A sociologist, Altheide has done a lot of academic research on how fear is used to manipulate the citizenry in this country. Politicians and corporations do their share, furthering their special interests.
The media help out by dramatizing risks that aren't really serious, while minimizing risks that are.
Altheide discussed numerous examples of this. For example, if you're old enough (as I am), you'll remember the pictures of missing children on milk cartons. Amber Alerts are the modern equivalent.
When parents are asked about their greatest fear regarding their children, what they worry about the most, kidnapping tops the list, followed by school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers, and drugs. However the largest risks actually are car accidents, homicide, and child abuse -- the latter two usually being caused by a family member.
So the most dangerous place for children isn't school, it is their own home.
The number of child abductions by strangers nationally is very small, around 100 a year, but since the media give these so much attention, parents wrongly are led to fear a small risk. If they want to really do something to protect their children, driving cautiously in a safe car should be the top priority.
Guns also came in for discussion by Altheide. It is no coincidence that the United States has by far the highest homicide rate of any industrialized nation. We also have by far the greatest number of guns.
Obviously guns don't make us safer.
Just the opposite: ready availability of guns leads to many more gun deaths per capita than in other countries. Yet when people hear about someone being killed by a gun, they get afraid. And that fear leads them to buy a gun.
Which leads to more gun deaths, and more fear, and more gun-buying. Great for gun manufacturers and the NRA. Not great for everybody else.
The media is complicit in this, Altheide said, especially TV news. Crime stories comprise 1/3 to 1/2 of local news telecasts. I can confirm this, my wife and I being habitual watchers of the 11 o'clock news on Portland's KGW station.
Almost every night, the first ten minutes or so is devoted to shootings, rapes, burglaries, accidents, fires, and other dramatic events. You'd think that nothing is happening in Portland except scary nasty stuff. I fast forward through this crap, being thankful we record the news on our DVR before watching it.
As with child abductions, the media sensationalize low risks while often downplaying less dramatic high risks. About halfway through Altheide's talk it dawned on me that fear isn't really the problem; it is being afraid of the wrong things.
Not surprisingly, my rather obvious Big Idea had also germinated in the minds of other Salem City Club attendees. After the talk several dozen of us stayed to ask questions of Altheide and make some observations of our own.
The first questioner brought up the same subject I'd been thinking about.
How is it that something we should be fearful about -- global warming -- gets comparatively little attention from the media compared to other things we shouldn't worry about much, like vaccine effectiveness, Ebola, domestic terrorist attacks, and (most recently) the safety of train travel?
Altheide said that part of the reason is the ever-increasing emphasis on videos. Facebook is full of them. So is, of course, television news. If people can't see it, they click on to something else. Like cute kittens. Or derailed train cars.
In my question/comment, I said that fearfulness has evolutionary advantages. Those early Homo sapiens who worried about genuine risks -- a rustling in the brush could be a lion! -- lived, while overly relaxed don't-worry types didn't.
Thus it isn't fear that is the problem, since justified fear can motivate us to take action to protect ourselves. The problem is being afraid of the wrong things. Which means we need to both be aware of our emotional reactions to potential dangers, while also rationally assessing the actual risk to ourselves and others.
Slow-moving mostly-unseen dangers like global warming and a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake (an increasing worry of mine) aren't readily apparent in the same way as a terrorist attack is. Yet preventing further global warming and preparing for the Big One earthquake will save many more lives than obsessing over minor risks that strongly push our emotional Yikes! button.
I liked how Altheide took on sacred cows like the police and military. Support for these institutions is largely based on irrational fears. Crime rates are dropping. The United States faces few threats from the armed forces of other nations.
But those who want to cut funds for police departments and the Defense Department so more pressing national problems can be addressed face a daunting task: breaking through the Fear Barrier erected by those who profit from current spending patterns.
Sure, it is important for the United States to have adequate policing and military forces. However, we already imprison our citizens at a vastly higher rate than any other country. And we spend much more of our GNP on defense than any other country.
What largely keeps the gravy train going are those who profit from Americans being fearful of crime and military threats. For example, the for-profit corporations who run many prisons and defense contractors. Fear can be highly profitable.
Also, politically advantageous.
We now know that invading Iraq wasn't necessary to keep Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons, because this wasn't a genuine risk. But the Bush administration skillfully used fear to justify the invasion after 9/11.
And the Patriot Act was passed in a climate of fear, leading to greatly diminished civil liberties and intrusions on our privacy. Yet Altheide noted that all of the very expensive NSA wiretapping has possibly resulted in no more than three terrorist plots being disrupted (and maybe none).
A post-talk questioner said that he had lived in another country for many years, twenty-five I think it was. After returning to the United States, he was struck by the pervasiveness of fear in our public discourse -- something that isn't evident in other countries. Why is this?
Altheide said that our media industries (such as Fox News), along with other corporate interests (such as the prison and security industry) have a vested interest in manufacturing fear. It sells newspapers and attracts television viewers.
Near the end of his remarks, Altheide noted how the Catholic Church, and now other religions, have also prospered by promoting fear. Eternal damnation in hell is a powerful fear, as is the fear of not being saved.
Those fears, of course, almost certainly are fantasies. There is no hell, and no salvation.
Likewise, many other fears have no basis in reality. We need to learn how to worry about what is truly worrisome, while being properly skeptical of media outlets, politicians, corporations, and others who want us to be afraid so they can profit from baseless fears.
(Here's an Arizona State University piece about Altheide's take on the media's "discourse on fear.")