exercises in compound storytelling

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Culture of Fear

I mentioned The Culture of Fear by Barry Glassner a few days ago; I'm a little more than halfway through, and I feel like I've got the feel of the book. The subtitle is "Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things: crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage, & so much more."

I hate to start off talking about this book with nit-picking, but it's the sort of book that invites nit-picking. First of all, it's not a "why" book, it's a "how" book, and it isn't really that most of the time. It doesn't talk about why Americans are afraid of the things they're afraid of; Glassner mostly just says "it's the media" and proceeds to pile case on case where the media overrepresented or misrepresented the danger of a particular risk. Maybe it isn't fair to point this out: after all, it's possible to quantify what the media does, more or less. We can count stories, or examine data cited in news stories, but it isn't really possible to quantify the impact on the national psyche of a particular news story. So I guess I have to say this: Glassner appeals to the notion that news stories create fear, but he never really demonstrates that it's true.

Second, Glassner states but does not prove that these are the wrong things, because he does a lousy job of demonstrating what are the right things to be afraid of. Glassner consistently gives solid-looking numbers when undermining the news stories he presents as being wrong, but the numbers tend to vanish when he sets out to demonstrate what are the right things to be afraid of: namely guns and poverty.

This is about half of a really good book; I just wish Glassner was as careful in presenting the things he believes as he is when presenting the things he doesn't believe.

This may or may not be a good place to put this, but here's a list of words that always set off alarm bells in my head when I'm reading a book where someone is trying to disprove some conventional wisdom and present an alternative explanation:
  • really
  • very
  • extremely
  • horribly
  • right-wing
  • left-wing
  • inexcusable
  • inextricably
  • refuted
  • -ism
  • -ist
Some of these are what are sometimes called weasel words, while others are labels, but they all have a common purpose: they're used to strengthen the impact of arguments without strengthening the arguments themselves. Weasel words are used to raise the emotional content of an argument without presenting additional facts; labels are used to attribute characteristics to its target without demonstrating that the target has those characteristics.

Glassner's book is full of this sort of thing, but he's not alone.

It's a shame, too, because he's chosen a great topic.

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