In some pockets of America, people are freaking out about getting Ebola. Parents in Mississippi kept their children home from middle school because the principal recently traveled to Africa. A Texas college has turned away students from Ebola-infected countries. Some conservative commentators want to close down the borders and ban flights to and from West Africa.
With only four known cases of Ebola appearing in the U.S., the chances of contracting the disease are close to nil, but that doesn’t prevent a fantasy from taking shape, one in which something terrifying arises from deepest, darkest Africa, threatening to take over our bodies. The fantasy summons our prejudices and clouds our thinking.
Air pollution is far more likely to injure and kill us, but that idea doesn’t carry the narrative punch of an Ebola fantasy. The threat of airborne toxins feels too pervasive and we feel too vulnerable and exposed. The damage is gradual and often invisible, rather than immediate and dramatic. It doesn’t allow us to conjure an outsider, a scary other on whom we can project our anxieties. The individual survivalist can do little to reduce the threat of air pollution to his own body except perhaps move to another town. But purchasing rubber gloves and shopping at less crowded times of the day as protection from Ebola can convey a feeling of safety and control — even against a virtually non-existent threat.
There are many real dangers of modern life, like the fact that the richest one percent have now grabbled half the world’s assets or the ongoing destruction of nature — two massive problems who danger is accelerating. But it’s the unlikely scenarios and unproven threats to our individual bodies that seem to have the firmest grip on our imaginations. Sociologists refer to the “risk society” as one in which people increasingly think about threats to personal safety, both real and unreal. America is becoming a risk society, focused disproportionately on individual physical fears instead of say, economic risks, which may seem harder to understand and confront.
Our bodies — the fragile flesh envelopes we are forced to carry around — become the site of our anxiety and the place where imaginary battles are played out. Americans are unlikely to suffer from vitamin deficiencies, for example, and yet we fill our shelves with largely useless and sometimes harmful dietary supplements to treat nonexistent conditions. One moment we are removing gluten from our diets because of nonsensical fears that it is wreaking havoc on our bodies; the next moment we’re stocking up on hand-sanitizers despite the fact that they may be helping to create resistant superbugs.
Irrational fears have always been with us, of course. For 200 years, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes because they believed that wealthy people got sick and died after eating them. In reality, the pewter plates used by aristocrats were giving them lead poisoning, heightened by the tomato’s acidity. But the tomato itself became the culprit, and the fear denied people a perfectly healthy food option. Fears that tomatoes were poisonous lingered long after science had discovered the dangers of lead. Similarly today, it doesn’t matter how many times the notion that Canola oil (made from the rape plant, a member of the mustard family) is poisonous is debunked, the myth that it will hurt you persists on the Internet and removes a perfectly healthy oil from many American diets.
Unfounded fears associated with disease have been far more destructive, because they so often conjure tribal hostilities. In medieval times, the false idea that Jews were spreading bubonic plague went viral, leading to persecution and the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and the destruction of whole communities. Jews were seen as getting the plague less often than non-Jews, which if true, may have been due in part to a tradition of hand-washing and their isolation in ghettos. This observation led to a conspiracy theory that Jews were deliberately poisoning the wells of Christians.
Today, Ebola conspiracy theories are taking off, with figures like Louis Farrakhan insisting that the U.S. government developed the disease to target black people, thus increasing racial tensions in the country, which are already running high in the wake of the fatal shooting by police of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
While baseless anxieties are not new, the way they are disseminating and proliferating is very new. The revolution of the Internet allows overblown fears and conspiracy theories to spread like viruses, reinforcing believers and taking over new converts in the blink of an eye. They keep us distracted as we move from one irrational obsession to the next, never slowing down to do real research or sift through complex evidence.
Unfortunately, these fears allow us to be preyed upon by those who can leverage them for power and money. They divide us, and prevent us from acting collectively to address real problems.
In the past, common fears bound communities together. However, the living memory of how to respond together to real threats is fading. The generation of Americans born in the first half of the 20th century developed a strong sense of civic responsibility and trust because they had seen the country come together to combat threats like the Great Depression and World War II. Today, instead of rising to confront our fears as communities, we cower in our homes as we become more isolated and helpless, and ironically, more vulnerable to danger.
Healthy fear can be a good thing, but only when our fears coalesce into collective experience and positive action will we be able to secure our safety.