Speculations on the Culture of Fear


I wondered aloud, in my last post, how we could have gotten to the point where, in direct contradiction of some very clear, very scary, not-at-all-obscure-or-complex evidence of the consequences of our actions, we have become so terrified of risk that we are actually killing our kids, after making them miserable. All in the name of love.

This is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, it won’t help to oversimplify, as Tim Gill points out in this little diagram, from his website ‘Rethinking Childhood’:




This is a tempting shorthand for what’s been going on in kids’ lives and in the minds of parents, culminating in what I believe is a real crisis in kids’ physical and mental health. But a more thoughtful approach looks for the roots of problems, and is not distracted or satisfied by proximal causes. Here’s Gill’s proposed ‘rethinking’ of the problem:

Of course, as he admits, there’s more to it even than that. Where do all these gadgets come from? Whence all the traffic? Why are parents working such long hours? And are these fears, in fact, well grounded? These questions need answers, and I’ll try to provide a few, in a minute.

But in the meantime, parental anxiety has been identified over and over again as the most proximal cause of the inactivity of our kids. Why has parental worry seemingly exploded since the days of our pragmatic, capable, depression-era parents or grandparents? A lot of the answers to this question actually intersect significantly with the answers to Tim Gill’s questions, above.

Margaret K. Nelson, author of ‘Parenting Out Of Control’, looks at the phenomenon of parental anxiety and its consequences, both to anxious parents themselves, and of course to their offspring. In an impressive two paragraphs near the beginning of the book, she summarises some if the prevailing theories for its genesis, and then provides additional research of her own, which expands on those theories. Briefly (with shorthand names I’ve given them), some of them are:

The “Culture of Fear” argument: Due to media exaggerations and obsessions with violence, terrorism, and sexual predation, parents are hyper-aware of potential dangers that lurk in what they perceive as an increasingly violent, risky world.

The “Only Child” argument: Because (partly due to increasing urbanisation), parents are frequently having only one child, they will never have the perspective that comes with experience, and remain anxious “new parents” the whole time they raise their first – and only- child. This is so common that in families with multiple children, the eldest child often ends up bearing some resentment to his younger siblings, who because their parents were more relaxed and experienced by the time they had them, grow up with fewer anxiety-induced restrictions on their activities, and often receive privileges at earlier ages than the first-born.

The “Little Emperor” argument: Related to the Only Child, this argument suggests that parents’ adulation of, and anxiety for, their offspring is exaggerated to unhealthy levels because of the uniqueness of a child without siblings. My name for the argument is taken from the “one child” policy of China, which has been popularly blamed for creating a generation of ‘little emperors’ – spoiled children who are treasured by their parents because the state forbids their having siblings.

The “Erosion of Adult Solidarity” argument:  Suggests that, as our society becomes more and more individualistic, we have transferred the burden of rearing a child to the sphere of the family, or in many cases, single individuals, whereas in more cohesive cultures around the world, this job is seen as the collective responsibility of the whole community.
The “Risk Society” arguments: (Broken down into sub-categories):

The “Amnesiac argument”: Anthony Giddens and others suggest that the erosion of any strong cultural or historical link to the past creates an overemphasis on, and anxiety for, the future, including notions of safety.

The “Master of My Fate” argument: As danger is redefined, from “fate”, or “chance”, to “manageable risk”, the emphasis is placed squarely on personal responsibility. The idea that the natural world is complex and fundamentally unmanageable is replaced with legal notions of ‘due diligence’ that retroactively assign blame whenever an event takes place that is deemed, in retrospect, to have been avoidable.

The “No Social Net” argument: As governments increasingly retreat from what many see as their fundamental duty to provide for their citizens, more and more responsibility for the health and safety of their kids are placed on individual parents.

To these, Nelson, based on her research, adds some nuance in the form of:

The “Social Class” argument:   Having noticed significant differences in the ways intensive parenting manifests itself between the lower- and “professional-middle” classes, Nelson suggests that ideas about the future financial security of their offspring motivates parents of different classes to ‘helicopter’ in different ways. What is constant, though, is the basic assumption of an uncertain economic future, which the Boomer generation did not share, and the desire of parents to see their kids replicate or exceed their own social class, which is no longer seen as being guaranteed.

But there’s more! Lenore Skenazy, in her book ‘Free Range Kids’, suggests a number of other reasons, namely:

The “Opportunistic Vendor” argument: Recognising the immense opportunity for lucrative businesses that pander to the health- and security-obsessed, whole markets spring up that attempt to sell ‘solutions’ to so-called problems that would have been laughable even a generation ago (baby knee-pads, anyone? How about tracking devices for your teenagers? You get the idea.)

The “Know-it-all Expert” argument: Related to the one above, this argument questions the rise of the “one size fits all” brand of so-called “Parenting Experts”, whose primary function seems to be to sell books and magazines telling parents what they are doing wrong and how it will permanently damage their children. They make their money by claiming that there is a ‘right’ way to raise a child, and that only they have the secret – which they will impart to you for a price!

