The Mean World
I’m riding in the car with my mother when she tells me that she has heard a new way women are being abducted into sex trafficking.
Say you’re in a mall bathroom and someone in the next stall asks for toilet paper. As you reach for their hand to pass some under the stall, they stick you with a fentanyl patch. You’re rendered unconscious by the dosage and hauled away.
I tell her I don’t think this is true. How would they remove your limp body without raising a few red flags? She says it’s what she read. I imagine Facebook is the source. She also tells me about how a woman was nearly abducted from Hobby Lobby after being followed in and out of the aisles.
Later I pull the threads of these stories to see where they lead. I search fentanyl patch, abduction, sex trafficking on the internet and find nothing. I search Hobby Lobby near abduction and find a debunked story from 2015.
I’ve become alert to how fear can operate as a flashing neon sign, a sort of GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS that draws our attention. Fear as warning but also entertainment, an adrenaline-surging what if.
The town in rural Michigan where I was carjacked had no stoplights and fewer than 500 people. Only the security cameras saw the man, how he looped around the gas station store and walked up behind me on a Sunday morning.
This scenario was so unbelievable that one woman accused whoever reported this to be in cahoots with the alleged robber and seeking insurance money. She did this detective work in a Facebook comment. It just couldn’t have happened there, in broad daylight.
Afterward, it was that anti-risk, the sure sense of safety I felt that morning, that scrambled my brain until I was unsure which version of me was deluded: the version who was oblivious to her surroundings and felt safe, or the version who had become hypervigilant and flooded with adrenaline.
And maybe that was the wrong question. The fear that came upon me after was automatic, cyclical and animal. It was like a visitation from a sudden illness. Still, from a distance I wonder if being afraid actually made me any safer.
As a kid, I remember watching special episodes of Maury about phobias. I would watch them if school was cancelled due to snow or if I was home sick. One episode featured a woman afraid of balloons. She said she could not drop off her daughter at birthday parties. A production assistant brought out a shining red bouquet of them, and she ran shrieking backstage. The audience laughed at this freakshow of fear—people afraid of things that posed no danger. It felt as if we were watching a vestigial appendage at work. Our naturally purposeful emotions were now in such excess that we poured them down the drain.
My boyfriend equated my post-carjacking fear to a phobia. He was trying to reach me through the haze, to shake me out of it, but his logic failed. I tried to explain: what I’m afraid of is possible. It already happened to me. I thought I worshipped at the altar of the rational, of critical thinking, but my boyfriend took it to another level. He was a man, looked like a Kennedy, and had never had to harness his fear and ride it through the day, for months, while simultaneously pretending it did not exist. He offered firm rebuttals when I aired my fear. A clean excision of the offending thoughts.
When I tell him, my now husband, that I’m writing an essay about rationality, how it’s a shifting territory, he counters, What’s rational is fixed. It’s not whatever someone wants it to be. It’s just that most people aren’t rational. I try to explain what I mean, but I don’t know what I mean yet. I haven’t yet carved a tunnel out of words and arrived anywhere. His lack of understanding is the rock my ideas chafe against, smoothing off their rough edges. Or, it is the rock I cut my teeth on, growing fierce.
I title the work-in-progress “My Rationality.”
The availability heuristic explains that humans often automatically judge how likely something is to happen by how easily an example or instance of that thing comes to mind.
In the early 80s, after a few high-profile kidnappings, the faces of missing children begin to appear on the sides of milk cartons. You pour milk into your child's cereal, and the face of another child stares back at you. Child abduction, then, becomes an everyday occurrence. It sits at the table like another family member. These were disproportionately white kids. Black children who were missing were more likely to be deemed "runaways" rather than abducted.
When we were young, we had VHS tapes made at Blockbuster. In them, my brother and I stand in front of a human-sized ruler noting our height. I think we say something to the camera. The video is short, just long enough to get a sense of who we are before the tape ends. The program is called Kidprint, and it took place all across the country beginning in 1991, fresh off this panic of 80s abductions. If we were to go missing, they could play these videos on the news. It would be better identification than just a photo and we might be found.
