The Situationist

The Situation of Fear

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 10, 2008

This post was actually a comment written today in response to our post from last week, “The ‘Turban Effect.’” We thought many of our readers might find the comment interesting, so here it is. (Thanks Jeffrey.)

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Lately, some scholars have been looking at reasons behind and implication of manipulating fear. Princeton University’s John F. Wilson explains why: The obsession with managing evil comes from “a concern, often exaggerated, to achieve control over those aspects of life experienced as uncertain.” From the Puritans to the present, people bent on controlling their lives have been haunted by the inescapable fear that they might lose that very control.

Sensational cases startle the public into accepting a new understanding by opening gateways to the publics fears and frustrations, and igniting processes that illuminate the boundaries of a community, notes Indiana Professor Steven Chermak, author of “Searching for a Demon,” adding: “The media defines these events, relying primarily on representatives from institutions typically used in the construction of news.”

According to Professor Chermark: “The legitimacy of a threat depends only on the perception that the target is extremely dangerous to the security and stability of society. Thus a threat is successful when it produces fear. Fear is a vitally important cultural commodity that helps to justify the demonization of individuals and groups by people in power. The news media contributes directly to this demonization by sustaining and feeding off of the publics fears. The news media will intensify its coverage when a threat is thought to be significant, but in doing so, it promotes and aggravates the corresponding fear.” In an article, Marketing Fear: Representing Terrorism After September 11 in the Journal for Crime, Conflict and the Media (here), Chermak notes that by framing specific or unspecified opponents, clear or ambiguous opponents as threatening helped to dehumanize these targets, and validate any planned responses by social control agencies and justify the need for additional resources to respond to them.

But such tendency can reach a level where some sensationalists aspire to see their audience to live in what Jeanne Jordan, author of The Panic diaries, calls “a world of perpetual ‘duck and cover’, a world of terror alerts scrolling across the bottom of our television screens. A world where evening news feeds our fear.” Many of us are beginning to get weary of the pushier sort of experts, declare Christopher Booker and Richard North. In their book, Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming they point out: Gone is the sense of proportion, the admission of scientific doubt, the ability to weigh risks against benefits. Taking seriously a year’s worth of their health warnings would give anyone an eating disorder. This tendency makes Anne Applebaum, author of ‘Finding Things to Fear’ remark: Now that we’ve eliminated most of the things that the human race once feared, we’ve just invented new ones to replace them.

The discourses of state agencies locate Islam and Muslim communities not simply as “problem communities” but as security concerns, notes Defence Studies scholar Katherine Brown. There is a need to watch out if certain contributors to this debate about minority communities wish to steer it from discussing ‘politics of difference’ to stirring up the ‘politics of fear’.

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To download a pdf of Steven Chermak’s “Marketing Fear,” click here. For a related Situationist post, see “Law and Situation of Military Propaganda.” For other Situationist articles on the War in Iraq, click here; for one on on how ideology may influence vulnerability to propaganda, click here.

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