For the past few days Britain has seen itself gripped in the jaws of the worst mass panic since, well, since the last. Following comments that ranged from calculated to outright dangerous (I won’t use the word inflammatory out of respect for poor Diane Hill, the York woman who suffered 40 per cent burns to her body and as this blog is written remains in a critical condition in hospital) the country have been filling cars with petrol in a consumer frenzy only matched by the most recent iPad launch. The irony of “Keep calm and carry on” being the meme du jour is not lost on me.
The mood is best summed up by a woman I was speaking to last Friday who claimed, “This whole thing is ridiculous – there’s no need for people to panic at all.” Before adding, “But I only had half a tank of petrol left so I went out and filled up this morning”. This despite any fuel strike at least a week and probably further away and the pumps not about to run out any time soon. Hers is the schism between what people say and do, nothing inspires a panic like others panicking.
US lawyer and author Christian Nevell Bovee claimed, “Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.” Or put another way, panic is acting out the emotion of fear – and as such is one of the most primitive of reactions. With that in mind it is incredibly easy for those in public life of a malevolent cast to provoke a strong reaction using nothing but fear.
Tony Blair and George Bush used the fear of terrorist attacks to keep entire nations in check and instigate swathes of law that reduced civil liberties. Of course the effect of their pronouncements were not confined to merely us the public but also gave hawkish military leaders all the justification required to embark on their favourite pastime, slaughter.
Newspapers have long profited from selling panic, and just as I was once extremely perceptively informed by a psychotherapist, “The things we fear the most have already happened to us” so those that lap up stories about the latest housing crisis or cancer scare are paradoxically those feeling most threatened.
There is nothing to scare the newly wealthy like a return to frugality. No coincidence for me The Mail is widely read among the aspirational classes. These are the very same people who could not trust comprehensive schools to deliver. Instead they collectively wrecked the nation’s education system by fretting so badly over Ollie and Chloe’s “future” we sleepwalked via a self-fulfilling prophecy into two tiers of provision.
Sociologist Stan Cohen described this behaviour in his classic 1972 text Folk Devils and Moral Panics even if the term itself was first coined by colleague Jock Young. Cohen wonderfully referred to those who benefited from public fear as “moral entrepreneurs”, a brand of creatures brilliantly parodied by the TV programme Brass Eye. So effective was Chris Morris’ parody of the hysteria surrounding paedophilia his efforts turned full circle and the programme was banned, largely due to the efforts of Home Secretary David Blunkett who later confessed he hadn’t watched. Never mind the man is blind, it gave us the viewers the chance to pour scorn on Gary Lineker endorsing the fictional charity Nonce Sense.
If I sound judgemental on the issue then perhaps I shouldn’t. My great fear is a mixture of heights and exposure so debilitating I will never be persuaded onto a roller-coaster. Bridges are a particular struggle with at different times Queen Elizabeth II at Dartford and Brunel at Clifton proving impassable. On a long weekend in Porto such was my terror of the Dom Luís over the river Douro I bellowed Is This The Way To Amarillo to keep my mind off the walk across. Whether the current fuel crisis or my choice and execution of song is more pathetic and demeaning for those involved is for others to decide, even if visits to the wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia proved an effective antidote for the journey back.
Nominating panic a symptom of fear the disease is all well and good until we start thinking about a remedy. I’ve heard it said the opposite of fear is courage or even love but would dismiss both of them. Nor would I suggest the public singing of novelty records is any panacea. No, if we look at fear in its most basic form it seems to me it boils down to one primitive cry – “I want my mum!” When viewed in that light the antidote to panic is surely nurturing.
Even though it was a panicking woman who expressed her desire to grab all the petrol she could and despite The Mail relying on female approval to maintain sales I wonder if women’s most basic instinct is the answer to the fuel crisis and its base instinct. Or is that a bridge too far?