Andy Blunden October 2004

19 Theses on the politics of scare-mongering
Draft outline of an article submitted to Arena Journal, October 2004

  1. Any analysis of the politics of scare-mongering must rest on consideration of the general structure of anxiety, risk-aversion and risk-seeking in a society, as well as the institutional structures implicated in scare-mongering.
  2. Scare-mongering is not the exclusive property of any of political camp, but is used by all parties, social movements, lobby groups, professional and special interest organisations.
  3. Life is neither more nor less risky today than at any other time; no-one could ever pay attention to all the dangers and potential gambles life presents; the point is not the quantity of risk, but the structure of risk, risk perception (selection of risks) and response to risk (blame).
  1. Perception of risk and risk attribution reflect ethical and moral sentiment which are objectified in social institutions generating, advertising and coping with risks.
  1. The nature/culture division is determined differently by different cultures, but generally speaking culture, and therefore the scope for blame and responsibility is very broad today:
  1. Human beings are by nature somewhat over-intrepid (we drive cars, eat fatty food, marry and have children); risk-aversion is above all an expression of moral revulsion and political enmity.
  1. Scares campaigns are effective if they are presented to the public with skill and are:
  1. Scares can be dispelled by sufficiently skilful and resolute action:
    However, the most difficult problem is the underlying conditions which predispose people to believe certain kinds of scares which align with their moral sentiments and specific insecurities. This can only be dealt with by changing social practices.
  1. People who have access to the world only through the TV (or otherwise through a restricted channel), are more likely to be afraid of something than people who are practically exposed to the relevant risk and are consequently familiar with it. This observation does point to a vulnerability in modern society as much of our personal communication is supplanted by the mass media.
  1. The means of public communication have a great role to play in transmitting scare campaigns, but equally in debunking scares. The media is an arena of struggle over risk as much as any other institution or any other part of society; consequently it would be wrong to single out the media (as a whole) in blame for scare campaigns — different social forces are at work within it.
  1. In a “post-materialist” society, distribution of bads overtakes the distribution of goods as the central problem of distributive justice.
  1. The level of risk-seeking and risk-aversion is normative — the lifestyle of dominant cultural groups setting a standard for others whose lifestyle would normally be associated with a different level of risk-taking.
  1. Shared perception of risk is a means of social control and cooperation, just as much is a shared conception of the good. Those who engage in risky behaviour are social deviants.
  2. The poor are rational to be interested in low-probability/high-reward practices (gambling) and relatively indifferent to risks (it couldn’t get any worse); those better off are rational to be averse to low-probability disasters (and take out insurance) and relatively uninterested in gambles.
  3. Institutions draw attention to threats at their own level, and relevant to their own domain of responsibility;
  1. Institutions have to be able to protect agents and decision-makers from blame, to avoid paralysing defensive action. The trend toward privatisation of public responsibility, promotes litigation and public liability insurance, adding to ever-expanding regulations which are paralysing institutions. The two possible responses are:
    The latter response is normal in Australia today.
  1. Institutions and groups advertise dangers which affect their own interests, at the expense of larger dangers which affect other groups, but not themselves. Women’s groups exaggerate the dangers of breast implants, rape, domestic violence; charities highlight the dangers of gambling, poverty, exploitative employers; employer groups demand the need for instant dismissal, deregulation, etc. This mirrors the fact that institutions by definition promote goods specific to their social role.
  2. To the extent that people and groups identify themselves as victims, they perceive all risks as involuntary and unjust, willingly embrace scare campaigns which reinforce their status as victims, and seek compensation and recognition for the harm they suffer.
  1. When you choose your institutions and social practices, you choose your goods and your choose your risks. A risk-free society is a society free of ideals and a conception of the good.