Be afraid

According to The Age on the weekend, the Victorian State election is being fought on law and order, despite the crime statistics being down to their lowest levels since 1993. Both sides are promising more police and tougher penalties. The Age is mystified by the law and order focus – which it proclaimed under this huge banner headline:


The shock, you understand, was that crime statistics were low.

The very same newspaper had these headlines in the preceding week:

  • “Victorian Twins in Deadly Shooting.”
  • “Toddler ‘Stabbed to Death’ “
  • “Teen Fights off Men in Attempted Abduction”
  • “Zahra ‘Dismembered, body scattered’ “

Nice, eh? If you actually read the articles, you find that the twins had a suicide pact (and it happened in the US). The toddler was killed by her father. The teen had her arm grabbed, and what did it take to scare the men off? Her phone rang. (Perhaps the ringtone was “boo”.)  Zahra, as you probably already know, was killed in the US, and the gory details have been making headlines here for weeks on end.

“I can make the world safe for you – come and live over here” (from Make The World Safe, The Whitlams.)

Politicians have a lot to gain from making people feel unsafe – because they can offer the illusion of safety. The media also have a lot to gain, because it sells newspapers, increases ratings and makes profits fat and healthy.

The sad thing is that we are buying it. We are instilling our children with Stranger Danger, despite overwhelming statistics showing that kids are at most danger from people they know. Certainly they need to know that it’s not safe to leap into the car with someone they don’t know, but the whole “never talk to strangers” thing is very worrying. If we paint strangers as terrifyingly dangerous, what does that do to our childrens’ chances of getting to know new people and making friends?

There was a sign in the office of a teacher of mine, too many years ago, with a picture of a bird flying and the motto:

There are no strangers here. Only friends we haven’t met.

I see that as a healthy approach to life, but it is, of course, completely incompatible with stranger danger. How do I explain to my 3 year old that it’s ok for me to talk to strangers, but not ok for her? Does she benefit from hearing a litany of possible crimes to make her afraid of everyone that she passes in the street?

We see terrible stories in the papers and on the news every day. They are the talk of the staff room, of the supermarket checkout, and the mothers groups. Everywhere two people get together they say “Did you hear about that awful thing that happened to that little boy?” “Did you see that poor little girl on the news?” “Did you hear about that awful shooting?” and whole groups of people become a little more afraid.

This is a global village – we hear in graphic detail about what happens to a little girl in the US, unable to filter and process the information into any kind of rational perspective. The hundreds of millions of US citizens who weren’t dismembered don’t make the news, of course. The traumatic, tragic, ghoulish and appalling stand out, sell papers, and make conversation. But they don’t happen every day. Not here.  Next time you see a list of appalling headlines in the media, list the ones that happened within 10km of your family. The list will almost always be empty.

“Do not be afraid… Be very, very frightened.” Douglas Adams, in ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’.

We can’t protect ourselves, or our children, against everything. But we can make ourselves, and our children, incredibly miserable trying. The best recipe for mental health is probably to stop reading the news altogether. There are birds, flowers, tadpoles and chocolate. There are children, and bicycles, and people to laugh and love with. You wouldn’t read about it, but you can live it.


3 thoughts on “Be afraid

  1. I hear what you are saying, but I do not feel safe on Melbourne trains on Saturday night, or in the city on any given night. Whilst crime has gone down in the broader sense, violent crime is still a concern. It wiont be changing my vote though.

    1. lindamciver

      It’s certainly true that there are places and situations that are unsafe. Some of them may feel unsafe because of our perceptions, fuelled by media hysteria, but some of them genuinely are unsafe. Violent crime will probably always be a problem, but I suspect there are broader contributing issues along the lines of community-building and social justice that could fruitfully be addressed.

  2. Joe

    Hear hear Linda.

    “How do I explain to my 3 year old that it’s ok for me to talk to strangers, but not ok for her?” … in our case, we don’t. We have encouraged our daughter (now 4) from the youngest age to be happy to chat with people we meet. At the shops, on the train, wherever.

    Danger from strangers is pretty minimal even for kids, and very hyped. Partly because the events that do occur feel especially tragic. But most violence is committed by people we know, not by strangers. Our daughter’s future is vastly more in danger from herself (taking up drugs, early pregnancy, depression, disillusionment) or from traffic. Not to mention the danger of being afraid to operate within the world.

    I absolutely agree that both media and politicians operate in their own interests when they highlight a sense of social unsafety. We’ve pretty much opted out… no tv at our house and we don’t “devour” newspapers either.

    People put all that junk in their heads, and I know when I “followed the news” I’d be quietly carrying that kind of disconnected anxiety around with me. Yet now that I don’t really read the news I still keep up because people do talk about the stuff that’s actually relevant to most people (policy effects, events in law, social directions and so forth) rather than the remote crime incidentals. (And I sometimes read lighter news, like MX.)

    For several years I lived on Melbourne CBD fringes and walked at night regularly. I never saw anything of concern. And I’m a little bloke. (I did once see a girl roundhouse kick another girl in the head. But that was 4pm on a weekday at a tram stop and undoubtedly very personal.)

    But I do agree there are times I’m uncomfortable to be in particular places. But then … I’m kind of glad to focus what little random / public violence there is into predictable windows I can easily avoid.

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