The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

The other day, I had a discussion of the politics of fear with Doug Thomas (USC), Carrie James (Harvard), and Larry Johnson (The New Media Consortium) as part of a gathering of MacArthur foundation grantees working on their Youth and Digital Learning Initiative. I was pretty happy with some of the ideas that emerged from that conversation so I thought I would share them with my readers.

Let’s start with an example of how the politics of fear works. Consider, for example, the case of a recently proposed piece of legislation here in Massachusetts which would regulate violent video games as in effect a form of pornography. Here’s how GamePolitics describes the legislation:

The proposed legislation, which does not yet have a primary sponsor, would block underage buyers from purchasing any game which:

* depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors

* is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors

* and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

The bill in question was written by Jack Thompson, who has sought similarly legislation around the country and has consistently been overturned by court decisions. Interestingly enough, the most outspoken backer of this law is none other than Boston Mayor Thomas Menino — who is, incidentally, the same local politician who is responsible for the city’s gross over-reaction to the Aqua Hunger Force signs the other week. I find myself pondering why we can’t just tell people that Menino is someone who has demonstrated already that he is so out of touch with popular culture that he can’t tell the difference between a cartoon character and a bomb and that he is someone who is afraid of his own shadow (or more accurately, who understands the political advantages to be gained by fostering a climate of fear). Given the current logic of the way our fear-based politics functions, we might expect them to ban cartoon characters on airplanes and have our children line up to be searched for coloring books and stuffed toys before they can pass through security!

Or consider the case of the late and unlamented Deleting Online Predators Act which would have prohibited school and public libraries which receive federal funds from allowing patrons to access social network and blogging software. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has introduced a new piece of legislation, the so-called Protecting Children in the 21st Century act, which would incorporate and expand upon many of the more noxious features of the original DOPA. I am sure we will be talking about this more in the months ahead. It would seem to one of the clear hallmarks of the politics of fear is the use of the term, “protection” or “protecting” in the name of the legislation.

In both cases, these bills, which are based on a fundamentally wrong-headed understanding of the issues they are designed to address, attracted or are likely to attract significant levels of bipartisan support. Indeed, in a highly partisan political climate, these kind of bills may be the only pieces of legislation which pass with little or no debate and with overwhelming support.

Why? Well, consider what it would mean to be opposed to a bill which promised to protect young people from online predators. And indeed, even if you decided to oppose such a bill, you either would have to deny that the problem existed (which would leave you to be labeled as hopelessly out of touch with the darker side of reality since these bills usually feed on at least some high profile tragedies or some sensationalized news report) or you would have to suggest the problem is not as bad as has been claimed (in which case your acknowledgment of the problem will be used as evidence of how wide spread the concern being addressed really is.) So, the politics of fear works because the costs of opposing the child protection acts are simply too high, especially in an era where political leaders are permanently raising money and campaigning for re-election.

The politics of fear also works because the benefits of a fear-based politics are so high. Basically, such legislation enjoys bipartisan support because it allows culturally conservative Republicans to appeal to their base and liberal Democrats to show their independence from theirs. Why do Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Clinton line up behind pretty much any piece of legislation which would restrict free expression in the name of protecting young people? Because it allows them to adopt positions which make them see “moderate” and appeal to so-called “security moms” without really crossing any core constituency. There would be costs in, say, opposing abortion but there is no real cost in trying to regulate youth access to digital technology.

The politics of fear works because it serves the interest of the news media in two ways: First, the mass media are feeling the erosion of their consumer base to digital media. If they can convince parents that it is unsafe to allow their sons and daughters to go online or play video games, they may slow the erosion. They have little to fear from alienating those young viewers further since they are already defecting in great numbers and essentially mass media news speaks to an older consumer base. Second, fear-based coverage leaves us glued to the set, seeking out more information. We are doomed to go from one crisis to another, to have Anna Nicole Smith’s death and custody battle push Barack Obama’s announcement for the presidency off the lead slot on CNN, because fear and outrage trumps hope everytime.

Justine Cassell and I have been talking some recently about the gender dimensions of this fear based politics. Specifically, the ways that there have been recurring efforts throughout modern history to capitalized on the perceived sexual threat young women face from any new media and on the perceived threat of violence and aggression which surround young men’s relations to any emerging technology. In other words, we are consistently being taught to fear for our daughters and to be afraid of our sons. This fear based politics plays an important role in normalizing and regulating gender relations.

