The HYPE Virus May 2, 2009Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
Tags: Alasdair MacIntyre, gossip, media ethics, Swine flu; H1N1 virus; storytelling animal
For the past week I think many would agree that we have been under a mental siege, with no physical restrictions or symptoms (unless you are one of the few confirmed cases of Swine/H1N1 flu in San Diego), but with a threat of a flu pandemic looming. Toward the end of the week we heard the medical assessment that the (newly renamed H1N1, for the sake of the pork industry) flu virus may be spreading, but with less lethal results than we feared in the beginning of the week—less lethal than even a normal flu. Barring the possibility of a quick mutation, that’s very good news. And the upside of what may become known as the “Swine Flu Scare of 2009,” condescendingly, because hindsight is so safe, is that the oblivious among us have now also acquired good germ etiquette: Wash your hands often, cough and sneeze into your elbow (if you don’t have a tissue—and for goodness sake, remember to wash that sweater!), and maybe the most valuable advice of all, stay home if you’re feeling sick. There is no laudable work ethic involved in bravely showing up for work or school with a contagious illness when you’re risking the health of other people. We workaholics can learn from that little lesson (aside from Dwight’s well-taken point below that some people just don’t have doctors to go to, or sick leave).
That being said, what has concerned me greatly, other than the chilly thought of the pandemic possibility, is the way the news has been treated and spread by the media: Fat headlines about pandemics and deaths, most of which turned out to be exaggerated or false—so far. Some of you will remember the Avian flu and SARS scare a few years ago, the Anthrax scare right after 9/11, and even further back, the Alar scare, the Tylenol scare, and so forth. Some of those phenomena were worthy of our concern, others weren’t nearly as much, but in all those cases our concern was fueled, not alleviated, by media hype. The media world is undergoing a transformation these days: some media formats are struggling to stay alive, others are thriving on controversies and fears, and the Internet is no longer just an Information Super-Highway, but also a Highway of mis- and disinformation. But aside from that, why do these stories grow to such monstrous proportions? For a number of reasons: Existentially, we are storytelling animals, as Alasdair MacIntyre has said. We construct stories in order to get a grip on our very chaotic reality. If we want to look at the evolutionary angle, we come from small populations of people who knew, or tried to know everything about each other, so we could establish a group hierarchy—so gossip is a perennial human pastime. And now that our global reality is so overwhelmingly close and beyond our control at the same time, we react with our deepest primitive emotions: fear combined with curiosity. So that’s who we are. But that doesn’t mean that is who we also must be. We can decide to be different.
Can we pampered, well-fed people get it into our heads that there is no such thing as a safe life? Safer, and less safe, yes. To a great extent depending on the philosophy of the government and the constitution. And let’s not forget good foresight, and plain old luck. But there is such a thing as a responsible life, and how we deal with news concerning our health and safety is one of the things we can do something about. It is a question of media ethics, but it is also a question of how we conduct ourselves individually and in groups. Some dangers are real, and should not be overlooked, underplayed, or forgotten. Others have dangerous potentials—but we are not doing ourselves any favor if we fall prey to the gossip gene that we all share, and let the hype virus spread, because it will spread faster than any flu virus, and undermine rational thinking. If we give in to the temptation to gossip, and to the emotional rush of fear, fed by our talent for storytelling, we’ll find that we waste a lot of good time on being uselessly afraid—and, since we are storytelling animals, we might also heed the lesson of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”: If we Cry Wolf too often, will we then be able to recognize a real emergency, and act on it, when we need to?