I listen to people. I guess that is a good characteristic to have, doing what I do and all. And as a writer who is fascinated with people, I love listening to the cadence and rhythm of voices and stories. Additionally, one side effect to having ADHD is that I often end up being confronted with conversations I am not involved in. When I walk into a room, I hear all the conversations happening, and they all fight for priority.
And much of what I have heard people say lately was about being afraid.
“We can’t let kids play in the neighborhood like we did when we were kids. It’s just not safe.”
“Anyplace I can carry a gun, I do. It just isn’t safe to do otherwise.”
“I get nervous in any large crowd of people. I am constantly scanning for exits, in case there is an active shooter.”
“Every time my phone rings and it’s my kid’s school, my first thought is that a shooting happened there.”
Those are all pretty much verbatim quotes I have heard this week. We are convinced the world is getting worse instead of better, and we are afraid.
But the objective reality is, the world is not getting worse instead of better. This is one of the safest times to be alive in human history, relative to violence. Compared to 30 years ago, murder and all violent crime is way down. In the US, both violent crimes and crimes against property are down by around 50% since the early 1990’s. The murder rate (murders per capita) in 2014 was almost exactly the same as it was in 1960 – you know, the good old days when we could let our children free range in the streets.
We are safer from personal violence than ever before, and are more afraid than ever before.
Not all fear is bad. Historically, it made sense to be alert for dangers to you or your offspring, and to protect yourself and the people you love. The world we evolved in was violent and “red in tooth and claw”, and whether the threat was a neighboring tribesman or a large tiger hiding in the savanna grass, it made sense to be alert, lest we perish as a species. Fear can also tell you when a situation is unsafe, when you need to run rather than fight and can still help you survive in 2017.
But fear that is ungrounded in reality can paralyze and overwhelm you. The primary source of safety for humans has always been our community – the people around us who protect us and who watch out for us. We are small pack animals, like chimpanzees, lions and dolphins. Our safety is found in the collective.
However, the sort of fear we have nowadays serves not to protect us, but to make us suspicious of those in our community. We are being inundated with news of atrocity and disaster on a 24 hour basis, in ways that our ancestors could never dream of. Our species is some 200,000 years old, and yet the ability to know the immediate details of an act of violence that happens on the other side of the world is less than 100 years old. In fact, for most of the evolutionary history of our species, we were completely unaware there was another side of the world, let alone what happened there.
And because of our strong tribal safety programming, we hear of violence on the other side of the world, or the other side of the country or even the other side of the state, and our brain processes it as the same sort of threat as if it were happening on your block. But a school shooting in California does not make your child in Virginia less safe. It just doesn’t.
So why, if we are safer from personal violence than ever before, are we more afraid than ever before?
Because people make money when we are afraid.
Our biological programming is not equipped to handle the scale of information we now not only have access to, but have thrown at us. The media profits on our fear, and the nature of the Internet economy is that every time we click on a headline, someone makes money. Sensational headlines get more clicks, and headlines that confirm our fears get even more than that.
Every sensational news story of violence drives gun sales, despite the fact that most people killed by guns are the gun owner – usually in an act of suicide. The alarm industry, the gun industry, the security industry, the NRA – all of them profit from your being afraid.
People and corporations are using your fear for profit, and meanwhile we become less safe, not because of actual threat, but because of our increased disconnection from each other.
The only solution I know is to limit your consumption of media. Focus on, and give priority to, the local. Search for things you have in common with people you meet, instead of differences. Be aware of your surroundings, and ask yourself critical questions about fears you have, especially if the fear comes from a non-local source.
And remember that our safety is truly only found in our ability to take care of each other. That is as true now as it was when we were sleeping in trees in the African savanna.