What swine flu reveals about the culture of fear
Essay: As health officials tell us ‘all of humanity is under threat’, Frank Furedi provides a guide to today’s various species of scaremonger.
Sociologist and social commentator
When Margaret Chan, head of the World Heath Organisation, raised the pandemic threat alert from four to five in response to the swine flu outbreak, she had no qualms about using the language of fear. ‘All of humanity is under threat’, she declared.
When, in the future, historians look back on this performance of fear, and on the swine flu panic more broadly, they will surely ask themselves: was Chan speaking as a public health official or as a moral entrepreneur? It is striking that Chan, like most fear entrepreneurs, does not perceive her behaviour as being in any way illegitimate or unduly alarmist. Indeed, she, like other fearmongers, qualified her warning with a reassuring statement: ‘Don’t panic.’
This combination of fear-promotion with the rhetoric of reassurance is a key aspect of the modern-day narrative of fear. Consider Chan’s warning that WHO is likely to raise its flu alert to the top of its six-point scale and declare a pandemic. This time she did not talk about the threat to ‘all of humanity’ and the danger of human extinction. ‘Level six does not mean, in any way, that we are facing the end of the world’, she said, before noting that ‘it is important to make this clear because [otherwise], when we announce level six, it will cause unnecessary panic’.
So Chan raised the spectre of human extinction with the elevation of the threat level from four to five, but when it came to the possibility of raising it to level six she appeared to take a more relaxed attitude towards the potential for global catastrophe. Of course, her very attempt to sound reassuring was framed in the sort of rhetoric that is likely to have the opposite effect. Informing the public that ‘we are not facing the end of the world’ implies that we might face it some time soon, and indicates that apocalyptic thinking is no longer confined to the world of religion. Chan’s secular version of apocalyptic thinking is powered by a contemporary cultural script that both exaggerates health threats and also links these threats with human malevolence more broadly. From this perspective, every virus, every disease, every new outbreak of flu, is potentially a weapon in the armoury of Evil.
The protagonists in today’s market of fear have forcefully sought to demonise flu as a threat to the world, as something that might even be turned into a weapon of mass destruction. The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology now advertises a course on ‘Pandemics and Bioterrorism’. It claims that ‘swine flu is only the most recent of the challenges posed by threats of bioterrorism and global pandemics’. The casual manner in which the threat of bioterrorism is introduced into the discussion of swine flu, by one of the most respected scientific institutions in the world, provides disturbing evidence that fearmongering has become a respectable pastime and pursuit.
Today, fear entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes. Some are moral crusaders who genuinely believe that the very fabric of society is threatened by evil forces. At the other end of the spectrum are the salespeople and hustlers of the market of fear. It is useful to distinguish between the different species of scaremonger, so here is your ‘Guide To Spotting The Different Actors In The Dramatisation Of Fear’.
Religious moral entrepreneurs
Historically, religion has often warned about the dangers of moral transgression. Although the influence of religion has waned in recent years, prophets of doom who foresee an apocalypse still play an important role in society. Religious moral entrepreneurs have been in the forefront of promoting scares about satanic ritual abuse and other wicked behaviour that challenges the sanctity of family life. However, although religious moral entrepreneurs exercise significant influence on specific issues, they are no longer a dominant force in society. They are merely one group of moral entrepreneurs that is in constant competition with various other fear marketeers.
Religious moral entrepreneurs are convinced that human misfortune ultimately springs from the activities of Satan. In the age of the internet, they often appear as digital, wired-up Jeremiahs warning that God will punish sinners for their errant ways. Some have argued that AIDS is God’s way of punishing immoral sexual behaviour. Big catastrophes such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina have been portrayed as retribution for degenerate, sinful behaviour. One Christian columnist described Katrina as ‘the fist of God’.
