Strategic Living

The Culture of Fear, by Barry Glassner

Every wonder what happened to Ebola?  How vulnerable are the elderly to violence?  What about that epidemic of teens turning into superpredators?  Is last year’s obsession with mad cow disease already out of style, replaced with avian flu?

The Culture of Fear is for everyone who's alarmed at the proliferation of alarming news.  This book gives us some tools to help distinguish between issues that should concern us and scares.

In his Introduction, Glassner notes that “[a] wide array of groups, including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects, and political parties, promote and profit from scares.”  In eight chapters, he strives to uncover the significance of issues as varied as road rage, teen pregnancy, and Gulf War syndrome.  Some of his chapters are more successful, some more speculative, and one or two stretch his logic thin, but they all make at least interesting cases for issues hidden behind common scares.

Accurate information is crucial to your ability to assess real risk.  Glassner offers a short checklist for reliability.  For instance, in scares a few isolated incidents are strung together and declared a trend, regardless of a lack of connection to each other or to the likelihood of future occurrences.  Scares rely on the testimony of dubious and self-appointed experts.  And while nothing drives home a point like a good story, in scares poignant anecdotes are cited in lieu of, rather than supplemental to, statistically significant studies.

What does this mean for your safety?

Too bad Glassner doesn’t tackle scares around women fighting back against sexual assault or identifying likely assault risks.  Studies show that about 85% of women who fight back do successfully escape.  Too few women, however, recognize that fighting back is an option, as federal statistics also show that only about 1 in 6 women evade their rapist.  While many women know their greatest risk of assault is from someone they know in the privacy of a home, still their greatest fears focus on attack from an unknown perpetrator in an open public space.

Fortunately, Glassner does discuss the misleading idea that the greatest risk to children comes from random strangers.  A key part of Strategic Living’s program is education on planning around real risks.  Parents enrolled in KidSafe enter with the primary concern of “stranger danger.” In reality, over 90% of sexual assault on children comes from someone known to and trusted by the family, and we discuss safety strategies to work with that reality.

At the heart of any successful scare is a real concern that needs expression and resolution.  Glassner notes that “immense power and money await those who tap into our moral insecurities and supply us with symbolic substitutes.”  Frightened citizens make better consumers and more easily-swayed voters.  Learning to recognize bait ‘n’ switch tactics goes a long way to increasing your ability to evaluate information and make informed risk assessments.

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