I still torment myself by scanning the contents of the journalistic septic tank that is The Age online – despite the fact that the standard of reporting on display usually makes me want to throw the computer out the window, I do like to keep abreast of what’s going on back home. As such, I was interested to read the following article, which ran a couple of days back:
If you can’t be arsed reading it, the upshot of it is this: Victoria is about to have a state election. One of the key issues in said election is going to be the time-honoured hand-wringing favourite: law and order. The media has been amusing itself for the last couple of years with lurid tales of how Melbourne is descending into alcohol-fuelled anarchy, with drunken mobs of suburban footballers roaming the streets of the CBD looking for innocent people to beat to a pulp. Or something.
This isn’t entirely untrue – the bridge-and-tunnel bits of Melbourne can be unpleasant places to be on a Saturday night, and are generally best avoided. But then, they always have been – people have been spending their weekends getting drunk and fighting since, well, forever.
And anyway, here’s the thing: in general, crime rates are falling. Steadily. The statistics in the article I linked are pretty stark:
“The state’s crime rate has dropped almost 30 per cent since 2000-01 and is at its lowest since 1993. Burglaries have halved. Car thefts have fallen 70 per cent. Your chances of being robbed have dropped by a third. Assault rates were up in the past decade but fell 14 per cent in Melbourne in the past year. It is about 27 per cent less likely that you will be beaten up on the city streets now than three months ago.”
In other words, then, although people seem to think they’re living in a crime-ridden dystopia, they’re not. This isn’t a uniquely Australian phenomenon, of course – check out, for instance, this piece from The Guardian, which suggests that the good old Tories deliberately distorted crime statistics to suggest that violent crime had risen while Labour was in office, when in fact it hadn’t done any such thing:
This all raises some interesting points. The first is the question of why people actually buy into this shit. Clearly, the vast majority of the Victorian electorate haven’t been the victims of violent crime. I’d wager that the vast majority don’t know anyone who’s been the victim of violent crime. And yet they feel unsafe. In other words, they’re more inclined to believe what they see and what they read than what they experience.
And more interesting still is the idea that there are two Australias, two Americas, two Britains: the countries of perception and the countries of reality. I’m reminded of Guy Debord and his ideas on the spectacle – in fact, the first paragraphs of The Society of the Spectacle address this very point:
“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation … The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived.”
I wonder if Debord’s right. I wonder if even the deceivers are deceived, if the people peddling this hyperventilating horseshit actually believe it themselves. Take George W Bush and his weapons of mass destruction, for instance – you could have sworn he really believed that Saddam Hussein had a secret stash of chemical weapons hidden under the floorboards, despite pretty much every piece of concrete evidence pointing to the fact that no such weapons existed.
As Debord writes, “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.” In becoming so prevalent, this alternate view of the world actually creates itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, in other words.
This is particularly powerful in a political system where only two parties ever hold power, and where they’re so similar as to be virtually indistinguishable. For instance, it doesn’t actually matter if there is an unstoppable wave of crime in Melbourne’s CBD; if the electorate believes there is, then the opposition will accuse the government of not dealing with it, and the government, recognising that they’re on shaky ground, makes grave pronouncements about extra police presence and zero tolerance and etc. The result is a de facto bipartisan consensus that there is a problem, even if there isn’t.
And thus, for all intents and purposes, there might as well be a problem, because everyone believes there is, and laws are being passed to reflect the fact that there is. Even if there isn’t. The world of perception begins to define the world of reality.
This has more sinister implications, of course. If people are scared, and governments tell them that they need more power to deal with whatever’s scaring people (Communists, terrorists, pissed-up bricklayers from Cranbourne), then people will be more inclined to acquiesce to the acquisition of such power. Since ultimately all politicians want is more power – call me a cynic, but honestly, why else would you want to get elected? – keeping the electorate frightened is in their best interests. So they latch onto whatever’s the issue of the day, and off they go. The results of this can be seen in the abrogation of individual rights that’s taken place over the last decade or so.
I don’t believe in any sort of pervasive conspiracy behind this, for what it’s worth – I don’t believe there are any shadowy figures in power directing Channel 7 to report things in a certain way. But I do believe the media’s portrayal of such events is very deliberately skewed to evoke a reaction. Producers know that people like to be scared and outraged, that Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells takes a perverse pleasure in being able to tut-tut about the way that the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. I know someone, for instance, who worked briefly at one of the big shitty current affairs programs and was directed to come up with some statistics to illustrate a story on rising crime. When she returned with statistics that showed that, um, crime wasn’t rising, the story wasn’t pulled – instead, she was chastised for coming up with the “wrong figures” and told to go off and find the right ones.
And I do believe that politicians recognize this fact and do their best to exploit it for personal gain. Given that politicians these days (and, most likely, always) are largely unfettered by tedious constraints like actual political ideologies or morality, they’ll latch onto whatever gets them back into office. And hey, it works. If people are scared, they’ll vote for whoever they think is best on law and order, and not worry about genuinely difficult questions like the economy or the environment.
Ultimately, the blame for this state of affairs lies with all of us. If we refuse to use our own eyes and ears to look at the world around us, and our own brains to think beyond the shite that’s fed to us by the Today Tonight scaremongers, then we deserve to live in perception-world. But we also live in a world where many people are in genuinely terrible situations, and for mine it’s pretty pisspoor for us, the lucky few, to waste the opportunities that have granted to us by living our lives jumping at shadows.