Panic is not the normal ‘human reaction’
There is no financial crisis so bad that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of the fear industry.
Probably the two most overused words in the present economic crisis are panic and fear. The word panic has been used so routinely that it has been emptied of meaning. So a headline in a newspaper asks ‘World economy: is now the time to panic?’, as if feeling an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety is the normal way to react to bad news.
Other headlines tell us that ‘panic grips Europe’ or that it strikes, spreads, escalates, even ‘rules the markets’. The rhetoric of panic is mobilised to promote the idea that we are all scared, and if we are not… well, we should be.
Past fears are regularly recycled to lend weight to the idea that being scared is the default option. One German analyst warns of the danger of a ‘banking tsunami’, while British Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, demands that interest rates should be slashed to prevent the ‘bank tsunami’.
The language of environmental catastrophism is used again and again to dramatise our economic predicament. The metaphor of pollution is deployed to describe the workings of the financial system: we have toxic debt, toxic assets and toxic funds. The Arctic icecap may not have yet melted, but banks face a physical meltdown. ‘This week the crash went nuclear’, a columnist for the UK Guardian warns, before predicting that ‘Britain will feel the worst of the fallout’.
The world may have changed since the crisis of the banking system but the way the public is instructed to respond to a threat has not. Scaremongering, it seems, has become a normal aspect of our lives.
Over the past few years, warnings about the future have continued to escalate and the use of terms such as ‘human extinction’ and ‘destruction of the planet’ has become commonplace. The present crop of warnings about ‘fear gripping the markets’ continue a twenty-first century tradition that was initiated with alarmist statements about the millennium bug and the threat it presented to human survival. At the time, Morris Cerullo, a Pentecostal healing revivalist, prophesised a catastrophe of biblical proportions. ‘This panic that will sweep the nation will translate into a global depression’, he warned. Some would like us to believe that the current situation vindicates his prediction.
Since the turn of our century there has been an epidemic of the rhetoric of fear. Scaremongers constantly communicate the notion that we ought to be scared. Like therapists who tell us ‘not to be afraid to cry and show your emotions’, fear entrepreneurs invite us to live our lives as passive and scared individuals. So Cable insists that ‘panic is the all-too-human reaction’ before noting that so is fear. Fortunately, the good news is that people panic only in rare and exceptional circumstances. The vast majority of humankind refuses to play the role assigned to it by the experts: as actors in a Hollywood disaster movie. People may be angry and apprehensive about their savings and economic security, but their response has little to do with panic.
But how might the continual dramatisation of global threats affect our lives?
Research carried out for last month’s World Social Summit (WSS) in Rome suggests that at least until recently most people perceived the problem of everyday survival as far more threatening than the big global fears. The WSS report, Fear in the Mega-Cities, attempts to capture the experience of fear in 10 key cities across the world. Based on a survey carried out in July this year, it provides important insights into the way the public perceives and feels about threats in London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo, Sao Paulo and Cairo. The study suggests that while a large majority of the respondents (90.2 per cent) acknowledge that they have day-to-day worries or serious anxieties about an important aspect of their lives, only a minority (11.9 per cent) feel overwhelmed by a sense of fear. Most say they have a positive orientation towards life (55.3 per cent) and almost one-quarter (24.3 per cent) define themselves as optimistic.
One key point that emerges from this study is that the rhetoric of fear is far more pervasive than actual fear-led behaviour. It is always difficult to ascertain how people’s beliefs and behaviour are influenced by scaremongers. Most people are exposed to a wide variety of views and claims about problems and threats. Such claims often conflict with other statements and opinions that appear in the media. People often ignore warnings or at least try to respond to them in light of their experience and circumstances. Many of the mega-scares are far too impersonal and abstract for people to visualise and imagine. For example, warnings about population growth rarely lead people who desire large families to cut down on having children.
However, the fact that the big global and apocalyptic scares do not directly influence behaviour does not mean they do not influence our lives. Such scares provide us with a readymade story about what to fear, and their cumulative effect is to make us generally more anxious about the future.
It is not hope but fear that excites and shapes the cultural imagination of our times. Indeed, fear has become a caricature of itself. It is no longer simply an emotion or a response to the perception of a threat. It has become a cultural idiom through which we signal a sense of growing unease with the workings of the world. To acknowledge fear is to demonstrate awareness. This self-conscious affectation does not mean people are more scared than before; it merely signals the idea that they ought to be.
Although, fortunately, most people are able to refuse the invitation to panic, the constant repetition of ‘fear appeals’ distracts people from engaging with the problems they face. At a time of global economic insecurity, society needs to draw on its reserve of strength and steady its nerves. Instead of treating the crisis as a drama, we need to turn it into an opportunity for learning from our experience.
Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is speaking in the session Capitalism – what is it good for? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November. Visit Furedi’s website here.
This article is an edited version of a piece that appeared in The Australian on 11 October 2008.
Against austerity, by Brendan O’Neill
There Is (still) No Alternative, by Mick Hume
Congress bales out, by Brendan O’Neill
Scapegoating the spivs, by Tim Black
It’s the politics, stupid, by Phil Mullan
Lehman Brothers: when confidence runs out, by Rob Lyons
Five myths about the Wall Street crisis, by Daniel Ben-Ami
From the politics to the economics of fear, by Mick Hume
Fannie, Freddie and the ‘economics of fear’, by Sean Collins
The truth about the ‘credit crunch’, by Phil Mullan