Roundtable: Communicating Fear

On Tuesday 21 February, ICCT in cooperation with the Centre for Terrorism and Counter-terrorism hosted a roundtable expert meeting with Prof. Dr. Frank Furedi on “Communicating Fear”.

The keynote lecture was given by Prof. Dr. Frank Furedi, who is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent at Canterbury and a Visiting Professor of University College London, Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction. During the past fifteen years, Furedi’s studies have been devoted to an exploration of the cultural developments that influence the construction of contemporary risk consciousness. His research has been oriented towards the way that risk and uncertainty is managed in contemporary culture. He has published widely about controversies relating to issues such as health, parenting children, food and new technology. His book, Invitation To Terror; Expanding the Empire of the Unknown (2007) explores the way in which the threat of terrorism has become amplified through the ascendancy of possibilistic thinking. It develops the arguments put forth in two previous books: The Culture of Fear (2003) and Paranoid Parenting (2001). Both of these works investigate the interaction between risk consciousness and perceptions of fear, trust relations and social capital in contemporary society.

In his lecture, Prof. Dr. Furedi emphasised the importance of the cultural context when it comes to communication. People use cultural scripts to determine how to make sense of the world. To enable successful communication, we should try to understand these cultural dynamics. When it comes to terrorism, the cultural scripts we use are perhaps even more important: they determine how we perceive terrorist threats, and how we cope with them. Prof. Dr. Furedi’s lecture highlighted three ways in which terrorism is frequently represented:

  1. Since 9/11, terrorism is increasingly represented as an existential threat – we are dealing with an enemy with ‘incredible’ powers. The way our cultural script expresses this idea is through language construction. By saying that it is not a question of ‘if but when’ terrorists will strike, we are constructing a world in which we are passive spectators, waiting for another terrorist attack to happen, without any chance of preventing it.
  2. Another way of presenting the threat of terrorism, is presenting it as Insuring ourselves against it, is not possible. We are symbolically saying that this is a threat beyond our management capabilities; we are not even capable of putting a number on it. Society is giving up its most common system of risk management.
  3. The threat of terrorism is said to be “incommunicable”. Words are failing us; We are not capable of putting into words what this threat is exactly, and what it means to us.

Most of our cultural scripts concerning the representation of terrorism and the messages we choose are underwritten by one fundamental premise: the premise that our public is incapable of coping with the threat of terrorism.

Prof. Dr. Furedi considers the previously mentioned representations of terrorism a form of “disaster mythology” in which vulnerability defines the state of mind of the public. He reasons that this assumption – of an a priori powerlessness – about our communities should be refuted and instead we should focus ourselves on the public’s resilience.

After Prof. Dr. Furedi’s lecture, the invited panelists Kuitenbrouwer (journalist), Drs. Wouter Jong (Crisis Management Advisor to the Netherlands Association of Mayors) and Judith Sluiter (Head of Communications, Netherlands National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism and Security) commented upon his observations based on two statements formulated by Chair Prof. Dr. Beatrice de Graaf (ICCT Research Fellow). Following the panelists’ remarks, a roundtable discussion ensued, leading to a lively debate that covered many topics, including the dramatisation of terrorism, the influence of (modern) media, the diminishing role of information (facts) related to the increasing importance of ‘attention grabbing’ (emotion) and the role of norms and values in counter-terrorism measures and messages.

The meeting was concluded with a summary by Prof. Dr. Beatrice de Graaf, and an informal drinks reception.