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FEAR IS A VIRUS
Don’t let fear control you
In Douglas Adam’s book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, the story’s main protagonist is the hapless Arthur Dent, saved in the nick of time, just before his house and the entire planet is wiped out to make room for a new interstellar galactic highway. During his journey across the universe, Dent is dispensed some wise advice from time to time, which may be useful for how to proceed in 2022. The advice? WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T PANIC. I think our media, health authorities and government representatives might do well to re-read or read this little work of fiction if they haven’t done so already. Panic is anxiety writ large. And no good decision was ever made from a state of high anxiety.
Let’s take a look at the media’s recent headlines regarding the new Omicron variant as an example:
Omicron poses a fresh COVID threat for the UK, with fears of 1 million cases by the New Year
NSW resists lockdowns as Omicron places hospitals on ‘red alert’
Omicron may be coming to test us again
These are just some of the recent scary sounding headlines regarding this new variant (even though the data so far is showing it to be a lot less dangerous than previous variants.) But, headlines, much like an anxious mind, tend to be reductionist and extreme. Often appealing to shock, sensationalism, and lowest common factors. Why is that? Well ever since newspapers have been around, editors have capitalised on one thing. Fear. Especially when it concerns something that is close to home, or possibly something that could affect the reader (or listener personally), fear sells.
A life-threatening virus that could strike anyone at any time, certainly fits the bill. And with today’s online 24-hour news cycle, journalists and editors need to keep coming up with stories and headlines that grab the reader’s attention enough to click on the headline. Once a upon a time, a newspaper had 1 or 2 editions a day to prepare. These days news is delivered around the clock. Perhaps, the bar needs to creep higher and higher to move the needle on the average person’s conscious awareness. Regardless, what newspaper editors know today, as they have always known, is the quickest way to do that is though the emotional mid brain, and our most primal and easily accessed emotion, fear. Politicians know this too and they have exploited our collective fear, fuelled by media headlines such as above, to get us to accept unprecedented (for a western democracy) erosions on our civil liberties, and to accept a vaccine with insufficient evidence of efficacy and safety. The lessons from WW2 propaganda campaigns have also not been wasted. The oft repeated slogan, “safe and effective” when discussing vaccines is a case in point. It’s almost as if they (media, government, health authorities) have been coached in the school of manufacturing consent. Seems the ol’ repeat a lie often enough and people think it must be true trick, still seems to work.
It’s not hard to see that most of the news is based on fear. But what does this do to our quality of life, our decision making and wellbeing in general. Just like unchecked anxiety in an individual generalises so that in time, leaving the house seems near-to-impossible for some, unchecked societal anxiety leads to a narrowing of healthy debate, reduced permissions and an inability to tolerate any dissenting thought or opinion. Today’s “fact-checkers” on social media function much like the voice inside an anxious person’s mind who points out all the potential hazards that might get them should they put a foot wrong. The term “misinformation” is as insidious as the distrust of reason that an anxiety ridden mind adopts as they increasingly base all their decisions on fear. As a result, they go about their life in a constant state of fight or flight. After two years of headlines such as the above examples, two years of case numbers, death counts and messages from our politicians designed to instil fear and subordination, (i.e., “pandemic of the unvaccinated”) is it that far-fetched to think that our society could be slipping into some sort of mass psychosis or paralysing anxiety?
This is most evident on social media where any attempt to offer any alternative opinion or thought to the mainstream fear-based narrative is met with reflexive anger and irrational hate with the main themes being that voicing such alternate opinions is somehow “dangerous” or “harmful” to others. Since when are mere thoughts harmful? Or the presenting of facts, peer reviewed research, scientific opinion, exposing untruths or lies harmful? When it disrupts a fear state that is by its nature rigid and resistant to new information is such a time. (It is hard to take in new information when you are in a state of anxiety.)
Depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on it seems like the other side has lost their minds. Our collective anxiety, however, makes it harder to be present and focus on what the other side is really saying, what the evidence is really showing and what the best course of action should be. Like a virus, fear begets more fear and if we give in to that, we can easily find ourselves living in a situation which is barely tolerable. We may do things out of fear or anxiety, such as taking a shot even though we are not sure about it or leaving an angry comment on a person’s post whom we disagree with. We might even get irrationally angry at other people who seem to be less fearful than we are, or advocate for a different course of action, accusing them of ‘misinformation’ (that word again) or being pleased when people who share information that makes us fearful are banned from social media platforms. All these reactions are fear based. Fear begets more fear, and can spread like a virus throughout a family, a community, or an entire population. A population in fear and anxiety is more susceptible to manipulation, control and ultimately, illness.
So, what’s the solution? I’m not that sure. But what might work at an individual level might have an effect at the macro level. Practice mindful engagement. Try to notice when you are experiencing fear or anxiety and name it to tame it. Acknowledge that you are fearful, angry, frustrated, mistrustful or whatever the case may be. Take a step back, breath, and remember that sometimes there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Allow for alternative voices and respect others’ point of view. This is the essence of diversity. Before you comment on another person’s post on social media, check in with yourself and remember it is a human being you are engaging in. Don’t let fear control you.