Framing Fear


“There are many more messages of fear about the world in U.S. media than in Scandanavia or Europe,” according to a member of the board of directors of United Methodist Communications, an international agency whose board recently met in the United States.

Delegates from Africa and Asia nodded their agreement.

As a result, a worldview is being created in the U.S. that sees the world as a fearful and dangerous place. These remarks set me to wondering about the function of fear and how it captivates us and changes us. How is it that people in other parts of the world, who have also witnessed horrible violence and terror on their own continents, are not inundated with fearful messages, but we here in the U.S. are?

A dictionary definition of fear is that it’s an “emotion experienced in anticipation of some specific pain or danger (usually accompanied by a desire to flee or fight).” Language that invokes fear creates a “frame” in George Lakoff’s terms (Don’t Think of an Elephant) that results in a way of viewing the world.

But the frame is merely language that interprets ideas and values, according to Lakoff. Framing the world as a fearful and dangerous place leads us to believe that we need a strong father figure to protect us and to conclude that we must either fight or flee.

This is what puzzles me. The idea that it’s a fearful world runs counter to a fundamental tenet of Christian faith that this is God’s world and Creation is good. I’ve been taught that God comes to us and we, in similar fashion, should engage the world and other human beings.

I’ve seen more than a fair share of war and suffering firsthand. I’ve been a part of humanitarian aid operations from Ethiopia to Brazil; from Kampuchea to Somalia. But this experience doesn’t lead me to believe that I should live in fear and withdraw into a bunker. It leads me to the conclusion that I must work even harder for economic justice, an end to poverty and equal rights for all, especially women, around the world.

This is essentially a set of values born from an understanding of the world as God’s creation and rooted in the belief that the call of the Christian faith is a call to accept responsibility for the world and for working toward a community that nurtures all peoples. It’s about looking for alternatives in the face of unacceptable violence. This is not so much idealism as basic, practical good sense.

A world in which injustice reigns is a world that creates anger and despair. This is a breeding ground for hopelessness and violence. Hope leads to dreams and ambitions. It leads to life.

We have a choice. Create communities of hope or communities of despair. Hope springs from the belief that together we can get through troubles and build a better life. I think this is a frame the Christian community must advance as often and energetically as possible.

If it represents “counter programming” to the mainstream media in the U.S., so be it. Perhaps that’s the role for communicators from the Christian tradition. Perhaps It’s actually more realistic than the fearful framing that is so common today.

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