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How the news is framed & how it affects your brain

Archive for March 2012

Anxiety-inducing frames

This is an updated (& much rewritten) version of an article published by the Guardian in 1999,
which I originally wrote for the Idler magazine. (Graphics here are mine)…

Smiling is compulsoryIn every job interview I’ve had, I’ve struggled to give the (false) impression that I was applying out of free choice & enthusiasm (rather than financial dilemma & survival anxiety). Telling the truth rarely helps in these matters, and most interviewers wouldn’t want to hear it.

Financial anxiety turns most of us into useful idiots. In the everyday world of tedious wage slavery, useful idiots can be identified by their claim to like their jobs (I don’t mean the lucky few who really love their jobs). When so many people seem to “enjoy” being economic slaves, or at least pretend to, one suspects something beyond deluded sentimentality – something sinister and pathological.

We’re living in an anxiety culture and we’re driven by fear. For 1 in 7 people, it’s of clinical severity (15% of people in England suffer from an anxiety-related mental disorder). A Mental Health Foundation report (2009) found that 77% of people say they are more frightened than they used to be, and 66% have fear/anxiety about the “current financial situation”.1

The MHF report criticises politicians, public bodies, businesses and the media for what it calls “institutionally-driven fear”, fuelled by scaremongering use of “most calamitous scenarios” on issues such as crime, terrorism, the economy, etc. (Incidentally, I was amused to see that the MHF report cited my 1999 Guardian article* as a source for: “60% of employees suffer from feelings of insecurity and anxiety, with 43 % having difficulty sleeping because of work worries” – a finding I’d quoted from a 1995 ITV documentary, World in Action).Mail & Express fearmongering

Yuppies-in-adverts redux

The picture that emerges seems at odds with the grinning, self-assured yuppie reality beamed into our living rooms during commercial breaks. It’s a cliché, but advertisers still present a world where “normal” people smile perpetually while driving their expensive new cars. The result is that we feel abnormal and humiliated driving old cars or taking buses. No one is immune from these social-comparison anxieties, not even the marketers themselves (surveys show advertising executives to be “plagued by self-doubt and insecurity”2).

There are strong vested interests in keeping public anxiety at a high level. Anxious people make good consumers – they tend to eat/drink compulsively, need more distractions (newspapers, TV, etc) and more buttressing of their fragile self-image through “lifestyle” products. The financial services industry (insurance, savings, etc) makes billions from our financial insecurities. The unsubtle targeting of our fears is evident in adverts for everything from vehicle recovery services and private health care to chewing gum and mouthwash.

Employers benefit if workers fear losing their jobs – fearful people are less likely to complain, and tend to be more suggestible and compliant. Politicians cite “public fears” as justification for freedom-eroding legislation; insecure populations show a tendency to favour the authoritarian rhetoric of “strong leaders”. In a word, governments and corporations gladly reap the harvests of high public anxiety.

The Daily Scare

According to the Mental Health Foundation report, 60% of those who think that “people are becoming more anxious or frightened” blame it partly on “the impact of the media”. Anxiety can be induced in a population by constantly focusing on the threat of things like crime and terrorism in an exaggerated way. (I wrote the article before the financial collapse; it’s possible that with an emphasis on economic perils, crime isn’t currently hyped so much).

Mirror "Yob Rule" - 2011 riotsIn a MORI poll conducted in the early 1990s, half of those questioned believed that tabloid newspapers have a vested interest in making people more afraid of crime. In 1995, the makers of Frontline, a Channel 4 documentary on crime, requested interviews with the editors of the Daily Mail, Mirror, Sun, Daily and Sunday Express, Today, People and Star, to ask how they justified their sensationalised crime coverage. They all refused to be interviewed.3

Unfortunately, many people believe the crime hype (belief seems to correlate with acceptance of the conservative “moral breakdown” framing). A third of elderly women fear going outside their homes, but only one in 4,000 will be assaulted.4 Statistically, the elderly and young children are the groups least at risk from attack – but because newspapers repeatedly cover crimes victimising the vulnerable, they seem more common than they are.

