America’s Culture of Fear

Fear of crime in the United States is on the rise since the late 1990s (Source: Gallup)

There is one truth that defines modern society; we are safer now than ever before. Whether it is advancements in medicine which have extended the human life span or the sharp decline in over all crime rates since 1990, quality of life continues to rise. Why, then, when asked if there is more crime now than there was a year ago, did 64% of Americans respond “yes” in the year 2020 (according to a publication on the perception of crime by Gallup)?

Although the answer to this question is complex and multifaceted, it all comes from an American cultural tendency toward fear. More specifically, fear which promotes consumerism and separates groups based on class and race. If we are to gain a better understanding of this culture of fear, we should first look to its origins.

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” advertising campaign aimed to prevent drug use in adolescents (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

It is June 18, 1971. President Richard Nixon publishes a special message to Congress in which he declares drug abuse “public enemy number one.” His administration requires mandatory prison sentencing for drug crimes and creates the Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency which has funding of roughly $2 billion today. Many believe that this strict crackdown on drug use in the United States will solve the problem of violent crime and rid the country of a persistent beast. However, these policies fail to acknowledge that drug use comes from fear and anxiety, and violent punishment creates even more fear, as opposed to providing mental support for those affected by it. Thus, unintended consequences of these policies meant that minorities were disproportionately targeted, especially as later administrations (such as Reagan’s) funded the War on Drugs even more heavily.

Drug crime cases that involved African and Latin Americans were covered in the media more often than those of White Americans, creating a cycle in which fear led to more incarcerations and less productive solutions. In fact, in a 1994 interview with one of Nixon’s advisers, John Ehrlichman, he states, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalising both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” When analysing this quote, it is important to realise that it is an oversimplification, and the disruption of those communities that followed was not solely the result of these policies. However, it does give some insight into how this administration injected fear into America.

These policies fail to acknowledge that drug use comes from fear and anxiety, and violent punishment creates even more fear.

Fear does not only come from the country’s drug problem, though. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, fear may enhance customer loyalty. The study discovered that consumers experiencing fear while watching a scary film are more likely to identify with a brand than those watching films that evoke happiness, sadness, or excitement.

Although this study is limited in that it only applies to entertainment media, it may have broader social implications. Look at many Americans’ reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak, for instance: Inflated fear caused by misinformed reporting led to millions rushing to their local Walmart and buying essential goods such as toilet paper. Was a lack of toilet paper the biggest problem facing America as a result of the virus? Not at all, but people will do impulsive things if they think the wellbeing of themselves and their family is on the line.

Empty shelves in Orlando, Fl. as a result of panic buying (Source: Mike Haupt)

The extent of this culture of fear does not end there; the evolution of the cell phone as well as social media has led to increased anxiety and fear of missing out.

In a poll that I conducted with roughly 150 high schoolers, 89% stated that they agreed with the statement “the first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone.” On top of this, 77% agreed with “when I am in an awkward social situation, I fall back on my phone.” When asked if this generation is less sociable as a result of increased social media usage, SAS student Ruhaan Pius said, “I don’t think we’re less sociable, I just think it has changed the way we socialise.” It is clear that these statistics are disturbing, but what do they have to do with fear and anxiety?

This graph shows the % of users who are unhappy with the amount of time spent on each app. Note that the most unhappiness stems from social media applications (Source: The Economist)

According to psychologist Phil Reed, there may be a strong correlation with an increase in screen time and anxiety levels. It isn’t necessarily the use of social media that causes anxiety in the first place, but the reliance on social media when we are anxious makes these feelings worse. This makes sense; we all know the feeling of sluggishness and lack of productivity that comes with excessive social media use. On top of this, lack of regulation means that businesses can use addiction to social media and the anxiety that comes to gain profit.

All of this seems very negative at a time when negativity is more prevalent than ever despite improvements in society. So, how can we turn this trend around? Is it even possible to reverse these cultural patterns in the first place? As with any problem, of course it is possible, it will just be hard. We must remember that feelings of fear and anxiety don’t come from nowhere, but rather come from society and the message that others are spreading. We must take hold of our individual happiness, and find the things that take away our negative feelings rather than add fuel to the fire.

Author: Cameron Ragsdale

Cameron Ragsdale is currently a senior at SAS and this is his first year reporting for The Eye. This is his 10th year in Singapore, having moved back and forth from Austin, TX, starting at the age of 6. He enjoys watching Breaking Bad for the 12th time and listening to music. You can reach him at ragsdale34890@sas.edu.sg

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