Unlike other types of scaremongers, religious moral entrepreneurs explicitly talk up the moral corruption of society. They have also willingly embraced current anxieties about the future of our planet. They have quite effortlessly reworked the language of environmentalism to make it fit with their views on apocalypse, Armageddon and ‘End Times’. Only in their vision, the triad of sin, evil and Satan replaces economic growth and carbon emissions as the main cause of the environmental problem.
Their favourite word: Sin.
Secular moral entrepreneurs
For some time, concern about moral corruption has taken an increasingly secular form, sometimes leaving the religious moral entrepreneurs behind. Many high-profile advocacy organisations have devoted themselves to warning the public about a variety of perilous events. In some areas – for example, child protection – advocacy groups have successfully, and fundamentally, changed the way that generations interact and the way children conduct their lives. Organisations such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) continually use alarmist messages about the scale of child abuse in order to raise funds and influence public opinion.
Unlike religious moral entrepreneurs, advocacy groups use ‘surveys’ and ‘research’, rather than the language of good and evil, to claim that a particular problem is getting worse and that, unless Something Is Done, it will engulf the whole of society. Secular moral entrepreneurs embrace their causes with the dogmatic fervour of the old-time religious crusaders – only theirs is a crusade that has no end. Advocacy groups promoting the cause of children or animals or the homeless can never bring themselves to concede that the situation of these groups is improving; on the contrary, they invariably claim that the problem is getting worse and worse, because that is what guarantees their hold on the public imagination.
Secular moral entrepreneurs continually seek out new opportunities to promote their cause, in a process described by sociologists as ‘domain expansion’: that is, expanding a widely recognised problem to encompass new issues. For example, widespread public concern about child abuse has encouraged secular moral entrepreneurs to use the language of abuse in relation to other issues, too: some now campaign to prevent ‘elder abuse’, ‘animal abuse’ and what they call ‘peer-to-peer abuse’. It is now even argued that people who are cruel to animals are likely to be cruel to their family members as well – in other words, one form of abuse begets another. With relentless repetition, and the support of the media, this imaginative linking together of disparate problems can become a kind of conventional wisdom. Secular moral entrepreneurs frequently flag up the gravity of a certain threat by using metaphors of invisibility: problems are hidden, concealed, unacknowledged.
Their favourite phrase: ‘This is only the tip of the iceberg.’
Experts, particularly scientific experts, play a uniquely important role in today’s culture of fear. Many of our anxieties are provoked by the statements and predictions of experts. Experts warn about the potential devastating impact of global warming, impending food and energy shortages, or of an asteroid striking Earth. They warn us of dangers far (or near) in the future that cannot be seen by ordinary human beings. And their dire predictions about an impending flu epidemic and various other ‘super bugs’ frequently capture the public’s imagination.
Expert warnings usually begin with the statement ‘research shows…’, and conclude with a demand for resources to be devoted to the task of preventing some future dreadful scenario from becoming a reality. Expert warnings are taken seriously because they are underpinned by the most influential form of twenty-first century authority: the authority of science. Consequently, the support of experts is continually sought out by other scaremongers – both religious and secular – who want to add some moral authority to their campaigns.
In recent decades, the status of experts has increased exponentially. Experts claim to have insights that ordinary people could never possess. Their views are looked upon as far more important and profound than the public’s. Expert opinion is more than just an opinion: the statement ‘an expert warns…’ now gives great force and influence to a campaigner’s claims. Expert witnesses are, in many ways, the new demonologists: numerous children have been taken away from their parents after expert witnesses claimed to have detected physical signs of abuse. Fortunately, in some cases children have been returned to parents once the courts realised that the expert’s opinion was just that: the opinion of yet another scaremonger. Yet although experts often contradict one another, society finds it difficult to ignore what they have to say.
Their favourite phrase: ‘Research shows…’
Health activists often claim to be experts. Under the cover of the authority of science, they continually raise concerns about the public’s physical and emotional wellbeing. They constitute a distinct group of fear entrepreneurs, whose focus is people’s health. They promote messages that prey on people’s existential fears. In recent decades, they have combined their fearmongering with the demand that people adopt a ‘healthy lifestyle’. Indeed, health activists self-consciously use scare tactics – what they call ‘fear appeals’ – to achieve their objectives.
