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.