So what do we do about it?

We need to stigmatize the politics of fear. We need to call it what it is — not protection but fear mongering. We need to construct a counter-narrative in which fear-based politics is itself a threat to our families because it locks our young people out of access to knowledge, skills, and experience which they need to learn and grow and in many cases, because it prevents those kids who are most at risk from access to information that they need to pursue good jobs and educational opportunities in the future. Such bills are dangerous both because they undercut core constitutional rights and because they distract us from locating real solutions to the “problems” that they are allegedly designed to combat. DOPA and its sequel will do nothing about actual child molestation other than to leave children even more vulnerable because they have to access these social networking sites outside of schools and public libraries. The legislation that goes after violent video games will do nothing to address the actual causes of violence in the lives of American teens.

Right now, we are tending to go after the politics of fear with facts. Indeed, we do need facts, not to mention a more reasoned perspective (and that is going to be one of the real values of the work the MacArthur foundation is doing in the area of youth and digital learning) but as a range of recent progressive writers (George Lakov, Steve Duncombe, Tom Frank) have suggested, we also need to think about how we frame the issues, the kinds of stories we deploy to explain those facts, the kind of language we use to define the debate, and the kinds of fantasies we mobilize on the part of our supporters.

We need to define the issues in ways that appeal across party lines. The politics of fear is not an ideological issue — at least not one which can be defined along Liberal/Conservative lines. Just as many “Liberal” Democrats line up to support attempts to regulate free expression and association or restrict privacy in the name of combating fear, there are libertarians on both the left and the right who would oppose those regulatory efforts and who would be willing to stand up against the moral blackmail which underlies them. In a context where some Liberal Democrats back such legislation, any campaign which assumes conservatives are the bad guys and progressives the righteous ones is doomed to fail, simply fracturing the Left without mobilizing potential supporters on the right.

We need to be able to translate our insights and information, our alternative perspective, into concrete advice which can help parents and teachers to address the concerns that are currently being addressed only by those who are advancing the moral panic. Right now, most writing about media for parents starts from assumption that media is a social problem and that the best form of parenting is to limit if not prohibit outright any and all access to media. We need to develop alternative approaches to parenting that translate our understanding of the value of digital media for children and youth into specific principles and actions which allow parents to maximize benefits and minimize risks and which address the kinds of fears that lead them open to regulatory solutions.

Might we see this anti-fear politics as something like the Take Back the Night movement on American college campuses? Yes and No. In some ways, Take Back the Night is an empowerment movement: participants refuse to live in fear; they seek to reclaim the streets by collectively confronting the risks and by learning skills that might allow them to feel greater control over their own situation. In some ways, the Take Back the Night movement depends on the cultivation of fear — creating a sense of victimization which can fuel the protest in the first place. We need to learn the right lessons here.

A key element of the campaign against fear would be the need to create a space where young people could speak about their own experiences with digital media and be taken seriously on their own terms. This is going to be hard to pull off because even well meaning groups have a tendency to patronize or suppress aspects of youth expression. In Convergence Culture, I raised the question of whether free speech advocates in the Muggles for Harry Potter campaign may have promoted the right of young people to read J.K. Rowling’s books at the expense of forcing them to recant their fantasy lives. Young person after young person posted messages explaining that they knew that the world of Hogwarts was purely fantasy and that it had no meaningful connection to their everyday lives. Something similar happens when gamers try to defend their relationship to violent video games: they end up arguing that Grand Theft Auto is “only a game” and that it doesn’t have any influence on their everyday lives. Surely, there needs to be a space for meaningful fantasy in our discourse about the right of people to participate in their culture.

One of the ways that a politics of fear works is by convincing us that we have to act because everyone is afraid. Yet, many of us are not quite as frightened as the political leaders want us to believe. Perhaps one way forward would be to produce a fear index that functioned more or less in the opposite way that the terror index currently works. The terror index amplifies the perception of risk in order to justify government regulation. A fear index might demonstrate that there is less fear in our culture and thus allow us to rally behind the idea of less government regulation over our lives.

At the end of the day, we need to convince more Americans that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.


  1. I agree with you that one of the worst parts of the politics of fear (and fear-mongering) is that is pushes aside more meaningful news items. It glorifies speculation in favour of fact. It lowers the debate to the level of what Stephen Colbert calls “Wikiality,” or reality by consensus — whether that consensus is informed or not.

