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Culture of fear is a term that refers to a perceived prevalence of fear and anxiety in public discourse and relationships, and how this may affect the way people interact with one another as individuals and as democratic agents. Among those who share this perception there are a variety of different claims as to the sources and consequences of the trend they seek to describe.

Theoretical variations

Different social commentators have offered different Culture of Fear theses, each with a distinctive emphasis. They may be categorised along a spectrum, from those who consider the phenomenon to be consciously directed - a deliberate policy of scaremongering - to those who treat it as arising spontaneously out of historical developments, as a reflexive response to other changes in human society.

Constructed fear

The manufacturing of a Culture of Fear is presented in the ideas of linguist Noam Chomsky, sociologist Barry Glassner, politicians, such as Tony Benn, and political filmmakers, such as Adam Curtis and Michael Moore. Reporters such as Judith Miller are sometimes accused of being involved in the manufacture of a culture of fear, though others such as Rachel Maddow work to point out false fears deliberately engendered by others. The motives offered for deliberate programs of scaremongering vary, but can hinge on the potential for increased social control that a mistrustful and mutually fearing population might offer to those in power, or may be done for pure greed or to destabilize normal democratic power when used by oppositions. In these accounts, fears are carefully and repeatedly created and fed by those who wish to create fear, often through the manipulation of words, facts, news, sources or data, in order to induce certain personal behaviors, justify governmental actions or policies (at home or abroad), keep people consuming, elect demagogic politicians, or distract the public's attention from allegedly more urgent issues like foreign policy, poverty, social security, unemployment, crime, pollution, or individual rights. Such commentators suggest that we consider a range of cultural processes as deliberate techniques for scaremongering. For example:

  • Careful selection and omission of news (some relevant facts are shown and some are not);
  • Distortion of statistics or numbers;
  • Transformation of single events into social epidemics (Salem witch trials);
  • Corruption and distortion of words or terminology according to specific goals;
  • Stigmatization of minorities, especially when associated with criminal acts, degrading behaviour or immigration policies (Yellow Peril, Hispanophobia, Islamophobia, Blood Libel and AIDS, which was originally called "GRIDS" for "Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome");
  • Oversimplification of complex and multifaceted situations;
  • Causal inversion (turning a cause into an effect or vice-versa);
  • Outright fabrication of events or claims and then deliberately whipping up outrage at the false claims and fabrications (e.g. unproven weapons of mass destruction as an excuse for the U.S. invasion of Iraq).

The writer Jennie Bristow believes that the culture of fear that emerged following the September 11 attacks and the subsequent anthrax attacks were not so much emergent fears but rather top-down manufactured ones by politicians and reflected by an uncritical media. She also believes that the fears engendered, although irrational, allowed patriotism to emerge which eventually led to military adventurism in places not even connected to either 9/11 or the anthrax attacks.

The culture of fear is not a spontaneous reaction by the public to a truly dangerous world. The worldwide anthrax panic sparked by a handful of anthrax-related deaths in America shortly after 9/11 was not caused by a genuine and widespread mortal danger facing US and European citizens. Our propensity to panic about everything from child abductions to mobile phones does not come from the fact that modern life contains more risks than ever before - on the level of everyday reality, the opposite is the case. . . . The culture of fear comes from the top down. It comes from society's leaders, and their inability to lead. . . . The USA was propelled outwards and backwards, to attacking its safe-bet rogue state. In doing so, it revealed its weakness, prompting other nations to pick, parasitically, at America's weakness for their own short-term gains. These antics have been played out to the public, whose disenchantment with politics and immersion in the culture of fear makes them cynical and scared about any attempt by political leaders to exercise anything that looks like power. And the media, rumour-heavy and analysis-lite, has faithfully reflected the depth of confusion that characterises the current times .

Emergent fear

At the other end of the spectrum, a Culture of Fear is presented as a sensibility that emerges from every corner of contemporary society, spontaneously. Frank Furedi, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentmarker (UKmarker), who also founded the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britainmarker, exemplifies this end of the spectrum with his books, Culture of Fear: Risk-taking and the Morality of Low Expectations (1997) and Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right (2005). Furedi's account locates the source of the phenomenon in what he characterises a 'failure of historical imagination', a symptom of what he identifies as the exhaustion of 20th century systems of political meaning.

