Fear Of Everything
Why we’re in the mess we’re in and why we probably won’t get out of it
Sometimes I look at pictures of the cave paintings at Lascaux and I wonder if their real purpose was to terrify the audience. I can imagine a proto-journalist caveperson pointing to a big bison or heavily-antlered buck on the cave wall, seeming to move in the flickering light of an oil lamp, and shouting, “It’s going to kill us all unless we kill it first! And, did you know, magic herbs shoved up our noses can protect us against these threats? Here, I just happen to have some magic herbs you can buy…”
The fact is, we humans have always been astonishingly stupid and gullible. Not surprisingly, there have always been a few fractionally more cunning humans out there to take advantage of us.
The human brain didn’t evolve to perform thinking tasks; indeed, quite the opposite. As thinking can burn up to 30% of available blood glucose and as that very glucose was usually required for running away from danger or seeking food, we evolved explicitly to avoid thinking as much as possible.
Today, we’ve accomplished our evolutionary goal: we rarely think at all.
Instead, we have the media to tell us what to believe and repeat. And because the media knows fear sells better than anything else, we have a media full of fear, every minute of every day of every year.
This is perhaps humanity’s supreme accomplishment. We’ve created the means to ensure everyone on the planet is simultaneously utterly ignorant and utterly terrified. Our cave-dwelling ancestors would be proud if they could see this magnificent achievement for themselves.
One or two might even have some magic herbs they could sell us.
We’re all familiar with the WebMD Effect: got a sore throat? Five minutes on that laughably useless website will convince you that not only are you dying of covid-19 but you’re also simultaneously dying of esophageal cancer, leukemia, anaphylactic shock, and a rare genetic disease that was last diagnosed in 1997. Oh, and you’ve probably also got hives from eating lentils.
We’re supremely lucky that today, thanks to our marvelous global media organizations, we can experience the WebMD Effect every moment of our lives. We can now be terrified of immigrants coming to rape our guns and steal our wives while taking our jobs, terrified of civil war, of being kidnapped and people-trafficked, of SARS-CoV2, of coups d’etat, of climate change,of Islamic extremists, of plastic, of pointy-head libruls trying to teach us how to read, and of all manner of other absolutely truly existential threats that will destroy society and us along with it in the next two and a quarter minutes.
Or maybe sooner.
As we know from several reasonably-constructed studies, when we are afraid most activity the prefrontal cortex of the brain is suppressed by the hippocampus. As the prefrontal cortex is where on rare occasions we attempt to perform thinking, this means that fear makes us even more abjectly stupid than usual. Which is quite an impressive accomplishment.
When we’re afraid we’re even more inclined to look for simple-minded “solutions” to complex problems. We’re even more inclined to demonize those whom we’ve been informed (by some purported authority figure) are The Enemy. We’re even more inclined to act precipitously in a desperate search for something that will temporarily relieve our anxiety overload. And we’re hardwired under such circumstances to fall eagerly into line behind a Great Leader who will save us.
In other words, the endless media torrent of fear and misinformation we consume induces precisely the worst and most destructive hardwired human behaviors and precludes those behaviors that would actually stand some modest chance of enabling us to tackle our problems and make improvements.
No one escapes Fear Of Everything. Mindless waddling Trumpies and Brexiteers chant their brain-dead slogans and want to lynch everyone with a measurable IQ. Mindless terrified liberals believe facemasks and social distancing will save us from a cataclysmic viral threat that all the data shows is in reality an extremely minor problem. But that’s OK, because nobody looks at the data. Sensational headlines and earnest speaking-to-camera are all we need.
Keep it simple. Keep it compelling. Keep it fearful.
That’s the recipe the media learned long ago and the Internet makes it so much easier to deliver.
There’s no clever plot constructed by the managers of Alphabet, Fox News, the BBC, France24, the New York Times, etc. All they are doing, and all their countless minions are doing, is protecting their revenue streams.
All the people who work in the media are just doing what comes naturally: doing more of what works. And what works is generating endless fear.
There’s no Master Plan and no conspiracy; we’re all just monkeys pushing buttons to obtain reward pellets. There’s no thinking going on anywhere because we humans don’t do thinking. We just do whatever gets us those reward pellets. And so the media generates an endless tsunami of toxic mind-junk and we’re addicted to consuming it no matter how much it harms us.
If we were not all so afraid all the time, we might realize that our consumption of content is akin to drinking four bottles of vodka per day. Sure, we’re addicted and sure, we can’t stop ourselves. But is it what we ought to be doing?
Today and tomorrow and every day thereafter, each of us has a choice: do we want to be trapped inside Fear Of Everything or do we want to stop drinking and sober up?
Maybe, when we’re not being endlessly terrified, we might actually be able to attempt a little thinking. Maybe, when we’re not perpetually afraid, we might have a moment or two when we can clear our heads, look at real information, and make more adequate assessments of the situation. And then try to make things better.
Or we can keep on drinking from the fountain of endless fear and make things worse and worse and worse.
The choice is ours.
Which choice will you make today?