In my childhood, the tragic story was JonBenét Ramsey. When she was killed, I was old enough to stand eye-to-eye with her on the front page of the tabloids in the grocery store checkout line. In the back room of that same grocery store, I had my glamour shot taken when I was six, wrapped in a red boa. The glamour shot photographers had a simple magic they would perform. After they had dressed the subject in faux evening wear, they would mist water behind them just before snapping the photo. The flash reflected off the shiny fabric and lit the mist with its color—a red glow, a purple halo. I put my chin to my bare shoulder like they told me.
I loved having this photo taken—the playing pretend, being alone with my mother away from my two siblings. Unconsciously I must have registered myself as a prized thing, like JonBenét: the photo was proof. I am unsure if I also registered myself as an endangered thing. The flash popped again and again like a small but cataclysmic event.
In the months after the carjacking, all of my senses ratcheted up. In the middle of the night, I would startle from an undiagnosed sound (a car door, a dog’s bark) and walk to the windows of our third-floor loft.
The building was industrial, on the west side near the Detroit River, with tall ceilings and cinder block walls that leaked when it rained. Water bubbled in the mortar seams and flowed in a rivulet down the sloped floor, pooling in the middle of the one-room apartment.
Tall windows began near my neck and almost reached the 15-foot ceiling. When I went to look out, just the top of my head would float above the ledge. It was strong cover, and I felt a primal safety peering from behind the cinderblock wall. I would check that the car was still there and sometimes see someone coming home. It was often only midnight.
When cars began getting broken into in the lot, the people who did it used tires to scale the fence. By the time I heard the sound, if I heard it at all, they were gone. In the morning, the pebbles of glass had accumulated around the cars like snow.
Once, a Jeep turned up burnt out on the street outside our apartment, a singed mark near the gas cap and windows shattered to nothing. It was there for a few days and then, without fanfare or story, gone.
For a time, what was happening to me seemed natural. I didn’t want to pathologize what could be likened to a splinter, working its way out of me.
An informational handout lists the “four main groups of symptoms” for PTSD:
re-experiencing memories or feelings from the trauma
a heightened sense of threat and vigilance
avoidance of reminders
changes in your beliefs about yourself, the world, other people, or your future
All of these were recognizable, like native flowers I knew the color and shape of, without ever having learned their names.
It was less the memory of what happened than the door that it opened. The world showed me a new side of itself, one that had been here the whole time but I hadn’t been able to see it because I had been kept safe.
“In contrast to phobias (such as spider phobia, which is based on a specific irrational fear),” writes the psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk, “posttraumatic stress is the result of a fundamental reorganization of the central nervous system based on having experienced an actual threat of annihilation, which reorganizes self experience (as helpless) and the interpretation of reality (the entire world is a dangerous place).”
On a real estate website, I looked up houses and saw a map of crimes that had occurred nearby and the relative safety of the block. Having moved five times in five years, my boyfriend and I had wanted to buy our first home and put down roots. It had been a little more than a month since the carjacking, but I didn’t see it as reason to pause. I didn’t want to allow the event to change my actions. My thoughts were rampant and unyielding, but I thought countering them with opposing actions, the actions of someone unafraid, might act like a brace on them, reshaping their impact.
The safety map formed a quilt of green (low crime), yellow (some crime), red (high crime) and some shades in between. I could zoom out and watch the red coagulate around a neighborhood as if an organ, along the main streets like an artery.
The map reminded me of the farmland I grew up around as seen from an airplane: green fields of corn, tan blocks of wheat and roads seaming each together. I entered the address of each house we looked at. Each was in the green, but sometimes they bordered an olive color or just blocks away red bloomed and spread. Each black dot was an incident. I clicked with a hunger for information. I thought information could answer the question my body was asking: Am I safe?
