Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Culture of Fear (Not Just American)

Now, way back in 1999, there was a guy called Barry Glassner, who wrote a book called The Culture of Fear. It was all about scaremongering in american media, and how it had a knock-on effect of drawing attention away from larger threats (online pedophilia coverage leading to ignoring domestic abuse, that sort of thing.) But, to me, the term "Culture of Fear" doesn't just cover the media. It covers a much greater cultural problem.

We are taught to fear the strange, the different. We are often conditioned to distrust a friendly gesture, because it might have strings attached to it. This, as you might expect, leads to other problems: Homophobia, Islamophobia, Russophobia, Gyno- and Androphobia... The list goes on... And on... And on. Because while we are taught to fear the stranger, our guidance on which strangers to fear doesn't just depend on our teachers, or our authority figures (each with their own flaws and possible prejudices), but on our experiences. Let's use yours truly as an example.

I'm not ashamed to say that I instinctively dislike loud people, people who are in physically demanding professions, and women who show no obvious intellectual leanings, and this is for two reasons. Firstly, knowing that instinct is there means being able to deal with it. I'm sure there are some swole friends and family members who are somewhat surprised to learn this. Secondly, I know where it comes from (bad experiences, at least some of which were at least partially my fault, in school, school, and college, respectively.) I could babble on for hours about all the little tics and prejudices I've built up as a relatively self aware man, but I won't, because it would be boring. But let's briefly go into another reason why I could be saying that, as another example.

"Man up", "Be strong", "Grow a pair." All of these things, or some variation thereof, will be quite familiar to people discussing the negative side of their feelings. But they'll also be mentioned when, say, you like a girl, and don't feel confident enough to ask her out. It's meant as a confidence booster, in many cases. But it doesn't always work out that way. Sometimes, it's construed that feelings are a sign of weakness. I'll occasionally hear such things from my window (overlooking the main road) in both constructive and destructive contexts. But there is a general theme here: Feelings Bad, Face Good.

Actually, that's one of the more interesting things I've taken away from my English course: The concept of Face. Face (to any little green men reading this) is the concept that our social worth is presented by the image we present to the world. But the qualitative value we give to Face depends entirely on the subculture we're presenting to. For example, in Retail/Corporate culture, this visually means a very specific sort of image (Longer hair only on women, clean shaven, dressed in uniform, preferably smartly), and following the rules of the store and culture, sometimes to your own detriment (Always treat a customer with respect, Look happy/pleasant, even when you're not feeling it, that sort of thing). Obviously, measures are taken to minimise harm to your mental and physical well being (You have a certain amount of paid "Sick days", holiday, etc, counselling is sometimes available)

But certain values of Face hold across subcultures, and indeed subcultures: Do not confide in strangers, do not burden others with your woes (both because you will make them feel worse, and because you are giving someone a free pass to your weaknesses), do not sing in buses (for lo, it annoys others, especially if you can't actually sing in tune)... The list goes on. These are, as I'm sure will be appreciated, for people's protection, but, partly due to the media aspect of the Culture of Fear, and partly due to humankind's general lack of capability with "soft" rules like this (We humans don't do exceptions to rules well), people often err on the side of caution (a common human phrase) to their own detriment.

So now we come to what brought this whole ham-handed discussion of a very big (and very sensitive) subject: I'm a friendly guy, but I'm the first to admit I'm not good with this whole "socialising" thing... Mainly the communication end of things (Yes, I know, there are peeps who think I'm "witty", "a laugh", and "smart", but like the rest of you, I'm dumb as well as smart, and just as likely to put my foot in my mouth or depress folks as anyone else... Good examples being me turning my lunch into charcoal briquettes today, and this blog post). So it mystifies me when I make a gesture I see as friendly, and it's misinterpreted as "creepy" (this has happened quite a few times), or is ignored. Sometimes, after the fact, there is a perfectly logical explanation afterwards of why this was a dumb or creepy thing to do, and this always elicits a hefty apology from me, but many times, I make simple, friendly gestures, and they're either rebuffed harshly, ignored, or people look at me as if I've grown a second head.

I haven't, as an aside, but not for want of trying. A second head would rock. Anyways, in closing, I want to reassure people: Yes, there are bad people, but most folks are just trying to get through their lives, and some of us just wanna be helpful. These helpful people are, again, mostly not schmucks, or out for something (except maybe a new friend), and even the not-so-helpful people are mostly okay, with roughly the same amount of little neuroses, tics, and prejudices as the next person.

Here's a really good example of a good sentiment tainted by cultural prejudice: The world would be a cooler place if people understood each other. "Isn't that just corny, LOL?!?"

Doesn't make it any less true. Anyways, if you thought this was whiny, welcome to the Human Race. We kinda suck, but you're a part of it too, and you can make it better.

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