Don’t panic unless we tell you to

It was a difficult couple of months that closed out 2014. In fact, you could say I had a bit of a crisis. I was not entirely sure what I should be panicking about more: the threat from Ebola; being blown up in my sleep by a “death cult”, or the hordes of black-clad anarchists that were allegedly threatening Brisbane during the meeting of the G20 group of rich nations.

Most of us are not prone to panic attacks, but all of us lead our stress-filled lives just one little incident away from the panic threshold. It seems at the moment like a tsunami of panic-inducing threats is rolling towards us.

Doctors and scientists will tell you that a feeling of panic occurs when our normal “fight or flight” reaction to danger is over-stimulated and triggers in response to “false alarms”. In other words, we tend to panic when there is actually no real danger present. Of course, panicking in the face of a real and present danger is a psychological response to a “true alarm”. Under such circumstances fighting back or running away might seem like totally logical reaction to threats.

According to researchers, the “fight or flight” response to imminent danger (real or imagined) is based on three possible scenarios:

  • some of us have a biological vulnerability to anxiety, which can lead to a nervous over-reaction to events in everyday life;
  • some have a generalized psychological vulnerability, which the experts say can be a reaction to being over-parented and can lead us to think that the world is a dangerous place, best avoided;
  • then, there’s a more specific type of psychological vulnerability which leads to a learned fear of certain objects or situations that are, in fact, not dangerous at all.

It seems to be that, being human, all of us are perhaps subject to each of these vulnerabilities at some point in our lives, or in response to a persistent external stimulus. We can also learn to overcome our anxieties and to lessen our fear of external events or situations that might lead us to panic. But what can we do when all the information coming into our cerebral cortex from the media points at panic being the only rational response to a world careening out of control?

You see, it’s rational to think that beyond the chemical processes in our brains there are probably social causes to the psychological distress that can lead us to panic. And, to my mind, three of them relate to fear of epidemic (Ebola); fear of imminent attack (“death cults”) and fear of social breakdown (the nightmare of anarchists running loose in a major city).

But how do we know that these are things we should fear? Well, if you read certain newspapers; listen to or watch enough broadcast news, or get sucked into the vortex of unreliable rumours in social media channels, it seems like the reasons to panic are multiplying on a daily basis.

I have a friend in Brisbane and in the build up to the G20 he’s described it me as the “City of Fear”. My friend has become so alarmed by life in the “City of Fear” that he asked me not to use his name: so I’ll call him Melcure.

Melcure was watching closely as Brisbane went into “lockdown” ahead of the November G20 meeting of world leaders. He sent me daily email missives relating stories of low-flying helicopters and widening prohibitions on residents moving around the CBD as the police and armed forces practiced their counter-terrorism moves.

However, the real target of the police action appeared not to be “death cult” terrorists, but a shadowy international anarchist group known as “Black Bloc”. Luckily, the ever-vigilant news media was all over this story. The danger was talked up to such an extent that it seemed as if every anarchist on the planet was going to descend on Brisbane.

keep calm1

A year of worry, but the anarchists stayed away

But, think about it for a minute. What single prominent feature might define the world’s most dedicated anarchists? In my mind it’s the fact that they probably haven’t got a lot of money. Travelling to Australia from Europe or North America, just to throw rocks at dignitaries, seems like it would be low on their list of priorities. And also consider this; anarchists are notoriously lackadaisical about organizing. The idea that they might coordinate themselves to land in Brisbane in large enough numbers to be effective against 20,000 trained and armed riot police is laughable.

I’ve been in the political left for 40 years and to my knowledge the number of identifiable anarchists in Australia is measured in the low hundreds, not the 10s of thousands. My rational mind tells me not to panic about anarchist hordes burning down Brisbane.

If the anarchists were not going to be a threat then perhaps the “death cult” terrorists of D’aesh (ISIS) might target Brisbane. Should we have been worried about a secret operation by an Ebola-infected “death cult” adherent to infiltrate the G20 to spread even more panic and destruction?

I wasn’t sure until I heard and saw the news that PUP senator Jacquie Lambie was worried about just such an eventuality.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That's what she was elected to do.

Let Senator Lambie do the worrying for you. That’s what she was elected to do.

This suggestion cleverly combines two panic-inducing thoughts: epidemic and terrorism. Surely here is something that we can sensibly worry about. You know it makes sense: Ebola is out there and it’s killing people; so to are the “death cult” lunatics in northern Iraq and in the eastern parts of Syria. Surely they’ve got the resources to fly one Ebola-infected suicide bomber into Australia – specifically Brisbane during the G20 gabfest – so as to cause mass casualties and mayhem.

Yeah, I know, your rational mind (mine too) says this is a bit far-fetched and Jacquie Lambie is not the sharpest chisel in the toolbox. So, perhaps we can put this one aside. However, that doesn’t mean we can relax when it comes to Ebola.

The deadly virus may not get to Australia incubating inside a “death cult” terrorist, but it could still be on its way. So that’s why I’m grateful that my government has once again demonstrated its commitment to Fortress Australia and locked the arrivals gate to people from Ebola-affected parts of Africa.

It is the logical humanitarian response; after all we are more important and our lives more precious than theirs.

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Scott Morrison is keeping Ebola under lock and key

Never mind that this could be construed as racist; never mind that the world’s leading epidemiologists have condemned Australia’s poor response to the Ebola crisis and never mind that brave individual Australian medical workers have volunteered to help contain the outbreak at source as recommended by the World Health Organisation. WHO are they to tell us how and why and over what we should panic?

Really, the global busybodies should leave that to our government and our media. After all, it is they who know best what is in our national interest and therefore it is them who should direct our nervous energy into the right sorts of panic.

Don’t panic unless we tell you to

The lesson of the modern media is that we should only panic when they tell us to.

That is, the appropriate form of hysteria-inducing “moral panic”; the fear of the irrational that can be stirred by rousing speeches, three word slogans and a news media hungry for sensationalist headlines. A good moral panic does wonders for an unpopular leader’s approval rating and it leads to improved ratings for the news media too. That is why we see such sterling collaboration between politicians and journalists and why we see such wonderful leadership on issues like fighting “death cults”, stopping anarchist hordes, tackling a deadly virus and ending world poverty (that last one’s a joke).

The clear message is that there’s no need to panic, unless the government and the media tell you to.

That’s the only rational explanation for this recent headline on the ‘newspaper of the year’, The Courier-Mail. On Monday October 27, the Brisbane tabloid carried a fantastic, calming front-page story about the Ebola crisis. The message comes across loud and clear.

What, me worry?

What, me worry?

This is a clever front-page and one designed to make us not panic even more. Just look at that horrible virus, it’s the size of a large double-headed tapeworm and it’s heading our way. The take-out from this is that we need to learn to panic only in response to the right stimulus, such as scary and misleading front-page stories about epidemics, “death cults” and anarchist hordes.

Well, so far these panic-inducing problems have only affected Brisbane, so no need for me, living in Melbourne, to panic; But for the sake of Melcure in the “City of Fear”, who’s made more anxious by what he reads in the always restrained and accurate Courier-Mail, I’ll just keep calm and pass him the worry beads.

First published as “Keep calm and pass the worry beads”,  in The Australian Rationalist, December 2014

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