I clicked on a house we loved in Detroit. A large brick colonial, in need of work but with good bones. In this historic neighborhood, some blocks were full of big old houses, varying from mostly intact to well-kept, but moving a block or two away, many houses were burnt, crumbling, or gone. Over one roof a torn blue tarp flapped in the breeze. The house we hoped to buy was in the green, but still studded with dots that represented incidents:
MOTOR VEHICLE THEFT
ASSAULT AND BATTERY / SIMPLE ASSAULT
FRAUD – IMPERSONATION
FRAUD – FALSE PRETENSE / SWINDLE / CONFIDENCE GAME
LARCENY – PURSE SNATCHING
BURGLARY – FORCED ENTRY
WEAPONS OFFENSES – CONCEALED
AGGRAVATED ASSAULT / FELONIOUS ASSAULT
DANGEROUS DRUGS / VIOLATION OF CONTROLLED SUBSTANCES ACT
WEAPON / PERSON WITH A WEAPON
I knew the map was not fixed; it is a living thing, and permeable. A man can walk from one square to another. A block on the map might slowly begin to blush. “So many of us have agreed to live within a delusion—” Eula Biss writes, “namely that we will be spared the dangers that others suffer only if we move within certain very restricted spheres.” I thought information could be curative. The safety map, the statistics—if I could look at them clear-eyed, receive an infusion of facts, get right with what is real, maybe then my brain would recalibrate.
I read a book later, from a neurosurgeon dying of lung cancer. He was all too familiar will the bell curves of survival—what they could and couldn’t offer. “Getting too deeply into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water,” he wrote. “The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”
I don’t look up the address where it happened. I know what I saw: field after field, young corn and tufts of soybeans, miles of boundless green.
The narrative of the human brain as a peak achievement of nature becomes questionable when we look at how we assess risk. In one study, participants were asked to compare the risk of death from various causes. As it turns out, humans are very bad at this. People judged tornadoes to be more deadly than asthma, although asthma kills 20 times more people. Accidents were judged to be 300 times more lethal than diabetes, but diabetes actually kills 4 times as many people as all accidents. It is easy to observe that the events more heavily covered by the media were seen as more likely. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman concludes, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.”
Many months after the carjacking, we missed the ramp to the highway and pulled onto a side street. The block was long and filled with vacant houses, and the street was flooded with water from side to side. In the distance, a man walked toward us. With the water probably passable, my boyfriend began to drive on, and without any consciousness, I yelled No, no, no, gripping the handle on the door, lifting out of my seat. Exasperated, he turned the car around. Sometimes I acted as if avoiding certain places and activities was a choice, and other times, fear gripped my body. Like an animal being dangled above water, I jerked and yelled. Panic is unselfconscious.
It seemed my boyfriend was afraid of nothing, but then he would wince and gasp as I merged or changed lanes on the highway, once dormant memories of being hit by a drunk driver coming to the surface. I would react to his fear, assuming he was seeing something I did not, which ultimately made us less safe. He told me to ignore him; he couldn’t help it. I suggested he recline his seat all the way back so he couldn’t see the road. In lieu of being able to change his reaction, he could change what he saw
Facebook’s algorithm changed in 2018 to allow you to see what matters to you most, they said, prioritizing content from family and friends as well as posts that “encourage meaningful interaction.” What this has equated to, in one respect, is prioritizing posts that receive intense reactions. Love is prioritized over like. Gasp-face over everything. In your feed, you will see what is The Most—sensational, heartwarming, outrageous, horrifying. The video of a veteran returning home, or a mugshot of an animal abuser, will go viral due to the intensity of reaction it provokes. Our online world has grown into a set of peaks, a row of brightly colored windsocks rearing in our faces to make us feel.
What we believe about the world – its goodness or danger – matters. The term mean-world syndrome was coined in the 1970s by George Gerbner, a professor of communications. “If you are growing up in a home where there is more than say three hours of television per day, for all practical purposes you live in a meaner world – and act accordingly – than your next-door neighbor who lives in the same world but watches less television,” he said.
It is not that violent TV makes people violent, but it makes them afraid, which has real consequences. As Gerbner explains, “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled.”
