Salon addresses Ebola panic:
Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.
Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:
Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.
Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.
Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.
I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:
… and I believe it, I really do.
But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.
I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.
And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”
This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.
And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.
Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.