I recently purchased the entire run of the Twilight Zone on DVD, and we started watching it tonight. It’s interesting to see how much people’s fears have changed over the years. I’m not talking about the plots of each show, wherein the antagonistic subject is usually something that plays on common fears of the time. What I’m referring to are the social fears of everyday situations and events that occur incidentally throughout the show, and how much that’s changed over the last fifty years.
For instance, the second episode, “A Pitch For the Angels”, features an old salesman in around his sixties who hangs around with children in his neighborhood, often alone with them. At one point, he even says, and I’m nearly quoting, “I have a fondness for the children, you see.” Nowadays, this would scream “pedophile”. Mothers would be tugging their children away from the old man, whose goofball antics would come across as more creepy than endearing. And if he knew what was best for him, he’d never be caught alone with a child, because the potential accusations could destroy his life.
For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to do what most people neglect to do and separate sexual attraction to teenagers from sexual attraction to children, as they are indeed different things. Sexual assault against, for instance, a fifteen year old isn’t technically “pedophilia”. Another point to make is that there’s no real way to know exactly the statistics of sexual abuse, as cases frequently go unreported. Many of the statistics I was actually able to find seemed to include information that seemed suspicious, and often conflated child abuse with child sexual abuse, so it was hard to really gather any useful information from it. In any event, it’s safe to say that it’s worse than we know, but not as bad as we fear. But I’m not about to talk about the intricacies of sexual abuse statistics — for this discussion, we need only focus on the generalities and likelihoods.
With this disclaimer in mind, let’s consider some things. Out of all men middle aged and older, it’s a safe bet that the number of pedophiles is less than five percent. Of those who enjoy the company of children, probably less than twenty percent. In other words, it’s an extremely minimal threat. Likely, it’s only slightly more a threat than when the aforementioned episode was filmed. Yet the fear now is far greater than it was then, a grotesque response to an extremely exaggerated threat.
In Al Gore’s book “The Assault On Reason”, he discusses televised news media, and provides a reminder of the perspective with which we should view it: Like all television, the purpose isn’t to provide a quality show, but to sell advertising. And nobody wants to hear about the house that didn’t burn down. Or, more pertinent to this discussion, the child that wasn’t molested. It’s what sells the news, and retains viewers. The worse the story, the more people are watching, the more advertising is seen, the more products are sold, the more money the station makes. As a result, Gore concludes, people have developed a distorted view of the world, where dangers are amplified and threats overblown. When people in some middle-of-nowhere town in Kansas feel personally in direct danger of a terrorist attack, there’s something very wrong.
Similarly, when parents believe that any given man in his thirties or older is a potential pedophile, or that every time their child wanders away for a moment, they’ve been kidnapped or are in immediate danger of such, or that Dear God! Billy’s in danger from [insert random threat], there’s a definite distortion in the public’s ability to assess threats. I’m not advocating that parents never be careful about their children, but there’s no reason for people to be nearly as afraid and paranoid as they are, given the reality of the likelihoods of such events occurring. And the likely reason for that severe escalation in fear over the last half a century is the increased sensationalization of televised news, and, as Al Gore points out, the decline of printed news or interest therein.
(An aside: Several years ago, I had a boss who was very conservative, but his definitions and reasons were rather bizarre. He claimed that the newspaper exhibited a “liberal bias” because its reports weren’t violent or graphic enough. I’m still unsure what exactly to make of this, but there seems to be a possible relationship.)
Meanwhile, people are missing the real threats that are actually present in their lives. But the media isn’t entirely to blame — individuals often fail to actually research any subject, instead accepting at face value any news report, or anything their friend’s mother’s gardener’s grandmother heard or read about. Janet’s aunt’s friends are all dying or suffering from cancer earlier in life, quite possibly related to the fact that they live in a reportedly rather polluted valley, yet she’s kind of New Agey and her major fear is microwaved food. Or look at nuclear power: One is exposed to more radiation from a day in the sun than from a year living near a nuclear power facility, yet people are terrified by it, and there are many who protest its use. Overblown newscasts of the few failures (granted, a nuclear power plant meltdown is a major event) can be contrasted against the lack of reports on the many plants that operate flawlessly, and the technological advancements that ensure such meltdowns will never happen again. Nobody wants to hear about the reactor that doesn’t explode. Or airplane travel: Statistically, many, many more people die behind the wheel of an automobile. But airline crashes make national news. Or school shootings: There’s maybe one every several years, yet when they do happen, they’re covered and discussed for weeks afterward. Yet at the same time, nobody wants to vaccinate their goddamned kids against one of the few viruses that can actually be spread via toilet seat.
It’s bizarre, because five million people catch HPV every year — it’s a significant threat to people’s health. But you don’t hear about it every time it’s detected in someone in a screening at the doctor’s office. Instead, you find yourself inundated with reports about and references to the one or two people who kill a dozen people one time, which happens every several years.
With so much more attention given to threats like terrorist attacks and school shootings than the dangers that really exist, and with so many more people changing the way they live and their comfortability with and trust of everyone around them because of disproportionate news coverage, must we really cling to our illusion that terrorism is exclusively a fear-inspiring act that involves violence? Isn’t it just as effective — if not more — to inspire fear through media reporting itself? If so, what’s really the difference between terrorists trying to influence our actions through threatening harm, and newscasters trying to influence our actions through exaggerating threats of harm?