One effect of our over-stimulated fears is widespread paranoia. Consider this news item from the Independent newspaper: “Teachers have been warned not to put sun cream on young pupils because they could be accused of child abuse”. These warnings were then criticised by cancer charities. Skin-cancer risk versus child-abuse accusation risk. Welcome to Anxiety Society.

Most fear/worry results from what we’ve been thinking rather than external events. We’re immersed in anxiety-inducing belief systems which we regard as perfectly normal. Exposure to these fearful worldviews starts in early childhood, before we’ve developed intellectual defences, and it continues in school, where we learn to be obedient, economically-frightened grown-ups.

Anxiety-inducers

Your home is at risk...“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends
to make the model active in one’s brain”
5

– George Lakoff

One of the most insidious anxiety-inducers is a sort of secular equivalent of “original sin” – the belief that, in essence, you’re “lacking” or “not good enough” and must redeem yourself with hard work and suffering. This “no pain, no gain” worldview manifests as the idea that you’re infinitely undeserving – that reward, ie happiness, will always be contingent upon the endurance of unpleasant activity (eg work).

It makes life seem a burden rather than an adventure, it’s exploited to the maximum by big business, and it makes you feel guilty.

This deep-seated mindset can be subverted with psychological gimmicks. For example, try believing that you deserve to be paid for doing nothing. Dismiss the notion that you have to “earn” anything. You earned your life by being born – now you deserve to relax. Quit your job and go on holiday, or call in sick as often as possible. Remove all forms of guilt from your mind. Go to extremes of laziness and indulge yourself deluxe-style every day. (When re-reading this paragraph, it seemed almost “blasphemous” in the current austere climate. I originally intended it as partly serious, partly ironic).

‘False responsibility’ framing

Another insidious anxiety-inducer to watch out for is the belief that you should be responsible. This puts people under tremendous strain. You don’t choose your genetic makeup or the conditions in which you grow up, yet all the unfortunate things that happen are supposed to be your fault.

In most cases, the de facto function of “individual responsibility” is social conformity. Society holds you accountable if you don’t comply with its definition of your responsibilities. The attraction of “responsibility” is that it allows people total conformity without removing the facade of heroic individuality – it’s the kind of concept that advertisers dream about.

This “responsibility” tends to see everything as a problem needing a solution – usually involving endless work. Pushed too far, it undermines progress towards desirable conditions such as increased leisure. Intelligent attempts to drastically cut average working hours, for example, are resisted on the basis that it’s irresponsible. (Similar, perhaps, to the Puritanism that H.L. Mencken described as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”).

Trust the expertsSometimes it might make more sense to pay people to stay at home – as Buckminster Fuller noted when attempting to quantify the amount of fossil fuel we burn whilst travelling to pointless jobs. But politicians – the experts on responsibility – see joblessness as the ultimate irresponsible lifestyle. It never occurs to them that their idea of responsibility might not be universal.

Thus, a real and massive problem – how to distribute wealth humanely in a wealthy technological (ie automated) society – becomes as unsolvable as the mythical “moral breakdown” when it’s framed in terms of jobs & joblessness (with all the social anxieties that this framing triggers).

“Fear triggers the strict father model”. In Lakoff’s terminology, the “strict father model” refers to the deep cognitive frames which form the moral worldview of rightwing “conservatives”. In effect he is saying that people tend to think in more conservative (and less progressive) terms to the extent that they are being frightened.

Footnotes

*My original Guardian article was published on 8 October, 1999, in the Guardian’s ‘Editor’ pull-out supplement. The text is available online here.

1. The Mental Health Foundation’s April 2009 report, titled In the Face of Fear, which “reveals a UK society that is increasingly fearful and anxious”.
2. Quoted from The Times, 22 November 1996.
3. Frontline, Channel 4, 4 October 1995.
4. Sunday Times, 6 August 1995.
5. Lakoff, Don’t think of an elephant, page 42.

Written by NewsFrames

March 14, 2012 at 9:20 am

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