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Instilling fear into scaremongers

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 21 January 2005

According to pool safety expert Stephen Tate, there are 27 ways that you can be killed or injured in a swimming pool. An interesting, although somewhat irrelevant, fact I learnt the other night while watching 'So You Think You're Safe?' on television. The programme claims to explore 'the hidden dangers of going about your daily routine, and offers advice on how to avoid those dangers'.

The show focused on the terrible things that can happen to you while on holiday. It offered essential advice. It issued warnings such as do not swim in crowded swimming pools, avoid pools if floating faeces are present and try not to make yourself into a human antenna by carrying an umbrella with a metal spike on top in a thunderstorm.

Such programmes, besides offering invaluable and practical advice for the desperately stupid, highlight the obsession there is the West with personal safety.

Last year a school in England banned parents from bringing homemade cakes to the school cake sale. The school requested that parents bring only shop-bought cakes, as it could not be guaranteed that homemade cakes would be produced in accordance with health and safety regulations.

Every second advert tells us that our houses are germ infested. We are urged, in the interests of our families, to buy new products to destroy them. A different food scare hits the media every month from radioactive salmon through to toxins in animal feed.

There used to be a Red under every bed - now there are microscopic organisms bent on wiping us out.

Of course there are things to fear in this world. If you live in South Africa it is healthy to have a consciousness about crime. If you live in the UK it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that hanging out outside of pubs at closing time can be hazardous to your health. We do not live in a risk-free society.

There are, of course, those who live in desperately insecure environments, notably the poor. But my gripe is with those who are largely secure but feel they are not.

It is striking that never before in the history of world have particular populations, certainly those in the West, been more secure in terms of shelter, food and basic safety, yet fear of germs, crime, foreigners and terrorists is increasing.

Does relative security make people lose all perspective?

Only in the Western world can someone have the luxury to be preoccupied by the potential for food poisoning from a homemade cake or have the time to count how many ways you can be injured in a swimming pool. Or find the mental energy to worry that their detergent only kills the germs on the surface of the toilet and not those under the rim.

Do you know you can sign up to get SMS messages from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK to get instantly notified next time there is a food scare?

I do not have problem with the FSA. It is right that they inform the unsuspecting public if something dangerous is out there. But their SMS system tells us more about those that subscribe to it than those offering the service.

Who really wants to walk around with what amounts to a mobile-Grim Reaper in their pocket? The last thing I want is my mobile phone reminding me that a killer bag of crisps is on the loose. Next people will be checking for FSA messages while shopping, just in case.

I am sick of being told I should be scared. I am tired of companies marketing their products using threat and panic. But what I am most worried about is that advertisers and the media soften us up for the politicians who use the same tactics to frighten people into voting for them.

Advertisers alert us that there are germs out there. Politicians tell us our enemies are breeding them and waiting to unleash them on us as soon as they get the chance. It is part of the same cycle of scaremongering.

I want the media to stop telling me about the dozens of ways I can die and instead focus on all the ways I can live life more fully. A little bit of risk is part of the human condition and should be celebrated, not exaggerated. Let's fight back against fear.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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