In college my mother forwarded me an email. FW: FW: FW: FW: WARNING DO NOT SMELL
It told a first-person story of a woman approached by two men in a mall parking lot, trying to sell her perfume. They offer her a sniff, but as the email warns: THIS IS NOT PERFUME … IT IS ETHER!
When you sniff it, you'll pass out. They'll take your wallet, your valuables, and heaven knows what else. If it were not for this email, I probably would have sniffed the 'perfume' but thanks to the generosity of an emailing friend, I was spared whatever might have happened to me. I wanted to do the same for you.
The email begins with a common idea, one I've heard from my mother when she recounted the near-kidnapping in Hobby Lobby and the fentanyl patch story: Our world seems to be getting crazier by the day. Pipe bombs in mailboxes and sickos in parking lots with perfume. The fact that this incident didn’t, in fact, happen is eclipsed by the fact that so many people felt it could have. It matched their perception of the world.
German sociologist Ulrich Beck describes a “risk society” that is informed not only by personal experiences and second-hand information, but on anything that could happen, even if it hasn’t. He called these non-events “second-hand non-experiences.” So many of these fake stories seem to be second-hand non-experiences parading as personal narratives, and in a culture of fear, it fits. If it could happen, it has happened or will happen. Best to warn people about it soon, such is our twisted world. How misinformation itself might change the world seems, at best, collateral damage to the ultimate goal of safety.
I am amazed at the belief in this story, which never happened, but also at the idea that the only way we could spare each other such misfortune is by individual, online action. Everywhere I look I find this individualized sense of safety, implicitly and explicitly. Gavin DeBecker, author of the bestselling The Gift of Fear writes, “The truth remains that your safety is yours. It is not the responsibility of the police, the government, industry, the apartment building manager, or the security company.” In lieu of a clear answer to our societal violence, DeBecker offers techniques that will form “your personal solution to violence.”
But, by extension, in forwarding this email there is a gesture of love, however buried or warped. It says, You’re in my circle. I care about you. “Fear can have a cohesive effect,” Lars Svendsen writes in A Philosophy of Fear, “it can re-establish a sense of community that would seem to have been lost in the age of individualism.”
Said more simply by St. Thomas Aquinas, “All fear comes from our loving something.”
What we fear is fueled by media, but it also can have deeper roots in the world of morality and control. When writer Kim Brooks left her five-year-old in a locked car on an overcast day to run into Target for a few minutes, a bystander filmed her son. She was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
In her book Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, Brooks describes a study that measured the perceived risk to a child left in a car by a parent. The parent could be a mother or father, and they could’ve left their child to get coffee, run into work, meet a lover, or because they were struck by a car and incapacitated. Although the duration, location, and other details of the cases were the same, “participants thought children were in significantly greater danger when the parent left to meet a lover than when the child was left alone unintentionally,” she writes. In other words, “People don’t think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral. They think it is immoral and therefore dangerous.”
The study’s researcher notes that one in three children may have diabetes by 2050, but that statistically a child could be left unattended for 750,000 years (take a moment there) before something happens to them. Still, our fear remains unaltered.
Brooks postulates that emotion and our imagination are more significant factors in our fears than likelihood. As if a chemical reaction, emotion cements an idea, a story, into indelible truth.
Two cautionary tales my mom heard as a young woman:
1) If you park in a parking structure and return to your car alone to find a large van parked near the driver’s side, enter through the passenger side door.
2) As you return to your car, it is possible that someone is underneath it, and in order to abduct you they will cut your Achilles tendon so you cannot run.
I think of the screaming it would cause, all the while a man is trapped underneath your vehicle, needing to weasel out to abduct you.
Once, during the worst of my fear, I fell soundly asleep, but in the middle of the night, turning over in a brief slice of wakefulness, the image of a man holding a knife flashed in my mind. Any gap, any spare or peaceful moment, begged to be filled, like water finding its level again.
The images came from the slot machine of my unconscious: man, weapon, location. Man, fist, alley. Man, knife, house. The options were unlimited. Ding ding ding.
