18 June 2009

The Culture of Fear and a Very Important Cycling Book

Culture of Fear by Frank Furedi
This is one of the most important books about cycling I've ever read. Like another important book about cycling - Traffic - Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us) which I reviewed a while back - Culture of Fear Revisited isn't even about bicycles or cycling.

The book, by Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, is a blunt, fascinating and alarming book about how The Culture of Fear has overrun our societies.

It maps out the evolution of this fear culture, enabling us to see how on earth we ended up where we are today. “What we have is a more promiscuous, pluralistic form of fearing. The very important implication to this is that while my parents feared together, you and I have a more isolated, private experience. We fear on our own.”

I have an earlier post about how Denmark risks developing a culture of fear, but reading Furedi's book was an eye-opener.

Now I'm crap at book reviews - I read two books a week but I've never been one to write about it. But this book is a big clanging alarm bell for anyone who wishes to promote cycling positively. Not least because wherever there is fabricated fear, there are fear merchants itching to make money off of it.

Here's an excerpt from the book:
"The current official disapproval of sunbathing indicates that it is not merely technologies that are liable to be reinterpreted as dangerous. The idea that the sun is dangerous must have come as surprise to generations who have believed that the sun was actually good for their health. In the UK, a vigorous campaign launched in 1995 by the Health Education Authority (HEA) helped to equate sunbathing with skin cancer. 'In an ideal world we would stay out of the sun all the time' was how the July 1995 issue of Top Sante magazine summed up the new wisdom.

The readiness with which the media and the public accepted the new message was a testimony to the unbounded character of risk consciousness. No one in the media asked how something regarded as beneficial to human health by so many experts, for so long, could become suddenly such a danger to the public. It was only in specialist medical publications that the alleged melanoma epidemic was placed under scrutiny. Indeed, some dermatologists have argued that the advocates for sun-avoidance in fact may be creating a problem for people. [...] People may actually increase rather than decrease the melanoma risk.

Since scientific opinion is still unclear about the relationship between melanoma and sun exposure, it is surprising that such a solid and unquestioning consensus was established in the media, so quickly. A practice which had been long seen not only as healthy but as a source of pleasure suddenly became a danger to all."

Now, after having read this excerpt, do yourself a favour. Read it again and think about cycling instead of the sun. Think about the way bike helmets are marketed instead of sun lotion. Think about the media and the public have embraced the fabricated fear of cycling instead of sun-exposure.

And compare the helmet industry with the lotion-producing cosmetic industry and how much money there is to be made out of these constructed fears.

The Culture of Fear Revisited is a good read. It has affected the way I look at my society as well as the way I will act in it from now on, as well as the way I will raise my two children.

What's more, those of us who wish to promote cycling as something positive will benefit from reading the book. It helps to understand the 'safety freaks', the 'cycling is dangerous' crowd, the fearmongerers, the helmet advocates and, not least, the profiteers waiting in the wings. This understanding won't make these people go away, but it is always valuable to gain the upper hand on such an important issue.

It is also a 212 page paper mirror into which individuals and groups in the above categories can peer. I'm quite sure that the reflection staring back will disgust them, confuse them and make them feel absolutely dreadful, but peer they should. The list of people who should read it is long. Here's one. Here's one. Here's one. Here's another one. And another. Oh, and one more.

There is fear that is percieved - a societal development - but there is also constructed/fabricated fear that capitalises on the developed.

"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"."

Again, replace 'War on Terror' with 'Bicycle Helmet' or 'Cycling is Dangerous'. You get the point. Or as Marilyn Manson says, "It’s a campaign of fear and consumption. Keep people afraid and they’ll consume."

Maybe it's bigger than all that, as Jenny Bristow suggests on Sp!ked in this article:

"The culture of fear is not a spontaneous reaction by the public to a truly dangerous world. 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 main tools for constructing fear according to the Wikipedia entry on Culture of Fear:

- 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.
- 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.

I address each of these tactics in my post about the burgeoning Danish Culture of Fear regarding cycling.

At the end of the day, I can just recommend you read the book. It's available on Amazon.co.uk.

This American sit-com hits the nail on the head. Nice to see some satire on this issue.

And this excerpt from an American news show is well known. Frank Furedi appears in it.

Next up on the reading list for me is Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science. I'm halfway through and bells are ringing.

Further reading on the Culture of Fear:
- Essay by Frank Furedi: The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself.
How human thought and action are being stifled by a regime of uncertainty. [PDF]
- You can't get around the classic Risk Society, by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck.
- UTNE Reader: Overcoming Fear Culture and Fear Itself.
- Wikipedia entry on Culture of Fear.
- For Danes and Norwegians, the Norwegian philosopher Lars Fr. H. Svendsen has a book entitled Frygt [Fear].
- Terrorized by 'War on Terror' by Zbigniew Brzezinski. How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America.
- Culture of Fear - Dealing with cultural panic attacks, by Ronald Bailey on ReasonOnline.