The Culture of Fear: Book by Barry Glassner – Summary

The culture of fear: Book by Barry Glassner

Renowned Sociologist Barry Glassner’s book The Culture Of Fear gives an insight into the unnecessary things people are paranoid about. He explains why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. The book initially published in 1999 has been updated lately and has become more relevant in recent times. There has been a dramatic increase in people’s perceptions of danger as compared to the actual danger in society, as revealed in the book. The author takes many cases in point to explain his stance.

What is culture and the culture of fear:

In simple words, culture can be defined as people’s way of life in a society. It alludes to their mindset, thinking, and behavior within a group or a community. A culture of fear refers to irrational fears and worries about social phenomena that may not be as prevalent as perceived. Glassner provides further insight into the phenomenon by pointing out that both individuals and groups benefit from instilling fear.

In his book, Glassner mentioned different worries among people, precisely the American society and community which he studied for years before narrowing down his results. He pointed out the unreasonable fear of pedophiles, road rages, black people, air travel, or teenage pregnancy. Further, he firmly believes that such unnecessary fears might be an actual danger to the life of people.

He states in the book that what might start as a frivolous joke or silly scare might get escalated by various stakeholders to complete their motives.

In his book, Barry Glassner discusses many incidents and examples he has encountered, especially during the 1990s. He explained various situations which tell us how the culture of fear is generated. We will be able to get a better understanding of his idea once we look at them.

Believing notions rather than facts:

Glassner always felt that people are used to exaggerating their worries beyond all reason. He referred to the sharp decline in the usage of drugs and harmful substances among teenagers in the late 90s in America. The numbers had reduced to half, most of the high school seniors claimed never to have consumed illegal drugs, yet the majority of grown-ups rated drug abuse to pose the greatest danger to the youth of the country. Even though the numbers have fallen and results are palpable, people always tend to stick to their notions and beliefs. This creates a stereotype that later transforms into fear. Parents have often doubted their kids and had gone through their belongings to check whether they are indulged in drugs because they have attained a specific age.

Political parties and their Agendas:

Glassner also stated in his book that a culture of fear is primarily used to sabotage something, suppress a feeling, or ignite action. He even referred to the role played by media and politicians to augment the culture of fear among people. Glassner further writes that politicians have been igniting fear among people about things that are insignificant as compared to life-threatening danger. To get the context, he described the political scenario in America, especially in the 90s. He often witnessed the Conservatives and Liberals in the country raising fears within their opposition group by pricking a sensitive topic. Conservatives are often seen to argue that Liberals are invoking the wrath of God by creating “children without pangs of conscience” because they are not abiding by the religious rules. And the liberals often bounce back by saying that the “conservatives are turning youngsters into Christian soldiers”. Statements like this might impact someone and they might begin self-questioning and introspecting their actions even though they haven’t done anything. It might raise a feeling of being forced to accept something even though you don’t comply with it. This creates fear among people. It might be different for different individuals or communities though inevitably it narrows down to the feeling of toeing the line because of some unreasonable fear. Glassner mentions in the book that he feels that politicians usually use the sentiments of people against themselves for political benefit by simply engendering fear.

Role of Media:

He even states the role played by media, whether it is news or advertising, or marketing in spreading the culture of fear even more widely among people. We often notice advertisements and pieces in newspapers which immediately sends a chill down our spine. Reading articles like, “Which would you rather have, a cholesterol test or a final test?”, makes one feel uncomfortable and doubtful whether they are okay. Although they might recently have had an entire body examination. This is how the media spreads the fear of culture among people. Furthermore, he even laments the unnecessary and overstated statistics of crimes that are often reported in news. Glassner states that even though the death rate caused by drug overdose among youth is less than 1 percent, it is presented to people as if it is the only cause of death among youngsters.

Generating fear to achieve goals:

 He also gives an example of fearmongering. During the 1990s when abortion was taboo, anti-abortion groups did link abortion to breast cancer. They stated that the risk of breast cancer among women who go through abortion is higher. However, these claims not being completely incorrect were still greatly exaggerated. Glassner applauds the role of media in correcting the facts and alleviating the fear among people. After various surveys, and interactions with professionals, it was found that the women who go through abortion might be slightly on the risk radar of detecting breast cancer but that doesn’t mean that every woman going through abortion is going to detect or suffer from it. He believes that this live incident proves how an agenda by a specific group can be developed into a fear generated among people so that they abide by the guidelines and expectations of that group.

