Archive for the ‘Fearmongering’ Category
April 25, 2013
I wrote this in the 1990s (for a magazine). I’m resurrecting it here for two reasons – 1) a recent Guardian article (News is bad for you) makes similar points, and, 2) I’ve had my fill of “news” lately, and plan to practise what I preach here…
“Information anxiety” is caused by the “ever widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand”, according to Saul Wurman, who coined the term. But what makes us think we should understand any of it?
There are two common notions about “being informed”: i) it’s irresponsible not to be, and ii) it’s unsafe not to be. In other words, social consensus (which defines “irresponsible”) and basic survival anxieties (which define “unsafe”) lead to information anxiety – so perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated as a social influence.
Most people probably feel Oprahfied to some extent – ie pressured to have opinions on everything the media defines as important. And they fear falling behind. (According to a report in the Guardian,1 nearly half the population have this fear).
This is partly due to “good marketing” – the advertisers’ and content-providers’ constant drip, drip of things you “should” know about is intended to induce anxiety, so you spend money to relieve it. (A major UK company’s marketing chief once admitted to me that his profession was concerned entirely with stimulating consumer fear and greed).2
As a selling strategy, “fear of being left out” has no limits when applied to media (entertainment/information-based) products. There’s a limit to how many cars you need, but there’s no limit to what you “should” know about.
The info-anxiety theory recommends that we find more effective ways to process information, so we can absorb more without being overwhelmed. A better approach, however, might be to simply filter out the 99.9% of information that serves no purpose for you.
How much “information” consists of people making noises to avoid listening to themselves think? Media presenters tend not to be quietly reflective. The over-representation of “loud” personalities on TV no doubt contributes to the increasingly accepted notion that “quiet introspection” is a mental illness – peaceful isolation from extroversion and media noise seems like a difficult commodity to find.
Fortunately, you don’t need a cave to escape to – you can take a holiday from info-noise without going anywhere, simply by changing a few parameters of your mental processes. This technique has existed in various forms for centuries – used by “eccentrics” who wanted to revive their faculty of thinking, as opposed to having people’s thoughts (ie reflection rather than verbal loops).
Side effects included improved imagination and weirder dreams. You might enjoy trying it:
→ For a set period (eg 1 or 2 weeks), completely avoid TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, browsing in newsagents, topical chatter, etc [2013 update: add online news & social media to the list]. This is done by refusing such stimuli any admittance to your mind.
Mass-media “information” largely consists of non-useful, vaguely entertaining distraction. Of the non-trivial, non-amusement content (eg some of “the news”), most concerns things you’re powerless to influence. (Conversely, the issues you might influence seem notably absent).
Why clutter your brain with things you can do nothing about? How can it be irresponsible or unsafe to ignore it, if (at best) it’s of no positive use to you, and (at worse) it damages your health?
2013 addition: The recent Guardian piece I mentioned makes pretty much the same points (plus several others). I recommend a good look at it. Here are a few quotes:
“Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.”
“Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.”
(‘News is bad for you’, Guardian, 12/4/13)
1. The Guardian, 22/10/96
2. M&SFS Head of Marketing, 1990
Graphics by NewsFrames
April 8, 2013 – JK Rowling should perhaps be given a Nobel Prize for getting a generation of kids to read books. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s generated endless amounts of tax revenue. How was this phenomenon nurtured? By a little time and space on the dole.
You’d be surprised how many successful people developed their craft on the dole. In a way, most successful corporations also require a long period on the dole. Do you think Boeing and Microsoft would have achieved commercial success without decades of state-funded research and development in aerospace and computing?
Any true wealth-generating activity requires periods of “social nurturing” which aren’t profitable. They’re not self-funding in the short term; they are dependent. (We realise this for children – we call it “education”. The money spent on it is regarded as social investment).
“Investment” (in human beings) was also one of the ideas – along with “safety net” – behind “social security”. The welfare state was created in the forties, in a post-war economy which was nowhere near as wealthy as now (imagine: computer technology didn’t exist).
But, for decades, the rightwing press, “free market” think-tanks, politicians and pundits (not just of the right) have wanted you to think differently about social security. They want you to think of “welfare” as an unnecessary nuisance which costs more than everything else combined.