    Regarding DOPA and related issues, I can only feel irritation at the focus being shifted to external threats when some children are at equal (if not greater) risk from threats at home, due to the structure of laws that punish molesters. In all states (with the exception of Arkansas, North Carolina, and New York) incest is a probationary offense. That means that the rapist can go home with his or her own victim. It’s a holdover from a 1981 “family protection” amendment that says families should be kept together to “work things out,” if one family member has been charged with assault. In effect, it punishes the victim for speaking out against the rapist. It rankles that Congress has chosen to divert its energy once again to a vague, amorphous threat, rather than dealing with the monsters who live at home.

  2. Don Collins says:

    Like your topic and agree that the fear mongering of the Bush administration has been over the top. However, we need to report the facts and in today’s mad world it is hard not to reveal fear at learning how despicably Bush has behaved. We want to know the facts, for example, about the Ramos Campean case which could be another Watergate.

  3. I have been a personal and professional fan of yours for some time now Dr. Jenkins. The eloquence with which you summarize and communicate complex social problems and offer tantalizing and thought-provoking solutions must be at least as inspiring to your students at MIT as it is to those of us outside – and for that I hope they appreciate how fortunate they are.

    You have succeeded in summarizing the plight of the interactive entertainment industry with regard to anti-games, and now anti-gamer legislation, over the past decade or more that I have been involved. To legislators, this is simply a non-issue – one not to be considered legally, morally, or ethically. In my previous role as head of the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA), the retail trade group which represented the leading merchants of games nationally, time and again we would testify in front of committees filled with intelligent popular legislators… many of whom were/are attorneys, who would publicly admit that they felt that they had no choice but to vote for a clearly unconstitutional law that they were certain wouldn’t pass muster. My colleagues and I would sit there pontificating the facts and expounding the truth, to no avail.

    The problem, I came to realize, was that there was no pain. Legislators would benefit from the main stream media coverage, gain state-wide if not national notoriety and win elections – often times in no small part to their crusification of the vile video game business.

    Following the successful merger of the IEMA and a parallel trade group which represented video store owners, the ex-IEMA staff set about launching a new non-profit organization, this time representing the one and only group which had gone completely unrepresented in the debate throughout its tumultuous history, gamers.

    We soft-launched the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA) back in October of last year with the notion that we could affect real and lasting change, turn the tide, and quite frankly, bring the pain. By building a membership organization of computer and video game players it is our hope that we can shed some much-needed light on the subject. We intend to establish regional or state-level chapters, where our members (with the guidance and assistance of our Government and Public Relations staff) can be the ones testifying. The constituents. The voters. It is they who can make the difference by simply getting involved – signing petitions, being vocal on our forums, lending their voice to a new collective and then channeling it.

    Local media covering hearings would love nothing better than to have well-educated, voting age hard-core gamers show up and educate the polls about who we really are, as opposed to who they make us out to be.

    We, collectively, need to get out ahead of these issues and stop reacting to them. This defensive posture has, for too long, beaten down an industry… an art form, which should be helping define who we are as a people to at least as much a degree as music, movies or television… at least.

    Although the ECA is brand new, and will need to reach a critical mass before we can truly affect change, I believe it is the first major step that we can all take together in redefining the rules of this incredibly important game.



    Hal Halpin, pres.


  4. For me, this puts a great label on what I have seen many times over the years working with the military.

    For example: A new initiative comes out to provide more security for a facility. No matter how ridiculous or frivolous the idea, if you contest it you’re labeled someone who doesn’t care about security, or worse: potentially a security risk yourself.

    Great topic. Fantastic analysis.

  5. Eric Benson says:

    You words make me afraid. We should ban words.

  6. “Something similar happens when gamers try to defend their relationship to violent video games: they end up arguing that Grand Theft Auto is “only a game” and that it doesn’t have any influence on their everyday lives. Surely, there needs to be a space for meaningful fantasy in our discourse about the right of people to participate in their culture.”

    That’s a *very* interesting comment, and hits square on the head the feeling of disquiet I have whenever hearing or indeed committing apologetics for a fantasy life.

