joanna-bourke-fear

A history of Fear. Professor Joanna Bourke in interview


“As a result, – she continues, – however, serious discussions tend to be carried out in highly specialised professional journals, frequently associated with penal policy or psychiatric management. The general, intelligent public are exposed to the debates in three main forums. The first is the sensationalising accounts on the front pages of our newspapers. The second source of knowledge concerning rapists resides in popular science. In recent years, this has been dominated by the invidious arguments of evolutionary psychologists, such as R. Thornhill and C. T. Palmer. According to their book, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2000), rape is an inherited mechanism that increased our ancestors’ reproductive success. It is an argument that threatens to absolve rapists of responsibility for their actions while simultaneously trivialising the act itself. The final source is a particular strand of 1970s/80s feminist polemic. While feminist research generally is one of the most vibrant and sophisticated strands of analysis, and one that informs all of my work, when examining what must be classed as one of the most important fears experienced by women today – rape – it remains dominated by unfounded accusations against ‘men’, either as rapists, rape-fantasists, or beneficiaries of the rape-culture. Even writers who want to distance themselves from essentialist, male-hostile discourses which insist that the male body is inherently primed to rape, still find it necessary to devote substantial space to the arguments of Sheila Brownmiller or Andrea Dworkin.”

The book is due for publication in 2006, and will, she hopes,”set these rapists in their historical context. It is important that this is a history of rapists in C19-20 Britain, America, and Australia. The emphasis on their history de-naturalises acts of sexual violence and enables us to see competing ways of comprehending and dealing with violent acts. Although the stories told by male and female perpetrators of sexual violence may be painful to read, and often even disgusting and frightening to contemplate, it is still important to hear the rapists speak, to seek out their history, if we are to imagine a world free of unwanted sexual violence.”

Scaremongering – The Media and the use of fear

While Bourke doesn’t devote a specific chapter to examining the media’s role in the creation of either fear or anxiety, it remains a protagonist throughout much of the book. “A proportion of the book, – Bourke agrees, – does address the role of the media in inciting fears, although I often don’t specify that the causal element is ‘the media’ (for instance, in my section on the AIDS panic, the examples of irresponsible stoking up of panic were taken from newspapers). We must remember, though, that the media was not always the main engine of fear-mongering. It really started to do this in a big way after 1885, with Stead’s newspaper story entitled Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, which is the first example of a moral panic about child sex abuse being created by newspaper stories.

In the modern period, sensational scaremongering is, of course, ubiquitous, but consumers are not simply blank receptacles for these scare-stories: we believe some and not others. What is interesting is precisely what scare story ‘pushes the button’ of fear. Moral panics about child sexual abuse is one example. There were definite panics about the sexual abuse of children in the 1880s, 1947-54, and 1980s. Yet, journalists published scaremongering stories of children being abused outside of these periods, but the fear did not have much resonance within societies, so there was no wider ‘panic’. In other words, what is interesting is less the sensationalist reporting, but when and why sensationalist reporting is effective in one period and not the other.”

Related to media ‘scaremongering’ was one of the most famous modern outbreaks of panic, that created by the spoof radio broadcast The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles in 1938. Interstingly, though, a similar panic had been created by a BBC radio play by a certain Fr. Knox, broadcast in 1926. Many of the elements were the same, the fake use of a trusted news format and rising panic in the broadcaster’s voice. Its effects were similar as well, creating panic throughout the UK. It seems strange though that it has disappeared from popular memory, in a way that the War of the Worlds episode hasn’t. “I do think that Welles’ radio-induced panic has overshadowed Knox’s one, – agrees Bourke. – After all, in the latter panic, over one million Americans were affected – many more than in 1926. However, there was another reason as well: in 1926, there was a palpable sense of shame. Everyone wanted to forget it as quickly as possible. In contrast, in the USA, although shame was present, in many ways other groups within society used the panic to bolster their own (superior) status. Sociologists got involved, drawing up elaborate theories of crowd psychology. There was a professionalisation of panic in 1938 that simply wasn’t there in 1926.”

The Second Cold War

“[Terrorists] are more daring, they are served by the more terrible weapons offered by modern science, and the world is nowadays threatened by new forces which, if recklessly unchained, may some day wreak universal destruction” [Fear: A Cultural History Pg 364]

Not a quote from Donald Rumsfeld, educating us on the nature of the new ‘global war on terror’, but rather the observations of a British policeman, in 1889, in reaction to various ‘murderous organisations’ involved in attempted political assasinations. Terrorism may be the focus of a new cold war, as Bourke argues in her book, but it is far from new. Fear of terrorism has been widespread from at least the ’70s onwards. Between 1977 and ’78, as cited in Bourke’s book, 85-90 per cent of the population of the USA and Britain regarded terrorism as a very serious problem.

Amongst the historians that Bourke cites as influences are Eric Hobsbawm (also of Birkbeck College), and the late E. P. Thompson, both historians of international renown who, according to Bourke, “fuse intellectual rigour with political commitment and verve”. Fear: A Cultural History has its fair share of political committment and verve, not shying away from contemporary fears. She points out that, “despite the fact that only seventeen people were killed by terrorists in America between 1980 and 1985, the New York Times published an average of four stories about terrorism each issue. Between 1989 and 1992 only thirty-four Americans were killed by terrorists throughout the world, but over 1300 books were catalogued under the rubric ‘terrorists’ or ‘terrorism in American libraries” [pg365].

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