To that end, a simple set of claims, accompanied by a certain type of framing, is relentlessly pushed into our brains by newspaper front pages and TV and internet screens. It has two main components:
- Vastly exaggerate the real cost of “welfare” and falsely portray it as “spiralling out of control” (how this is done is explained here and here). Misleadingly include things like pensions in the total cost when you’re talking about unemployment. (This partly explains why people believe unemployment accounts for 41% of the “welfare” bill, when it accounts for only 3% of the total).
- Appeal to the worst aspects of social psychology by repeatedly associating a stereotype (the “benefits scrounger/cheat”) with the concept of “welfare”. One doesn’t have to be a prison psychologist to understand how anger and frustration are channeled towards those perceived as lower in the pecking order: “the scum”. (According to a recent poll, people believe the welfare fraud rate is 27%, whereas the government estimates it as 0.7%).
It’s a potently malign cocktail. When imbibed repeatedly, there’s little defense against its effects. Even those who depend on benefits come to view benefits recipients in a harshly negative light (see Fern Brady’s article for examples). Those politicians who aren’t naturally aligned with rightwing ideology go on the defensive – they talk about “being tough” and “full employment“. It just reinforces the anti-welfare framing.
The strangely puritanical – and deeply irrational – obsession with “jobs”, ”hard-working families”, etc, at a time in history when greater leisure for all is more than a utopian promise (due to the maturation of labour-saving technology, etc) seems an integral part of the conservative framing – which is perhaps why many on the “left” find it difficult to provide counter-narratives.
But that would require another article. For now I’ll leave you with a short video explaining Basic Income – a fast-spreading idea which is highly relevant to the above. (Guardian columnist George Monbiot recently championed Basic Income as a “big idea” to unite the left).
Jan 24, 2013 – You’ve probably noticed the Daily Express headlines which feature the weather or some health-related story. It seems that most Express headlines fall into one of these categories:
3. The EU/Euro
5. “Migrants”, benefits, “skivers”
Exceptions seem uncommon. Okay, you get the occasional “royals” story, and there was a time when house-price rises/falls could have been added to the list. See for yourself, using the compilations of front pages, below (which I’ve colour-coded to match the above categories).
Occasionally, two of the topics are combined in one headline (see example, above left – “ALL MIGRANTS TO GET A BRITISH PENSION”).
The first collection of front pages shows every Daily Express from 18 January 2013 (top left) back to 29 October 2012 (bottom right), with all exceptions shown (uncoloured):
The latest circulation figures show the Express selling many more copies than the Times, Guardian and Independent (roughly the same number as the Telegraph, and fewer than the Sun and Daily Mail).
The next compilation of Express front pages covers the period from early August 2012 (top left) back to May 2012 (bottom right) – it’s not a complete list, and excludes some exceptions as well as other examples which conform to the above topics:
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)…
In 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).
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).
In 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.
“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”).
Sometimes 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.
*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.
On last night’s Question Time (BBC1), Vince Cable talked about the economy with the phrases “on a tightrope” (twice), and “very dangerous world” (twice). By “world” he meant the abstraction known as the “global economy”.
An audience member on Question Time queried the premise that economic “growth” was necessary. Harriet Harman responded by saying the deficit can’t be cut “if the economy is flatlining”. She didn’t expand on this. So, we have the “growth” metaphor answered with a medical metaphor (for clinical death). Is it surprising that people are confused about economics?
Of course, we need abstractions and metaphors in order to discuss conceptually-complex issues. But what’s evident from last night’s Question Time, and this morning’s newspaper coverage, is that very little but a series of vague, conflicting economic metaphors (representing “conventional wisdom”) gets spoken. Meanwhile, what are we to make of the claim of expert economist, Professor Paul Ormerod, that: “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Ormerod, The Death of Economics).
Ormerod explains how a Victorian metaphorical worldview underlies the model of competitive equilibrium which provides much of the rationale for implementing “free-market solutions” to all economic “problems” (an ideological approach which has been dominant in the UK and US since the early 1980s).
One gets the sense that it’s the map, rather than the territory, which is fucked (or “flatlining” or on a tightrope, or staring down a gun-barrel, etc) in the case of economics. And that, in itself, can lead to unfortunate (or even tragic) consequences for the territory.
