Cultivating fear

Moi aussi ... Editorial cartoon by Steve Sack, Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Moi aussi …
Editorial cartoon by Steve Sack, Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Usually, Sundays on my blog are reserved for lighthearted things (that’s really the reasoning behind the blog’s name, Serenity is a Fuzzy Belly). This Sunday, though, I just couldn’t do it.

In making reference to the Bastille Day attack, I wrote:

“Another week, another attack.

“There’s really nothing that can be said to ease the hurt the families of the victims are feeling right now.

“All I can offer are prayers and a little touch of serenity.

“And hope that this week won’t bring yet more reason to grieve.”

After that was already written and posted, we found out three more police officers had been killed in another attack here. It seems there’s nothing but attacks lately.

Except that that’s not really true.

As my friend Earl noted upon reading the Sunday entry, we actually live in peaceful times (especially in the U.S.), especially when compared to periods such as the Protestant Reformation, the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars or the Middle Ages (ah, the halcyon days of Vlad Tepes and severed heads—or heck, whole bodies—on pikes). Earl quoted Morris Bishop’s The Middle Ages:

... but it's a good pain, right? "Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099" / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library found on Wikimedia Commons.

… but it’s a good pain, right?
Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099/Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library found on Wikimedia Commons.

“Once the crusaders had taken control of the city, they began to massacre the inhabitants. ‘Some of our men,’ wrote the 12th-century chronicler Raymond of Agiles, ‘cut off the heads of their enemies; others shot them with arrows, so that they fell from the towers; others tortured them longer by casting them into the flames. Piles of heads, hands, and feet were to be seen in the streets of the city.’”

Agiles was far from an anti-Crusades ranter, Earl noted, pointing out that he called the carnage “a just and splendid judgment of God.”

The point Earl was making was that we’ve had attacks like this (and much worse) forever, but because of the times we live in and the sources of information—and misinformation—we have access to, we are more aware of it than ever before, so it only seems like there’s more violence.

And the people who peddle it to get votes ... Editorial by John Cole, Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune.

And the people who peddle it to get votes …
Editorial by John Cole, Scranton, Pa., Times-Tribune.

I was reminded of George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, known by some as “mean world syndrome.” It’s not often I get to break out something from my grad school theory and research days. (Fox News and others are a gold mine for agenda-setting theory, but that’s another matter.)

For the uninitiated, cultivation theory began with the 1960s Cultural Indicators Project by Gerbner, of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, which posited that television could affect the way watchers perceive the real world. In short, heavier viewers of television violence were more likely than lighter viewers to view reality through a distorted lens, believing it to be far more dangerous than it actually is.

Calvin, you'd have no trouble finding them now. Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Calvin, you’d have no trouble finding them now.
Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Gerbner, who died on Dec. 24, 2005, testified before a congressional communications subcommittee in 1981:

“I believe that a corrosive sense of insecurity and mistrust invites not only aggression but also repression. Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hard-line postures—both political and religious. They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities. That is the deeper problem of violence-laden television.”

Calvin explains it all ... Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

Calvin explains it all …
Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

But oh, what confirmation bias, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have wrought now. Gerbner, who fled fascism in his native Hungary, is probably rolling at high speed in his grave now over Donald Trump and how he uses the media to spread disinformation and fear, and to depict the world as he wants us to believe it is. There’s no guarantee, though, the world depicted is the one in which we actually live (OK, it isn’t).

Again, he's not coming for your guns ... simmer down! Image found on Pinterest.

Again, he’s not coming for your guns … simmer down!
Image found on Pinterest.

As for what world politicians live in, well … Trump has repeatedly claimed that crime in the U.S. is out of control. President Barack Obama says there have been huge drops in murder rates. So who’s living in reality?

According to statistics and nonpartisan fact-checkers, Obama is at least in the ZIP code, though the overall violent crime rate is lower than in 1970, not the 1960s as he said in a recent speech. That rate peaked in 1991 at 758.2 per 100,000, has been steadily declining since then, and was at 365.5 in 2014. In 1991, Dallas’ murder rate peaked at 48.6 per 100,000 (500 murders); by 2012 it had dropped to 12.4 (154 murders). Cities across the U.S. saw similar declines.

But if I don't open-carry, how will people know what my irrational fears are???? Editorial cartoon by Bob Engelhart, Hartford Courant.

But if I don’t open-carry, how will people know how easy it is to scare my pants off????
Editorial cartoon by Bob Engelhart, Hartford Courant.

Trump has used recent year-over-year figures from a few cities to claim that crime rates are skyrocketing. However, as we know, trends cannot be accurately determined from limited, cherry-picked data. Richard A. Berk, professor of criminology and statistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told FactCheck: “Snapshots are not trends. And two or three years of data are far too few to establish a trend.”

This has been a public service announcement from rational people everywhere. Image found on Scientific American.

This has been a public service announcement from rational people everywhere.
Image found on Scientific American.

So no, crime isn’t as out of control as some would have you believe for the simple reason that if you’re scared, you’re easier to steer. Yes, there is crime, and there always has been, but it’s also being more widely reported than in the days of the Big Three networks. A few high-profile cases do not an apocalypse make. A little perspective is needed so truth can be seen.

Oops … did I mess up some illusions there?

Gosh, and I’m not even sorry about it.


I’ve talked before about some of my more troublesome readers, some of whom think I’m the “purveyor of all things librul.” Because I never, ever publish anything that could be construed as negative against anyone of the liberal persuasion (sarcasm font needed here). I’ve also said I get flak from both sides of the divide, but I’m betting those on the conservative side believe that’s just a librul lie.

I don’t really like my real middle name much, but this one’s worse. And my mom was not happy.
Image enhanced on BeFunky.

Yeah, just another librul lie … I couldn’t possibly tick off people on both sides … that’d mean I was doing my job.

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2 thoughts on “Cultivating fear

  1. Thanks for clarifying these “scary times.” If I may recommend another book, it is Steven Pinker’s, The Better Angels of Our Nature. After exhausting the history of past violence, he looks into prehistory. As archeologists examine skeletons from our most distant past, it is disturbing how many had cracked or punctured skulls. We know they didn’t have doors to run into, so it looks as though the dawn of human existence was not a time of kumbaya. Today is apparently the nicest we’ve ever been, but we can do much, much better.

    Like

    • I’ll definitely look for that one.
      If I hadn’t gone into journalism, I was seriously considering sociology, anthropology or archaeology. Human nature is endlessly fascinating (and sometimes scary)!

      Like

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