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December 30, 2012

THOMAS L. STEIGER: Skewed perceptions have us fearing wrong things

TERRE HAUTE — Regular readers of my essays probably know that sociologists are often more interested in people’s responses to tragedies like the Newtown, Conn., school massacre than trying to explain the event itself.

Two responses are evident in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy — compassion and fear. The compassion toward the families and the community of Newtown is evident. Indeed, a poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust, following the tragedy finds that 57 percent of adults are following the story closely.  

Fear is evident in the spike in handgun sales immediately following the tragedy, the talk of arming teachers or putting more armed individuals in schools. Fear is evident in the rush to regulate guns, too. It’s hard to imagine a gun law or set of laws that could have stopped Adam Lanza. Nevertheless, fear will compel our leaders into passing new laws that evidence shows, paradoxically, might actually make people more vulnerable to such attacks.

Pew also asked whether people thought the shootings reflected broader societal problems or just the isolated acts of troubled individuals. The public is divided. Forty-seven percent say broader societal problems and 44 percent say the acts of isolated, troubled individuals. Is this divide random or does the divide reflect other “divisions”?

Men and women are divided in their view. Fifty-four percent of women and only 39 percent of men see the shootings as reflecting broader societal problems while 51 percent of men and 37 percent of women see it as acts of isolated, troubled individuals. This doesn’t surprise me because it is males who are the usual shooters and seeing them as “monsters” is a way to distance themselves from the shooters, who otherwise look like them. However, broader societal problems could relate directly to the seeming increase in these mass shootings. Perhaps the loosening of social bonds in our society is creating more isolated, troubled individuals.  

To listen to extremists who suggest that God’s displeasure with us is why these horrific acts happen is to be willfully blind to a host of indicators that suggest something different. Divorce is down, out of wedlock births are down, abortion is down, violent crime is down, murder is way down, teen drug and alcohol abuse is down … so much due to the aging of our population.

But our media-driven perceptions of our society are the opposite of that. Even mass shootings like that in Newtown are not necessarily increasing, though they seem to be because of the sensational coverage such events receive in our media-saturated culture.

The evidence, though, suggests that such incidents are stable (though some experts argue that they are increasing). What is true is violent crime and murder rates are falling, while mass shootings are stable. In short, our perception of events is actually more important than the reality of them.  

And what is driving the perception? Who benefits from a fearful and anxious population, when in fact, our streets and homes are safer than they have been in two decades?

According to a Scripps-Howard study, from 1980 to 2008, 4,685 died in 965 massacre shootings (defined as four or more deaths). Counting the carnage in just this year’s notable massacres, including Newtown, adds to less than half the 163 people who died annually in that 28-year period.

In the first quarter of 2012, traffic deaths soared, 13.5 percent with 7,630 people killed. How many of them died in suicides or because of drunk or impaired driving? But traffic deaths are not given grisly coverage on television and there are no slick production shows that feature “death at the wheel” every week, so the public’s perception is such that it underestimates the true risk of driving.

Without even calculating the odds, I bet that kids are safer in school, even with lax security measures, than when mom or dad (or teen sibling) is driving them to school. In the same 28-year period cited above, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the incidence of childhood obesity increased 13 percentage points, to where one in five kids, aged 6-11, is obese.

We are wired to fear imminent danger; to run away or to fight. Yet, our leaders and our media-saturated, intense culture seem to stoke fear over reason, thus blinding us to certain dangers like traffic deaths and death by carbohydrates. The most common killer of kids is accidents, with car accidents being the most likely.

If we are to live in fear, at least be afraid of the right things.           

Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email tsteiger@indstate.edu.

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