Meanwhile, the world still has pretty much all the stuff it had last month. And there hasn’t been any sudden global population explosion in the past few weeks. And valid questions on real resources, environmental issues, etc, tend to be framed separately from the “economic crisis” – in “public” (ie media/political) debate at least – compartmentalisation and specialisation.
• ‘ECONOMY HAS BOILS & SMELLS BAD’
• ‘GROWTH LEADS TO OBESE ECONOMY’
• ‘RISING HEMLINES STIMULATE ECONOMY’
Sept 2, 2011 – The BBC reports this story under the headline, ‘NUMBER OF WORKLESS HOUSEHOLDS FALLS’. The Express goes with “SCROUNGING FAMILIES’, “anger” and “fury” – and again quotes the rightwing pressure group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance (a regular source of framing for the UK press).
Here’s the first paragraph on the Express’s front page (2/9/11):
“ANGER at the scale of Britain’s benefits culture erupted last night after official figures showed there are nearly four million households where no one works.”
Note the fall in “workless households” since 1996, followed by an increase coinciding exactly with the recent recession (shaded bar).
Perhaps “anger erupted” over something else. The fourth paragraph on the Express front page says: “The figures yesterday triggered renewed fury at the £180billion annual welfare benefits bill being picked up by taxpayers.”
This is the standard, misleading device of citing the total welfare bill in a story about the unemployed. It’s misleading because only a small fraction of this amount goes on unemployment benefits (£6.6bn directly in 2010; two-thirds of the total welfare figure goes on people over working age, and there are various benefits for those who have jobs, and contribution-based benefits that need to be taken into account, etc).
The welfare-as-crime frame
The Express front page talks of “the culture of benefits dependency that was allowed to spiral out of control under the previous Labour government.” The spiralling “out of control” of an immoral “culture” evokes the crime frame. Politicians and media often use a “criminal offender” type of lexicon to talk about welfare recipients. This tendency seems to go back a few decades at least, although I suspect media analysis would show it to be increasing in recent years (in the same way that use of terms such as “benefit cheats” has increased). Thus, government advisers were quoted by the Times (17/9/99) as saying that “penalties for the persistent unemployed will be harsher”. Terms such as “hardcore” are applied to “persistent” unemployed. Benefits are being framed as a moral issue – this is how “anger” and “fury” are induced, via moral outrage. The implication is that punishment is the cure (and that, therefore, people shouldn’t complain about getting their benefits cut).
(Updates: a later Daily Express headline used a different type of welfare-crime association: “1.2M CRIMINALS GET BENEFITS”. Also, Tony Blair used the odd phrase “hard core of socially excluded families”).
“Spiralling out of control”?
Back to reality (or at least to statistical representations of it). We should be looking at welfare spending as a proportion of GDP, not in “absolute” terms:
This chart is taken from the excellent UK Public Spending website. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for “fury” here. Perhaps the Daily Express editors need to take an anger management course? And perhaps they should stop acting as a propaganda outlet for the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance group…
• ‘ANGRY FOR THE WRONG REASONS’
• ‘TAXPAYERS ALLIANCE PRESS RELEASE No.94’
• ‘LYING BASTARDS WROTE THIS HEADLINE’
Aug 21, 2011 – This Observer headline is another example of reinforcing a frame while negating it. What we see here is “moral decline” – that is how we conceptualise the issue, regardless of the following word, “not”.
Most media coverage of the “rioting” excludes the perception that it has always occurred in Britain. The country has a long history of insurrection. Even in quaint coastal villages, whole communities criminally conspired against the authorities (eg the customs men) - in Ye Olde days, when murder and violence were more common .1
In 1898, newspapers in England warned of the menace of “hooligans” and of a “dramatic increase in disorderly behaviour”. The Times reported “organised terrorism in the streets”.2
In every decade of the 20th century there were similar media panics.
• ‘NO RESPECT FOR AUTHORITY – A GREAT BRITISH TRADITION’
• ‘GOLDEN AGE OF LAWLESSNESS CONTINUES’
• ‘LATEST INSURRECTION MINOR IN HISTORICAL TERMS’
1. See: Ted Robert Gurr, Historical Trends in Violent Crimes, 1981; Manuel Eisner, Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime, 2003.
2. Quoted from Laurie Taylor’s article, Looking with a historical eye, published in the 1995 Channel Four booklet, Battered Britain.