“I strongly recommend caution and precaution, but many people believe—and we are even taught—that we must be extra alert to be safe. In fact, this usually decreases the likelihood of perceiving hazard and thus reduces safety,” DeBecker writes in The Gift of Fear. “Alertly looking around while thinking, ‘Someone could jump out from behind that hedge, maybe there’s something hiding in that car’ replaces perception of what actually is happening with imaginings of what could happen.” This means, if we are present and paying attention to our senses, our environment will tell us what we need to know. After the carjacking, my physiological responses made that state of attunement out of reach. I remained vigilant, attempting to outthink possible threats while the fog of adrenaline made me unable to tell the difference between ordinary strangeness and danger. It’s an unfortunate fact that victims of trauma are often re-victimized, in part because the changes in their physiology prevent them from accurately sensing their bodies and environment.
More broadly, when we are securing the keys between our knuckles, maneuvering to avoid that car or that tactic, we are unable to consider why we are so afraid in the first place and what it would take for that to be otherwise. Our distraction from the roots of violence, for many (politicians, media, gun companies, alarm companies) is profitable. The immediate, individual need for safety supersedes the higher need of a safe and just world.
As DeBecker bluntly states: “(To remind clients that my job is to help them be safer, I have a small sign on my desk that reads, ‘Do not come here for justice.’)” In keeping myself safe, I may fail to keep you safe.
“Rationality” means having the ability to reason. The definition feels circular, like a snake with its tail in its mouth. But what if the ability to reason brings you right back to where you were, afraid?
Some months after the carjacking, I answered the phone at work and a man on the other end of the line asked to bring me lunch. He said his name, which I embarrassingly couldn’t place right away. Then it came to me: he was a former custodian in the building. I hadn’t seen him regularly in months.
When I declined with the excuse that I was about to leave, he said he wanted to buy me a gift – a pair of shoes. He suggested I look at them online so I could see if they were my taste. I said I wasn’t comfortable with that, conceding that he already does so much for us. I thought he said I’ve been thinking about you and also That’s awful in response to what I said but I couldn’t trust my ears, which were crackling with disorientation. With every sentence I groped in the dark, confused, and cringed at my maneuvering. Still in customer service mode I suggested he stop by sometime. The whole call lasted less than a minute, but I was unmoored. Though I hardly knew who he was, he knew where I worked, often alone, my phone number, my name. While I’d forgotten him, he’d been thinking of me.
Later that truly strange day, I encountered another man standing just outside the door to my apartment, moving the blade of a box cutter up and down and staring at me. I was cornered at end of our hallway. Another man joined him and stood along my path to the stairs. I started walking away, and for whatever reason, they let me pass.
In math, a proof by contradiction takes place when assuming a proposition to be false leads to a contradiction. So if we assume the statement I am unsafe to be false, even irrational, we are placed outside the apartment door, steps from the man with the boxcutter: a contradiction.
That night I lay in a lump on the bed, without a plan. I think I said out loud, I’m out of ideas. I had tried to reroute my thoughts, to degrade my fear into non-existence. It was childish, stupid, irrational, and unproductive, but here it was, proven right but not at all smug about it.
I was trying to figure out the world we lived in, or maybe the world only I lived in, in which my distorted thoughts made sense. My brain was like land shapeshifting to fit the rising water around it, so that it would not disappear completely.
The more colloquial use of rationality, mutually excludes intelligent thinking and emotion. But to exclude the emotion of fear would be to exclude an inborn intelligence. To say the man with the box cutter, the janitor, the man who carjacked me, will not to do such things because the situations are statistically unlikely in their particulars, and at large, would be irrational. It would indicate I couldn’t reason from what the world has taught me.
The root of the word rationality is the Latin ratio, meaning “reckoning, calculation, reason.” Reckoning feels most apt, with its ancient meaning of the settlement of a bill or account. This is what my fear was asking of me, a true accounting of my situation, in all of its improbability and truth.
How can we all live in the world and some of us are afraid and some of us are not? One answer is that we do not all live in the same world. Men and women, black people and white people, poor people and rich people, each face different risks with different probabilities.
