Assumption-based Fear of Violence

fear with eagle talons

In my last post, I mentioned that the deportations and massacre of the Pontic Greeks by the Nationalists in 1919 may have been done in response to the supposed atrocities committed by the invading Greek army. There are a lot of assumptions in that sentence (see italics) because I don’t know what the Nationalists at that time believed to be true, and because the amount of violence committed by the Greek army was proven to be greatly exaggerated. But it started me thinking about how easily fear can cause us to act and react, and how, while some fear is legitimate, some is irrational, unreasonable, or based on rumour and assumption. I’m being careful with my language here because “irrational” and “unreasonable” are debatable words—what is reasonable to one person may not be reasonable to another. But fear based on rumour or assumption is not debatable; it is able to be defined and challenged. Knowing this doesn’t always sway our or others’ opinion, because we tend to believe what we want to believe. But it should give us pause to reconsider. It should restrain us personally, and our politicians generally, from acting hastily in the name of “security.”

Fear in Turkey, 1909

In 1909 Sir William and Lady Ramsay were on an archeological trek through the Konya region of Turkey. Lady Ramsay was often asked by women in Turkish villages if Armenians were coming to kill them, and she witnessed “some apprehension of a [coming] religious war.” Sir William reported that entire villages were terrified that an Armenian army 20,000 strong was “on the march to destroy their homes and murder all the Moslems.” When two men men who were passing through a village announced that the “army” had invaded the Bozkir district, and were ransacking it, workers from Bozkir “went off hastily in a body to defend their families, taking with them as weapons their spades and other implements of labour.” It turned out, as far as the Ramsays could determine, that there had been a quarrel between “some gipsies … and the inhabitants of one of the Bozkir villages. One Turk was injured or killed. Then an alarm was spread through the villages of the region,” and widespread panic ensued, which eventually died down.

Fear in Canada, 1999

In 1999, my mother became anxious about the possibility of being the victim of violence. It had grown from a mild anxiety to the point that I was worried. This woman had been my emotional rock during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though, as a child, my fear was as rational as that of the adults I knew—because the world really was standing on the brink of nuclear war—Mom remained calm and reassuring. I remember that she was deeply concerned in 1970 when Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act after the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped British diplomat James Cross, and provincial cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, whom the group later murdered. But she had never been agitated or anything but cool and collected. Therefore it bothered me terribly to see her feeling insecure and unsafe in her relatively safe home, town, and country.

When I probed to find the reason for her fear, she told me that it was the increase in crime, particularly violent crime, that made her anxious. And it was getting worse every year! I was puzzled because I wasn’t aware of a rise in the crime rate, and so I did what I always do when I want to understand something: I researched. What I found was that the crime rate in Canada had been slowly and steadily dropping throughout the decade since a high around 1990. That included murder, attempted murder, property and other other crimes. The violent crime rate had remained more or less the same, perhaps with a tiny increase, since the 1970s. She didn’t believe the statistics. “If that’s true,” she said, “why do we hear so much about it?” Good question. After further research, I discovered that, though crime was indeed dropping, reporting of crime (TV, radio, newspapers and Internet) had increased by 600% during the same period. Why was that? In 1980 CNN was established, quickly followed by similar stations and the 24-news cycle. Broadcasters needed to fill their air-time.

After all these years, I can’t remember where I found the 600% statistic, but constant exposure to information about violence was guaranteed to influence my mother’s opinion about violence. (My exposure to media was less than my mother’s, so I had not been as influenced as she had.) The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime reported on the over-representation in the media of the amount of crime actually occurring. For example, they wrote in “Understanding How the Media Reports Crime,” more than 50% of crime stories deal “with offences involving violence, but offences involving violence represent less than 6% of reported offences” [no date]. “The choice of what stories get told and do not get told determines whose voices are heard and whose matter.” And as any advertiser and politician knows, repetition creates awareness in the minds of the audience. Information and our interpretation of it matters because it shapes our beliefs, and our beliefs determine our actions.

Mom was a bit calmer after I explained what I had found, but only a bit. Sadly, once fear takes hold, it can take a long time to unclench its claws.

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