Tuesday, 9 March 2010

On the Culture of (in)security

Pretty much every morning I run into some random piece of news in the paper that shakes up my system. This, of course, is a natural part of being a newbie in any given culture, and I think there are few things that tell more about a country than its media and the news it offers. Every day my newspaper reminds me that I live in a country that is at war (the daily Names of the Dead-list gets me teared up often), or that this country still engages in killing its own citizens (I refer to the death penalty). There are all sorts of for-and-against arguments for pretty much everything in life, and I don't really want to go there today. For me, what matters today, is the general lack of security in this society around me.

A lot of it comes down to my percetions and my roots. Despite Finland having its own serious sociological issues, there is something about the social-democratic heritage of my home country that keeps telling me that the system will take care of things, and that it will essentially take care of me. The promises of the system are often just a bunch of bureaucracy, but at the end of the day, you don't see movies like Rambo shows on tv at midday (like here), or you don't read in the paper about a pressure group that wants to openly carry guns in Starbucks. Here, a lot of people (not all) tend to think that the system is the enemy.

Remember Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine? To me, what comes to mind is the part of the documentary about the sense of fear that lingers in the American society. I am not a huge fan of Michael Moore, but I think he has a point. I see an awful lot of fear around me here. People lock their car doors when they drive. Houses have full-on alarm systems. People debate whether it is safe for me to ride my bike in a small town of 50,000 people.

It is not that I am just naive because I come from a "safe" society. In fact, the suburb where I lived in Helsinki always had a fair amount of trouble. I grew up knowing that there were flashers in our nearby forests. There were killings at our small suburban railway stop. Still, I walked a mile to school and back, alone, every day since I was seven. I was told that bad things happen in the world, but that giving into fear is not the right path. I was raised to believe that most people are good, which I still believe to this day. In my early 20s I lived in big European cities for extended periods of time - Milan, London, Budapest - and nothing ever happened to me. I am not saying that bad things couldn't have happened. The essential difference is that I was not afraid.

In our small town, I have to shake myself up often to not be afraid. It is not that I feel insecure per se. This is a small, quiet town. But it is the popular culture, filled with tv-shows about serial killers and rapists, and news about people carrying guns that make me nervous. More than that, it is the people around me. They are afraid, and I guess have always been.

Print top: Sears
Jersey cardigan: Urban Outfitters
Leather skirt: second hand / UFF
Tights: Sears
Ankle boots: Aldo
Necklace and earrings: JBL


Eline said...

Ah, you always bring up SUCH good points! Whenever I read one of your posts I find myself wishing I was that articulate because whenever I truly have a strong point of view, opinion, am passionate about something etc. my mind gets so chaotic. Maybe I should practice on it.

So, this post. I have nothing to add, I agree with everything and recognise myself in it too (the whole European not being so scared thing of course).

Jane W. said...

Interesting post, as always.

At the risk of sounding like a paranoid conspiracy theorist, I think that fear has been used to distract people in American society for a long time. So many things are presented as threats to the individualism behind “the American way of life”— namely, raising a heterosexual family of abstinent teenagers in a sprawling suburban house with access to cable, drive-through hamburgers and gas for the SUV.

A lot of people think that the lack of a “system” in this country is what makes choice possible—from the 30 models of toasters available at Target to the “right” to carry a gun.

If we were to get public healthcare the economy would suffer and then there would only be 18 types of toasters to choose from! Ack! And from there, it’s a short ride to scratchy, Eastern-bloc toilet paper and gay marriage! Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be able to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted! That’s what makes this country great! Don’t fence me in!

Ironically, focusing on preserving the “right” to cheap plasma-screen TVs supports a different kind of “system,” and one that isn’t necessarily beneficial.

On a much lighter note, *love* the blouse! Sears! Who knew?

Annie said...

