling.

On a related subject, those who think Sodom was destroyed by God for homosexuality might wish to look up the story. The story is not appropriate for a family newspaper, but suffice it to say Sodom was destroyed for altogether different abominations than those found on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Ezekiel 16:49 makes this less astonishing claim:

Ezekiel 16:49 "Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy."

I need not point out the hypocrisy in denying our part in accelerating Global Warming because "Scientific models are flawed" while declaring on the other hand that alternative lifestyles cause God's wrath in the form of hurricanes and floods. I have yet to hear anything remotely like a scientific explanation of how gay marriages, even among friends who are gay, has any corrosive effect on my heterosexual relationship with my fiancee.

The current anti-sodomy activism seems more like the kind of bullying I remember happening in high school than a genuine attempt at improving society. Perhaps Americans are so terrified of God's wrath being earned by America for sins like greed, gossip, unkindness or squabbling that we must pin any previous or future catastrophes on homosexual marriage or TV. In any case, I don't have any straight friends who feel their marriages will be more secure due to pogroms against gays who want to marry.

As a final thought, when Jesus was asked to give the meaning of the law, he gave only two commands: "Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself." Even He found the 10 Commandments unnecessarily dogmatic.

Fri Aug 08, 2003 5:01 pm

Post Re: August 2003 - Are we afraid of the wrong things?
Sr. Glossolalia, your post was incredibly lucid, dispassionate, and cogent.

You wonder why homosexual marriage would be threatening to a heterosexual relationship. Of course, the answer is that it poses no "threat" that has independent ontological status: no evidence whatsoever has been adduced by heterosexists (thought I'd try something other than the usual "homophobe") that being gay is a disease that can infect the general heterosexual population.

But there is a threat to authoritarians, people who, like the fascists the MMPI Fascist Scale was modeled on, are intolerant of ambiguity, are hostile to deviation (aka variation), believe in "traditional family values" (i.e., that the man is the head of the household -- a belief challenged by having two men in the marriage), believe in rigidly adhering to rules, etc. Of course, they don't always succeed in living their rigid lives, so self-deception (through extensive rationalization) runs rampant in their midst. The rejection of global warming is easier to maintain as a belief if one can become convinced -- against all mainstream scientific evidence -- that, well, there just isn't any "good, sound science" to support it. And why would global warming be an important thing to reject? Why, it might be inconvenient. Conspicuous consumption by the wealthy might become a tad constrained. So better to say global warming is based on flawed science and is basically a plot by liberal, environmental wackos than to consider scaling down those activities that increase greenhouse gas emissions (as the very wealthy Arianna Huffington has).

Sat Aug 09, 2003 9:07 pm
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