    The question is how we frame the positive aspects of our fantasies. Let’s give it a go with Grand Theft Auto…

    * In GTA, I get to do things that I’d like to do in the real world, but wouldn’t because if the risk, the fact I’d hurt others, the law, and so on. That’s great from an empowerment point of view (no matter how good or necessary laws are, they are by definition disempowering), and it’s also great because I get to try these behaviours out and think “Hey, when I steal this car and go joyriding, I end up crawling from a burning wreck. Maybe that’s not a great idea in real life, even if all the other obstacles were put away.”

    Of course, we can *reason* through the consequences of doing such things, but we can’t experience them – and as both psychotherapists and martial arts instructors know, there’s no substitute for actually experiencing a situation, even in a virtual world.

    * We get to let the parts of us that we might not like free, and in doing so understand them.

    I’m maybe not wild about the fact that there’s a part of me that would like to, again, beat up a guy and steal his car. But if that part of me wasn’t there, I wouldn’t like GTA so much.

    Hating and fearing your less socially acceptable emotions and instincts isn’t a good way to lead a fulfilled life. By letting them out to play in the context of, well, play, we can learn to better understand them, acccept them, and hence gain peace and control of them.

    (Again, I’m drawing from martial arts here. See the “Adrenal Response Training” that the F.A.S.T. groups do, for example – rated “Best Women’s Self Defence Course” in 2006, they work by drawing out the violent fight-or-flight reflex, and teaching the participants to use that for self-defence and personal empowerment.)

    * Sometimes we learn something useful.

    I have a lot of very shy friends. Some of them hated the idea of Grand Theft Auto, but really enjoyed it when they played it. Now, I’m not definitely drawing a connection here, but said friends have, over the years, played a lot of violent, aggressive games, and have also become steadily more confident with being aggressive themselves when necessary (and it is often necessary – not always physical aggression, but sometimes verbal or even personal aggression).

    In role-playing of any kind, we sometimes discover that by pretending to a behaviour, we discover something we can use well in the real world. And there are a lot of people in the world who would be helped by being more aggressive, not less.

    And that’s not all GTA teaches us. When playing GTA we have to learn to be quick-thinking – handy in real life. We have to learn when to attack and when to retreat – useful in real life. And so on.

    * GTA is relaxing. It’s fun. It’s an adrenaline rush. After a hard day’s work, there’s very little to beat grabbing a Ferrari, cranking up the New Wave on the radio (OK, I’m a Vice City fan), and driving very fast down the wrong side of the street.

    And I’m not doing that thinking “Hmm, you know, this isn’t real, or relevant to my real life.”. I’m there. I’m imagining I’m in the Ferrari. I’m enjoying the feeling of speed. It’s only when I stop (or crash. OK, usually crash) that I get back to reality.

    The same’s even more true of more immersive fiction. When I’m reading Harry Potter, I’m Harry, dammit. When I’m watching Buffy, I’m – well, actually Giles or Xander, but that’s not really the point.

    Human beings are capable of dipping in and out of realities. It’s one of our strengths. We can be completely immersed in beating the crap out of some stool pigeon, and then turn around and politely respond to our fellow player offering us a cup of tea.

    Trying to pretend that you never, never believe that something is real is missing the point – the escape is in believing it’s real, for the duration of the experience. And provided you can come back – as 99.999% of the population can – it’s one of the most powerful tools for happiness we’ve got.

    OK, that’s a first, fairly sucky attempt. I’ll keep thinking about this. Thanks for the (as always) fascinating post.

  7. An excellent post as always. Whenever the issue of legislating access to video games comes up, the words of Mark Twain come to mind: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

  8. AnonAmbientLight says:

    Amazing. Now we need to get this in the hands of all polititians.

    I propose that everyone e-mail and mail copies of this blog to their goveners and state reps.

  9. David A. says:

    I am always amused by our politicians efforts in regulating the internet, for our own good of course. I think you take them way too seriously, Henry. Efforts to rein in violent video games will have no more effect on their sales than the CAN-SPAM Act had on the amount of spam I get in my inbox. It’s all a dog and pony show. The reason they can make propose such irresponsible, and quite possibly unconstitutional legislation, is that is that they know it will have no effect on anything — for a wide variety of legal, technological and commercial reasons. Furthermore, they get the no-risk benefit of appearing to be “doing something” about the problem.

    What the politicians fail to realize is just how foolish and ineffectual it makes them look from the prospective of up-and-coming generations of voters. How is anyone going to take them seriously in the future?