Decision-making expert Paul Slovic says there is no such thing as “objective risk,’ explaining that, “‘Risk’ does not exist ‘out there,’ independent of our minds and culture, waiting to be measured. Instead, human beings have invented the concept of ‘risk’ to help them understand and cope with the dangers and uncertainties of life.” Slovic concludes that determining risk is “an exercise in power,” noting that mortality rates from toxic pollution could be defined as deaths per million people or deaths per million dollars of product produced depending on who is doing the counting and what they value.
A few days after the custodian called, after the man with the boxcutter stood outside my door, we were set to buy the big colonial house in the historic neighborhood, and I backed out against the wishes of everyone involved. There were rational reasons: We found out the house had a bed bug infestation, and the short-term costs of buying the house and the long-term costs of renovating and maintaining it were proving beyond our means. These were the rational explanations that I can and did cite, using them as a kind of blockade to shelter myself from a more absolute truth: I did not feel safe: not there, not in my own apartment, not in my own body.
My fear had finally crested and came over me like a wave. I could no longer act another way. What I felt was beyond argument. No was all I could say, over and over. I remember my boyfriend’s face—at first understanding, then confused, and then without recognition at all, appalled by my fear and what I had become: irrational, crazy.
“People have a difficult time facing the fear of others because fear is also a provocation. It demands an answer. A response. It indicates to the viewer that something is amiss, that things are not as they should be,” writes Brandon Taylor, describing fear as the rational response to the violence he experienced as a young black boy, “Fear is a prolonged argument with the world.” I had come to see fear in some contexts as rational, as a sense-making mechanism for lived experience, but I hadn’t yet seen it, in certain contexts, as defiant.
I laid awake all night after arguing. I was relieved, or maybe just exhausted, when the sky finally and mercifully lightened. I began to slice open and unpack all the packed boxes. I unrolled and vacuumed the old stained rug. It felt terrible and only now seems right—the going back to the point at which there was an error in thinking, an error in not feeling, and trying again.
My mother tells me that she wasn’t afraid growing up in rural Ohio. Nothing bad happened to her or anyone close to her that she knew of. Part of me is surprised to hear this.
She was one of eleven children, and they knew everyone in town. They had a TV when she was young, but could only watch a few cartoons. Her dad read the weekly newspaper and sometimes watched the nightly news, which was shorter and less frequent than the 24 hours news we have now, not to mention the lack of internet. Telephone calls were expensive and also on a party line with many other households, so that wasn’t how news spread. If someone died, she said, you found out in the newspaper.
My grandmother was not particularly fearful either, even though as a teenager she had been attacked by a man with a pipe when she was walking home one night in Cleveland. When she told us the story for the first time in her nineties, rubbing the spot on her forehead where the scar used to be, she said she didn’t go out in the dark for a year after that.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied a fearless woman. Her amygdala had been damaged by a rare genetic condition, and while she had normal intelligence and could feel other emotions, she could not feel fear. It made her uniquely vulnerable. In one incident, she had to be held back from touching dangerous snakes researchers showed her. When a man at a park held a knife to her throat and threatened her, she said go ahead and cut me. She speaks very close to people’s faces.
When I admitted my experiences into evidence, with their contradictions and strangeness, and considered them without drama or spite, the surges of adrenaline quieted. I slept through the night. I wasn’t so nervous driving. When my mind quit arguing against my body, the tectonic plates of myself stopped grinding. Healing wasn’t immediate, but it was swift.
By the following spring, I began to forget myself more often. I would slip into my mind or my senses and would stay there, floating for a while. When I sprang to the surface, the world would be just as I’d left it. No one had bothered me. No one was watching. In fear, my existence felt small and surface-level, acute as a pinprick. I began to feel expansive, part of the tapestry of my surroundings once again. Safety was a felt thing, beginning in my viscera and making its way to my mind.
Anger towards my boyfriend ripened like fruit. His failure to imagine my world was symptomatic of my own belief that fear was a distortion to abolish, not, as I realized later, a force to get in right relationship with.