It was my experience of the 1995 contraceptive Pill panic that motivated me to write Culture of Fear.
I carried out a global study of national reactions to the panic, and it quickly became clear that the differential responses were culturally informed.
Some societies, like Britain and Germany, responded in a confused, panic-like fashion - while countries like France, Belgium and Hong Kong adopted a more calm and measured approach.

By Furedi's account, a universal sense of fearfulness pre-exists and underpins the expression of fears by media and politicians. While media and politicians might amplify and exploit this sensibility, their activities are not decisive in its cultural production. Furedi levels the charge at various 'anti-establishment' voices that they are at least as complicit in the exploitation of fears (ecological catastrophe, for example) as the 'establishment' that is more commonly held to benefit from the culture of fear.

Political context and criticism

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argues that the use of the term War on Terror was intended to generate a culture of fear deliberately because it "obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue".

The writer Victor Klemperer described the Nazis' use of language to create fear in his 1947 book LTI - Lingua Tertii Imperii: The language of the Third Reich: A Philologist's notebook.. George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four describes a government that uses language to control its citizenry, using an invented language known as Newspeak.

The phrase "moral panic" has been used to describe a widespread, irrational scare brought about by a lack of scientific or general education among the public, intrinsic human biases in the assessment of risk, a lack of rational thinking, misinformation, and giving too much weight to rumor.

Language as a conditioner for fears

Language is a powerful and often subliminal tool to condition the development, internalization and habituation of fear. The association or words and ideas with negative sentiments is an effective means of promoting a culture of fear. It echoes the Nazi use of language to infiltrate the minds of a population, as described in Klemperer's 1947 book.

This upturning of language as a means of mind control seeped further into public consciousness when George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, with its version known as Newspeak. Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four, "Appendix: The Principles of Newspeak", pp. 309–323. New York: Plume, 2003.
Pynchon, Thomas (2003). "Foreword to the Centennial Edition" to Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. vii–xxvi . New York: Plume, 2003.
Fromm, Erich (1961). "Afterword" to Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 324–337. New York: Plume, 2003.
Orwell's text has a "Selected Bibliography", pp. 338–9; the foreword and the afterword each contain further references.
Copyright is explicitly extended to digital and any other means.
Plume edition is a reprint of a hardcover by Harcourt. Plume edition is also in a Signet edition.

Michael Foucault the French philosopher has written extensively about the power of language on thought, in his book The Order of Things, the French title being Les Mots et les choses, French for Words and Things. and the book that was a result of critique on that book, "The Archaeology of Knowledge". According to Foucault knowledge isn't primarily the result of rational thinking, but arises from the structure of Discourse

In more recent times in the U.S., publicly-funded health care is often labelled as socialized medicine by its opponents to give the concept an air of socialism.

Similarly, the adjective liberal, which began use, politically, as a word with positive associations related to the philosophy of maintaining freedoms and liberties, has over the last half-century, been increasingly associated with negative political connotations, particularly in the parlance of conservative politicians seeking to portray their opponents in a negative light.

More recently, participants in the debate over man-made climate change have used terms such as "catastrophic", "chaotic", "irreversable", or "rapid" alongside the term "climate change". The use of such generalized terms to describe climate data can stir emotions and create fear. Using such terms can, paradoxically, make the implementation of political solutions more challenging, as members of the public feel helplessness and disempowerment.

See also


  • Culture of Fear: Risk taking and the morality of low expectation, Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-7616-3
  • The Culture of fear: The assault on optimism in America, Barry Glassner ISBN 0-465-01490-9
  • Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media, Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky ISBN 0-09-953311-1
  • Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, Frank Furedi, ISBN 0-8264-8728-9
  • State of Fear, Michael Crichton, ISBN 0-06-621413-0
  • Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City, Steve Macek,ISBN 0-8166-4361-X
  • Kingdom of Fear: Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century., Hunter S. Thompson, (Simon & Schuster; 1st Simon edition, November 1, 2003, ISBN 0-684-87324-9)
  • You Have the Power: Choosing Courage in a Culture of Fear Frances Moore Lappe and Jeffrey Perkins, ISBN 978-1585424245
  • Creating Fear: News and the Construction of a Crisis, David L. Altheide, (Aldine de Gruyter, 2002, 223pp. ISBN 978-0-202-30660-3)


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