When I was a child (in the 70s) I used to walk to and from school with my sister. We'd walk with other children in the neighborhood so we weren't alone, and there were crossing guards at all the street corners to make sure we made it safely across, yet my parents weren't hovering over us every second. They felt comfortable letting us out into the world. My mom and dad never worried and neither did we. I remember the biggest thing that ever happened was that a little girl was flashed by some strange man once. That was it. By the time I had a child of my own (late 90s), I was living in a much bigger city and noticed that every child walking to school was accompanied by a parent or grandparent. I was fearful of letting my daughter walk two blocks to school and wondered what in our society had changed so much to cause such worry. I thought this phenomenon was due to the big city but I saw the same thing happen in my old neighborhood. When I was a child, I had a sense of security - I knew almost every neighbor whose house I walked past on the way to and from school every day. I'd ride my bicycle all over the neighborhood in the summer and new that when it started getting dark out I needed to come home. I grew up knowing that the adults around me were there to protect me and look out for me. My daughters don't have that same feeling. Our society has turned inward. We spend more time indoors than ever before, more time in front of various screens (t.v., computer, cell phones) and less time interacting face to face with other people. I think children are probably safer now than ever, or at least in no less danger than I was when I was young yet in our society, everyone is perceived as a potential threat. There is an odd selfishness in our society - look out for #1. Not only that, criminals are elevated to celebrity status here - they get lots of media attention. Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame or infamy and it doesn't seem to matter which. If it takes a village to raise a child we are failing miserably. It's sad. I have friends and neighbors who would look out for my children but I wouldn't let my girls ride their bicycles alone in the neighborhood I live in now, nor would I let them walk alone to school because I only know a few of my neighbors. We have lost our moral compass, truly, and I don't mean in a George Bush "family values" kind of way; I mean we have truly lost our way as a society. I'm optimistic that things can change for the better, though.

jesse.anne.o said...


I didn't even realize we had this culture until I took Women's Studies classes in college and realized the terror of "rape culture" extrapolated out to all of our culture, here.

Sal said...

Fear can be a real killer, and people use it as an excuse for all sorts of harmful behaviors, including simple avoidance.

But while I've lived most of my life fairly free of worry - riding my bike alone through my neighborhood when people get shot six blocks from my house on a regular basis - I have to admit that one incident is sometimes all it takes. When I was visiting friends in New York two years ago, our house was broken into and both our cars stolen. My husband was in Minneapolis, just at work at the time. I have pretty much been afraid to travel since, irrational as that may be. I have nightmares about the cats getting murdered, the house burning down, our neighbors being harmed. And before we take a trip this fall, we'll be getting an alarm system to ease that anxiety.

That said, I will continue to bike to work, weather allowing. I try hard to fight the fear because I feel like it all boils down to one choice in the end: Are you going to be afraid and stagnant, or are you going to live?

Eye said...

I think about this quite often. Canada feeds us the same fear through the media. There is always something we should be scared of, it all boils down to distraction and consumerism. 'They' want us to be afraid of threats that may or may not exist (instead of the real threats) and buying products we don't need.

Me said...

That's why I don't have TV! I know what you are saying, I grew up in another country where I could walk to and from school and to run errands by myself when I was a kid, I can't even imagine letting my 9 year old son walking up to the corner store all by himself without worrying that some child molester is going to take him. But I've seen worst, Mexico City for example, where people get abducted for money, or at least once in their lifetime people have been robbed right in the street at gunpoint, I don't even like to be in Mexico city all by myself! You want to see something scary, you go there, or the borders of Mexico and USA. More to the south is very calm and children can still walk alone from and to school everyday. =)

Milla said...

This is exactly how I feel about America. You have articulated the overwhelming sense of dread so well. I'm not afraid out where I live (because it's very rural, and perhaps naively I feel that this is a place of magic where no real harm can come to you.), but when ever I get of the ferry onto the "real america" I immediately sense a change in vibe. People are frightened and that makes them frightening.

Marie McGrath (The Joy of Fashion) said...

I looove those tights! so cool!


Rad_in_Broolyn said...

Super interesting point. I've thought about this often, especially when chatting with friends from other countries. I wonder where it comes from? I am pretty secure when it comes to safety (maybe naively so), but then again, my immigrant parents never taught me to be afraid of any thing other than my own inadequacies. I always laughed at the "stranger danger" style videos shown in school.
I make my students think a lot about the trade off between the more socially mobile (in theory) American society and more socially secure Scandinavian societies. Perhaps the possibility of great rewards, Bill Gates style, of American "ingenuity" is both exhilarating and scary, which Americans really like? Is there something about American society that is more risk taking?
A seriously intelligent post as usual.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. And, on a totally unconnected point, I adore your tights!

Michele said...

Wow, do they really debate the safety of riding your bike?! Cra-azy!

That said, I totally see what you mean. I've never been hurt on the street in the US, but definitely feel the fear element whenever I visit. I've always assumed it was to do with the whole gun crime thing, but I think you're quite right that fear a societal feature as well. On the other hand, I've been physically harmed twice (and physically harassed many more times) in Finland--which I suspect is all about race--and yet I continue to feel perfectly safe here. Hmm!

P.S. Hi after a long absence! I'm finally getting back to blog reading after the move. So lovely to see you in sunshine and spring outfits.