The “Social Pressure” argument: Caught in a media firestorm when she allowed her son to take the NYC subway on his own, and dubbed “America’s Worst Mom”, Skenazy certainly felt the pressure to conform to the new social norms. Luckily, she educated herself about the origins and viability of those norms, and stood her ground. Many parents succumb. My own sister was upbraided by a stranger in a car-park outside a bank, where she had briefly left her 10-year-old daughter in charge of her toddler-aged brother in order to run in to make a deposit. She wasn’t gone more than a few minutes, and though the day was warm, my niece was perfectly capable of opening a window at age ten! The stranger actually called the police, apparently having read in the media one of the many stories of tragedy involving infants or dogs left in hot cars, and being unable to make the distinction in context. Though my sister is still adamant that she did nothing wrong, the experience was unpleasant enough that she has never repeated it. The intense pressure that mothers face from Nosey Parkers and busybodies is real – nobody wants to be called a Bad Parent. Especially when – as is increasingly the case – being branded such is likely to bring you under the cruel scrutiny of the law – which brings me to the next point, viz:

The “Legal Pressure” argument: Laws are often reflexions of social norms, and when those social norms become bugshit crazy, so often do the laws. The ‘Free Range Kids’ blog is full of anecdotes about draconian, blinkered applications of stupid laws that have profound negative effects on the lives of parents who are trying to buck the trends and raise their kids as sanely as they know how. One Florida lawyer actually presents convincing arguments that many parents unjustly accused of negligence in the U.S. actually cannot even get fair trials anymore, because the public dialogue has been so severely compromised on the subject of child safety that jury members and even judges cannot make rational decisions on the subject in this culture of fear.

The “Lousy Judge” argument: Our brains, as Skenazy and others like Dan Gardner, point out, are just phenomenally, evolutionarily predisposed to stupidity when it comes to risk assessment. Without education, our brains get the numbers wrong every time. Of course, not having sensibly-presented data from the media doesn’t help. See my previous post for a deeper look at this one.

The “Cultural Shut-Ins” argument: When our lack of interest in the past, combined with a cultural insularity, give us little knowledge of how other cultures (including our own, in the past) have treated issues of child-rearing, the echo-chamber of our own modern-western-culture-specific worries grows louder and louder, with no parallel experiences to contrast or challenge them. North Americans’ fabled lack of worldliness and knowledge of history combine to make a massive handicap here, aside from just making us insufferable to people of other nations.

To these, I myself might also add two psychological arguments that, while they might not directly cause anxiety, certainly help to explain why it might be augmented under certain circumstances:

The “Self-Efficacy” argument: Related to, but distinct from, self-esteem, self-efficacy is the increased sense of personal confidence and ability to deal with difficult things that comes with…well, doing difficult things. It’s a sense of competence that comes with skill, which in turn comes with experience. The safer we become, the fewer difficulties we encounter, which means that the self-efficacy ‘muscle’ becomes atrophied, and we lose perspective about what constitutes real danger, as well as our ability to cope with simple inconveniences.

• Related to the self-efficacy argument, the “Crooked Barometer” argument is a psychological argument that suggests that when a high level of risk is either eliminated or otherwise subverted, as in our modern ultra-safe society, the brain has a way of “advancing the queue” of smaller anxieties to fill the space left by the genuine threat, making small worries seem comparatively larger. It promotes, in other words, molehills to the rank of mountains, but only in the absence of real mountains, which would provide perspective.

Have I missed anything? 🙂

Of course, most of these factors are linked to each other, and reinforce each other, making it more and more difficult to have a coherent, calm conversation on the subject at all. But I’d like to try to construct a narrative out of these seemingly disparate proximal causes, in the hopes of stumbling onto something closer to the root of all of them. Here’s the (probably too graphically challenging) flowchart I came up with based on the factors listed above:

I’m kind of impressed with how central the rise of corporate capitalism is in all this, as well as the brand of urbanisation that it encourages. The media, while extremely influential, is mostly just reacting to market forces when it fearmongers to the extent that it does, as well as reflecting and augmenting the elevated levels of societal fear. Dan Gardner refers to this as an “echo chamber” effect.  I don’t want either to “let the graphic speak for itself” when it’s so obviously complex; nor do I want to belabour a point here.  So perhaps I’ll try to articulate the narrative that this graphic suggests to me in a future post.



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2 responses to “Speculations on the Culture of Fear

  1. Wow! excellent post! I’m beginning to think that our world only problem is capitalism. What problem is not caused by capitalism?

    • Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far. Properly managed, I’d say it has its place. But the current version, where wealth is concentrated way high up, and where culture, health, the environment, and social values take a back seat to making money, is brutal.

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