Ignorance and fixation on one thing only:

Another significant case mentioned by him in this book is road rage.  He feels that it is strange that since the word road rage become prominent people felt that their chance of death in such an accident is more possible and believable. Statistics, however, show something else. The number of deaths by drunk driving was 85 times more than the deaths by road rage. Glassner believed that only one particular thing or incident shouldn’t be emphasized. Using this example, he explains how people are so focused on avoiding road rage that they downright overlook the danger of drunk drivers around them who might cause even more harm.

Some recent cases of the culture of fear seen in the USA:

Racism has always been prevalent against Black people in the USA. They are perceived as loud, illiterate human beings. The issue had been initiated since the days of slavery, when, black men were even denied basic humanitarian rights. Black men and women are deemed to be dangerous and we have seen many cases where they are attacked by common people or even the police force as they think they are engaged in some or other anti-social activities. It has always been perceived in the United States that the majority of the black community indulged in drugs and they supplied or dealt with arms and ammunition or are in a gang conducting severe crimes like shooting or murder. This generates a culture of fear among people. They develop a certain point of view against a particular community and this fear alleviates within the society. There is a minuscule of incidents that might support their thoughts but that doesn’t mean every person is the same. Statistics show that a black man is about 18 times more likely to be murdered than a white man. Also, for a black man between the age of 15-30, violence is the primary cause of death. Even if we take the recent mass shootings into consideration one can easily figure out that the majority of the mass shooters were white people. However, as compared to black men, white men are not perceived as shooters or murderers, despite the proof.

Politicians have always taken advantage of people’s sentiments. Donald Trump frequently tried to instill a culture of fear among people towards LGBTQ people and abortion. During his tenure, he even nominated conservative judges to the supreme court so that the decision is taken in his favor.

The book also subtly underlines the facts which are generally ignored by many while talking about these fears. The government and society dreading cyber crimes and cyber attacks forget to pay attention to the fact that the majority of the teenagers who commit it are facing the wrath of poverty or are going through some major turbulences in life. It was done by some to finance their education or to take care of their ailing parents. He doesn’t take sides or defend those who engage in wrongdoing, but rather, he encourages looking at both sides before making conclusions, which gives rise to a culture of fear. He briefly mentions politicians’ points of view toward teenage pregnancies. Politicians in America (both liberals and conservatives) postulated teenage pregnancy as a danger to society and that if it is not controlled, the issue will go out of hand. Words like this coming from a public figure strike fear among people. Correspondingly, they feel like wrongdoers, which creates an atmosphere of fear among them. As a result of the fear of teenage pregnancy, Glassner found that the rate of teenage mothers sharply declined from 1992 to 1996 and that most of them lived without supervision. It occurred to him that since a majority of them were poor, they didn’t pose an actual threat to the country, since they weren’t indulged in any antisocial activities. He felt that since politicians can’t come on the stage in broad daylight defending teenage pregnancy as it might impact their intentions, they choose to spread false lies to cover up their mission. The onus should be on the people to consider various factors behind these fears, according to Glassner.

After years of going through various newspapers and publications, Glassner also found out that any pseudo or fake fear had multiple stakeholders which were benefitting from it. Be it a political party, religious sect, a specific community, a business company, or even the government. According to him, some of the fears that were spreading like wildfire weren’t even true. He noticed people clutched hard to one particular incident and carried that fear for a long time. He mentions the Halloween candy poisoning incident, where the first such incident of poisoning children appeared in 1958 during Halloween. Since that, not even a single incident of any injury or death of children during Halloween has resurfaced nonetheless children are warned about it. It is the absolute right of parents to protect their children and teach them how to safeguard themselves but unnecessarily stressing about an incident that happened years ago generates an irrational fear. Multiple things and scenarios can threaten the lives of children during Halloween. Glassner believes that all other aspects should be considered as some of them might be harmful.

To put it in a Nutshell, the culture of fear by Barry Glassner gives us a reflection on fears that are buried deep down in society. It helps us to understand how we are afraid of silly things and how baseless fearmongering and misunderstandings might have an impact on a larger section of society. The book also explains to us how the culture of fear makes us have a permanent impression of something or someone. And if we look at it with a broad mindset we will be assured that we were worrying unnecessarily about it. It gives us a chance to retrospect on a few events or fears that we are holding onto. And think about whether it is worth it to be afraid of something or someone that was never dangerous in the first place.


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Isha Rane is a sociology graduate with a keen interest in research and analysis, focusing on areas such as Corporate Social Responsibility, Human Resources, and Public Policy. She is an avid reader, particularly enjoying books about the history and political scenario of India. Isha also likes to write about pressing issues and topics that require a voice in the conversation. Her career aspirations lie in the development sector. Additionally, she has a passionate interest in mythology and calligraphy.