Ms Rimington’s right: fear itself is a fearful thing

February 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

 Stella Rimington is right to conjure up the spectre of an Orwellian police state in the same breath as anti-terrorism legislation. She’s right because she identifies the way that fear is a political currency in our society, and that in recent years we have seen its value inflate several times over.

Does it matter? Yes. Fear and the way it spreads, reproduces and morphs was perhaps the shared mental crisis of the twentieth century.

The study of fear has long preoccupied social psychologists. Some of their research has yielded disturbing results. For example; if something is seen as unbearably fearful, we start to allow it to affect our perceptions of the world and its risks. These “fear appeals” form the backbone of most public health campaigns.

At its most basic this can be seen in social psychological studies of the impact of American oral hygiene classes in schools in the fourties and fifties.  The research found that they were too effective and terrifying; some kids were so freaked out that they just stopped looking after their teeth altogether.

That may seem trivial, but this behaviour has been recorded playing out in other, bigger contexts.

There is a theory that we actually respond to fear in two, parallel ways. We act to control danger (brush your teeth, use a condom, join a picket to protest job losses); these are usually the behaviours fear appeals try to induce.

But we also act to control our fear itself, and that’s where all sorts of bad behaviour can come into play; denial, avoidance, projection of the danger onto innocent people (so never brush your teeth, avoid the smear test, join the National Front and go about telling people to f*** off home and stop stealing your job). Add up the effect of an entire population doing this stuff, and the stage is set for some gross abuses of our fellow humans and ourselves. Sadly, the history of the last century is littered with this sort of behaviour.

Fear appeals have a venerable history as a rhetorical device. These social studies show what Cicero could have told you anyway; to be effective fear appeals need to arouse real panic. That’s why politicians use them; they’re a superb way of  mobilising huge numbers of people. They’re one of the most consistent mass communication techniques we have for changing attitudes and behaviours. But of course, in acting to control the danger, we often act to control our fear in unintended, disastrous ways.

In the case of our response to the threat of terrorism we have accepted infringements of our hard won civil liberties that in Ms Rimington’s own words are disproportionate to the risks involved and might not have been allowed in another climate. It will be truly disturbing if it turns out our decision-makers did not act to expose alleged torture being used in the “War On Terror“, even if it wasn’t carried out by our own intelligence agents.

This is a good time to stand back and ask searching questions of our use of fear as a way of weilding power. Espionage and torture may be the sexy stuff, but things as banal as the dwindling number of children who are allowed to play outside their street are indices of how much fear rules our lives and changes our communities.

“It would be better that the Government recognised there were risks, rather than frightening people in order to pass laws,” says Ms Rimington in her La Vanguardia interview. These are sound and sobering words, and they actually throw down a challenge to all of us. We all need to develop a capacity to understand our responses to fear, and create social structures that mitigate our more neurotic responses to it. Something for my colleagues Matt Grist and Jamie Young, perhaps?


Entry filed under: cohesion. Tags: , , .

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