Don't get anxious, get angry
The Independent seems to going through a very welcome phase of balanced reporting and rational debate. Following on the heels of Cherry Norton's coverage of the polio vaccine scare, which was the subject of a SIRC 'Naming and Praising' award, comes a nicely crafted and well argued piece by the paper's columnist Natasha Walter: Let us be angry, and not fearful.
In her article Ms Walter crisply assesses the mood of the country in the wake of the report on the government's mishandling of the BSE issue, rail and air crashes and the general unease with official reassurances concerning the safety or otherwise of virtually every aspect of the world in which we live. She notes that "It seems as if the longer we live and the safer our lives are, the more we tremble" – something which we at SIRC have been stressing for some time. When there is, in truth, so little for us to fear, we generate false alarms and anxieties about everything from 'Frankenstein food' to sun screen lotions. It is as if there is some inbuilt desire for us to feel in danger – even to revel in the perverse neuroticism that a simple trip to the supermarket can engender.
These false fears, of course, are often instigated and nurtured by environmentalist and consumer groups with their own narrow agendas and large campaign budgets. And the reason they wield such power and influence is, perhaps, as Natasha Walter suggests, the increasing remoteness of government and officialdom:
"What lies behind these surges of anxiety? It's interesting to note that the public and the media tend to alight on scares that can be fed not just with fear, but also with fury. What most have in common is that they are fed and watered by our dissatisfaction with "them", a faceless establishment that seems to direct our lives and over which we have absolutely no control."
Her focus on the 'fury' associated with many irrational scares is very appropriate, and certainly accounts for much of what she describes as the 'vigour' of the BSE issue. We have come to distrust and reject messages and reassurances which emanate from the very people who are, or should be, in the best position to give us accurate and balanced information on the basis of which we can make informed decisions. Ms Walter continues with reference to the anxieties about rail travel resulting from the Hatfield train crash:
"This fear is based not so much on the real risks of death, but again by the presence of a huge faceless establishment that is already the target of our anger: the rail companies. We hate them for that long and freezing evening we spent without a cup of coffee on Doncaster station, waiting for the London train, and the lack of any decent compensation after it arrived two hours late. We hate them for that filthy ride to Weymouth when half the passengers had to sit in the aisles. We hate them so much that we do believe that they would let us die, quite happily, in pursuit of profits."
We can all identify with this sense of impotence, which generates fear and anger in equal proportion. But, as Ms Walter argues succinctly, we should not allow these passions to lead us into false perceptions of risk which have the poptential to cripple the very freedoms which we seek:
"A culture of anger can help us to regain control over our lives, helping us to call bureaucracies to account when they are sloppy and secretive, and to stand up for our rights. But a culture of fear sends us striving pointlessly for a risk-free existence, exaggerates the dangers inherent in everyday life, and only reinforces that sense of loss of control. Which culture will prevail? It's our choice."
Natasha Walter's article is very timely. It comes at a point when many people are expressing grave doubts about the relentless pursuit of unattainably 'safe' lives. The zeitgeist of health and lifestyle correctness is, perhaps, shifting – giving greater credence to the ideas so eloquently expressed in Michael Fitzpatrick's new book The Tyranny of Health. This work, reviewed by SIRC, is already beginning to have impact, even though it has yet to be published, and Ms Walter explicitly draws on it to support her argument. She refers to Fitzpatrick's notion that health scares have now 'acquired a virtually continuous presence in the life of society, coexisting with an unprecedented level of free-floating anxiety about health'. And she sees this same, dangerous trend afflicting many other aspects of our lives:
". our food is safer, crime is falling, our trains and roads are no more dangerous than in previous generations. But still fears are hyped, so we give up uncooked eggs one year, beef the next, we don't let our children play in the streets, and we call up the helplines to find out if we've been given a vaccine that almost certainly poses no real risk to our health."
Natasha Walter omits to mention much about the complicity of the British media in both the generation and the circulation of such irrational fears. But perhaps that is understandable – even The Independent plays a guilty role in this from time to time. Nonetheless, her article lays down a challenge to the print media in particular to separate understandable anger at 'officialdom' from the generation of quite unnecessary and damaging anxieties. Let us hope that the gauntlet is accepted.