As a teenager I liked to go alone to a city park along a small river. It started out as an assignment for a class, but eventually I just liked the quiet in the raucous of my teenage mind. My mother didn’t like my going alone, but during the day she allowed it.
Once, I needed to go before sunrise to make a visual map of morning sounds for school. It was pitch black, 5:30 AM. My mother drove me and, against my will, waited in the car behind me. I sat cross-legged in the wet grass as far away as I could get, staring at the tree line that edged the river as it slowly separated itself from the flat darkness. I marked the sounds around me on paper: the birds threading their voices, the crickets encircling me. I don’t know if my mother’s car was running, or if I marked it on the page.
A year later, beyond the tree line, the same mucky river would separate me from a man who masturbated as he watched me read at a picnic table. I would look up from my book and see streaks of naked flesh, his horrible face, and my legs would pick me up and move me to my car without any conscious decision.
But that pre-dawn morning, the water moved, loosened with spring. The sky lightened as it does, by degrees of transparency from black to blue to gray to light. I drew myself as an X at the center of the page, surrounded by all of the sounds I could parse. My mother watching me so I could disappear.
I ask my mother if she thinks things are more dangerous now than when she was growing up, and she says yes. She mentions the internet and what it allows people to access — sex, drugs — and people’s desire for money. Her perception is correct, in some ways. The low-crime 1960s was followed by the high crime 70s and 80s. While crime today is still somewhat higher than it was in her childhood, it has fallen drastically since its peak. Yet media coverage has not fallen proportionately, and in 2014 63% of Americans believed crime was up over the previous year, despite having fallen more than 4%.
Analysis from the Brennan Center says that this misperception “indicates that the public still hasn't recovered from the years of the crime surge, or, perhaps more accurately, that the sensationalist coverage of isolated crimes has contributed to the public misperception that crime is increasing.” While we can attribute misperceptions about crime to the media, that causal relationship could also be reversed: the media covers what grabs us, what reflects our deepest biases and suspicions, however unfounded. As Eula Biss writes, “Our willingness to believe the news is, in many cases, not entirely innocent.”
I didn’t want to write about the internet. It seemed tacky and artless, but it keeps surfacing like a buoy, how it allows us to magnify a story until we can see nothing of our world at all. How it rewards hyperbole and emotional pitch. How fluency in the ways of the internet, and skepticism toward it, varies between people and among generations. How social media is the illusion of conversation, because in real conversation, I want to believe, our ideas and arguments tumble against one another until they are scraped into something real.
The internet didn’t bring into being the fearful part of us, but it expertly shapes and harnesses it toward various ends: clicks, shares, the stories we believe, and how we vote. What we see, without careful thinking, becomes our world.
On our honeymoon we were snorkeling among craggy reefs. I wondered about the possible dangerous things my back was turned to, but the water was shallow and we were close to shore. I didn’t need to come up for air and I didn’t want to. I felt animal, marine, kicking around the edges, lacing in and out of the rocks.
A school of sardines rotated in the shallows. Above, pelicans hovered and circled, and after they wound themselves into the air, they plummeted down like a sewing needle and came up flapping their beaks. I tried to join the turning of the school, but the fish darted away from me. There were so many of them it was like a curtain that parted only to reveal another glinting curtain. Then the curtain finally parted. I had reached the end of the school, and beyond it, a small shark pointed toward me, its tail curled behind it. I had never kicked so fast back to shore.
Later that night, I was talking with the teenage lifeguard on the dock that jutted over the cove where we’d been swimming. The sky was going a steely gray. He said what I saw was just a nurse shark—it wouldn’t hurt us. He had once picked one up by the tail to scare his sisters. But the sardines were attracting other predators, barracuda and tarpon, some five feet long. Those are what we should worry about, he said, especially as night fell and they could mistake the shine from a snorkeler’s ring for a fish. Just beyond the dock the big fish were charging on the sardines now, making wake. The school darted away in a choreographed rush. The big fish surged after them, their backs breaking the surface. All day I’d swum blissful and unknowing. The light dissipated and the water became inky and opaque. We watched this dance until it was dark and we could not see the happenings underwater.
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