They preach the message that people’s lives are becoming more and more unhealthy, and thus we need to be ever more vigilant in order to avoid becoming diseased. Health activists target every area of our lives – the food we eat, our emotional lives and sex lives, our relationships – with scare stories. Probably of all the scaremongers, health activists have the most direct and immediate impact on how people think and behave.
And they have been extraordinarily successful in ‘diseasing’ everyday life. Bit by bit, they have expanded the meaning of health; they frequently use the term ‘wellness’: we now have ‘well men’s clinics’ and ‘well women’s clinics’. The premise is that being well is not a natural or normal state – instead it is something people need to work on, something to aspire to and achieve with the help of experts and gurus. Health activists insist that, unless you follow their prescribed patterns of behaviour, your risk of becoming ill will increase.
Their favourite expression: ‘A risk to your health.’
Environmentalism is accorded an enormous amount of respect and authority today; the predictions and warnings of green groups are taken very seriously indeed. Environmentalists are in the forefront of contemporary doom-mongering. Environmentalists influence and shape the language of twenty-first-century fear more than any other group in this list.
Their message is straightforward and devastatingly simple: unless we alter the way we live, the planet will be destroyed. If anything, environmentalists have an apocalyptic vision of the future that is even more alarming than that possessed by religious moral entrepreneurs. Unlike the religious model of the Day of Reckoning, where at least some will be saved, environmentalists offer an apocalypse without redemption.
Their pessimistic visions exercise a fundamentally important influence on Western culture and behaviour today. Environmentalism provides a motif for moral regulation. It not only resembles religion in its proclivity for talking up the coming apocalypse – it also shares religion’s intolerance of heresy. Those who fail to accept its wisdom are denounced as ‘climate change deniers’ and accused of being driven by a malevolent hidden agenda. Anyone who refuses to accept the need to alter their behaviour and ‘go green’ is depicted as greedy and irresponsible. The growth of survivalism and green lifestyles in general is testament to the influence of this group of alarmists.
Environmentalists have made a major contribution to the general language of fearmongering. They don’t just have one or two favourite words to incite fear amongst the public; they have a virtual dictionary of scaremongering. ‘Extinction’, ‘ecological catastrophe’, ‘pollution’, ‘depletion’: these are just some of the terms that are now familiar even to pre-school children.
Their favourite words: There are too many to mention, but they particularly enjoy using the word ‘toxic’ to describe anything they don’t like.
The arena of human relationships has become an important site for promoting fear and anxiety. Our relationships have been transformed into a territory that is fraught with danger, and a veritable army of relationship professionals – therapists, counsellors, life coaches, parenting gurus – continually warn us about the perils we face in our private lives.
Relationship professionals tend to frighten people about their connection with members of their community, their neighbours, their lovers or their family members. It is striking that in the twenty-first century, many of the most high-profile, dreaded crimes are associated with inter-personal relationships. Rape, date rape, child abuse, elder abuse, bullying and stalking (both online and offline): these crimes remind us to beware those who are closest to us.
Privacy was once looked upon as a haven in a heartless world. These days, intimacy and family life are often presented as sites of violence, danger and emotional trauma. Warnings about ‘toxic relationships’ and ‘toxic families’ (the T-word is borrowed from environmentalists) promote a sense of fear that is as intense as the fear of terrorism or planetary destruction. Their effect is to distance us from other people. Health warnings about relationships can have a devastating impact on the quality of our personal lives.
Relationship professionals continually remind us not to trust ourselves or those closest to us. They have even tried to turn the desire for affection and love into a form of addiction, coining the term ‘love sickness’ and warning that the intensity of love can be damaging to people’s wellbeing. Books with titles such as Women Who Love Too Much seek to distance people from one another. The idea is that relationships are far too dangerous to be left to amateurs – they need to be negotiated with the help of professionals.
Their favourite diagnosis: ‘You have self-esteem issues.’
Law-and-order moral entrepreneurs
Anxieties about crime and terrorism are widespread in Western societies. Alarmist warnings about personal and community security are regularly made by the media and figures of authority. There are also various advocacy groups that are devoted to raising concern about threats to law and order, such as illegal immigration, paedophilia, rape or gun crime.
Historically, governments and officials have been in the forefront of this kind of scaremongering. Many governments sought to gain the public’s acquiescence by claiming to provide security from various threats, practising what is today called the ‘politics of fear’. Now, raising concerns about law and order is no longer confined to politicians. There are numerous campaigning groups that raise the alarm about issues such as school violence, gun crime, terrorism, immigration, ‘epidemics’ of homophobia, hate crimes. Indeed, law-and-order scaremongers constantly compete with each other, trying to out-scare other fearmongering camps in their attempt to win public support.
Like others in this list, law-and-order scaremongers are always looking for new opportunities, even inventing new crimes. For example, they have systematically recycled offline crimes into online crimes: the construction of ‘cyber-crime’ – such as internet bullying, internet paedophilia, identity theft, fraud, and general internet abuse – is testimony to this group’s success in criminalising the virtual world as well as the real one.
Their favourite incantation: ‘There is an epidemic of crime.’
Entrepreneurs regularly harness the prevailing culture of fear in order to promote their businesses and sell their products. They habitually warn that we face all sorts of dangers to our health, security and wellbeing. In some cases, hazards are fabricated – for example, the idea that tap water is unsafe – leading to a transformation in how people live and behave.
The health and pharmaceutical industry – one of the most profitable sectors of the economy – has been well-served by today’s neverending panics. Food scares have significantly influenced our eating habits. Concerns about global warming have given rise to a new cadre of green entrepreneurs who argue that, unless the entire economy is reorganised around green issues, we will all be doomed. One of the consequences of this flourishing fear market is the growth of competitive claims about what we should be most scared about today.
Fear entrepreneurs are very inventive when it comes to turning minor problems into threats, for which they can helpfully provide a treatment or a product. For example, they can turn a normal personal problem like shyness into a disease, relabelling it ‘social phobia’, warning about its dangerous consequences, and then selling you a drug that can treat it. Worried parents are one of the favourite targets of fear entrepreneurs: they frequently warn parents that unless they purchase one of their safety products, they will bear some of the responsibility for harms that afflict their children.
Their favourite claim: ‘Your safety is our main concern.’
We should note that, although these eight groups are conceptually distinct from one another, their activities and interests often overlap. Health activists are sometimes associated with fear entrepreneurs who sell various products on the market; religious moral entrepreneurs have formed alliances with both environmentalists or therapists working as ‘relationship professionals’. Indeed, despite their diverse interests, the work of these different groups tends to reinforce scaremongering as a whole, as they all contribute to the construction of a climate where promoting fear and anxiety comes to be seen as a legitimate pursuit. And as the performance of fear around the current drama titled ‘Swine Flu Pandemic’ shows, all of these groups are competing for a role in today’s dramatisation of doom.
Frank Furedi is author of Culture of Fear (buy this book from Amazon(UK)) and Invitation To Terror: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown (buy this book from Amazon(UK)), both published by Continuum Press. Visit Furedi’s website here.
Swine flu and the dramatisation of disease, by Frank Furedi
The day I was tested for swine flu, by Tessa Mayes
Swine flu: official panic is making things worse, by Rob Lyons
Read more at spiked issue Pandemic fears.
(1) WHO head indicates full flu pandemic to be declared, Reuters, 4 May 2009
(2) WHO head indicates full flu pandemic to be declared, Reuters, 4 May 2009
(3) Find more information on this course here.