Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Fear Factor

Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
~Harold Hill
Or, TROUBLE! Trouble, trouble, trouble....That's my husband's way of highlighting a certain kind of politicking that relies on identifying a problem, associating it with the opponent in a deceptive way, raising the fear level and then providing (conveniently) a solution (at a cost).    This can add up to the fallacy of argument from fear.

Reading through several self-help books on my shelf (I didn't realize I had so many) I notice a pattern which at first sight seems somewhat similar:

  1. TROUBLE!  Describe, often by anecdotal examples, the main problem or topic (homeschooling, disobedient children, anxiety, extra weight)
  2. Trouble!  Explain how the authors address the problem (their particular approach is usually the reason for writing the book)
  3. Trouble, trouble, trouble... add lots of anecdotes showing various permutations of the problem, and the solution using the author's approach.
Some of the books are more analytical and thoughtful in tone, while others are more emotional or dogmatic,  even sometimes pushy in their approach (my way is the ONLY way!).    But either way, the basic pattern of Problem---Proposed Solution --Various Applications is a persuasive one.  And the examples from real lives give narrative impact to the persuasion.   Even with the books that are presented dispassionately and reasonably, you can read between the lines  "See, the problem is real and life-changing!" and "See, my solution works!"   You see the theme repeated over and over again in different forms throughout the book, so the impact keeps building and the total effect is persuasive.

Is this a disingenuous technique in itself?  By no means! 

Why shouldn't inexperienced people faced with a new challenge look for more experienced or knowledgeable people to guide them?   This is totally reasonable.  In fact, it is called prudence. 

It's also totally reasonable for those who have knowledge and experience to offer advice and counsel to those who are less experienced or knowledgeable.   In fact, it can be an act of charity.

And the anecdotes and examples help teach by showing how the method works in real life.   It's hard just to read about someone's theories and then apply them successfully.   Often you need to "see" the ideas in action and the stories in the books help you to do this.   This teaching method is as old as the hills.  You see it in Aesop, in the Jakarta tales, in the Bible.   Again, it's totally legitimate. 

Sometimes there is a backlash effect though, especially for the inexperienced and unsure.   They can make the argument from fear for themselves, even if it wasn't intended by the author of a given book.

Say I have put my toddler on the couch for a "time-out" (following the advice of a parenting magazine I read at the pediatrician's office).  Then I pick up a parenting manual that I have at home.   Oh, no!  It says that "time-outs" only make the child feel like an outcast and will set me up for all sorts of relationship issues with my teenager in just 10 or 11 years!  I pick up another parenting manual.  Even worse!  I am spoiling my child --- Proverbs says not to spare the rod and I just did!   He's only two and I have already messed up his eternal life and my own!  The pressure can be intense, even debilitating.

It wouldn't be so bad if there was absolute certainty, but lots of important life issues don't come attached directly to absolute certainty.   They are matters of judgment, which means that you have to decide which factors are most important in which situation. 

 Sometimes the author will actually say "If you don't do it this way, you will be (disobeying God; messing up your kid; going against science)."  But even if they don't say or intend that, an anxious newcomer often "hears" that message.   Or at least, that was what regularly happened to me.  I would put down a book with a feeling of anxiety and regret and an almost desperate determination that we were going to start Doing! Things! Differently! Right! Now! On the reverse side, I sometimes almost become addicted to certain books and their promises.  "If I do this I have a guarantee that I will lose weight/organize my life/raise great kids/succeed at homeschooling!"   I would toil away at things that didn't really work for my family or myself for whatever reason.  

I did find helpful ideas and strategies in these self-help books but I never found a magic key that would solve all our problems.   However, trombones and uniforms might be more effective.  Do you want to buy some?  

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I spent my first couple of years as a mom feeling pulled in that tug of war between experts who were telling me if I didn't do things their way I was going to do permanent damage to my precious baby. Thankfully I have gained some perspective. I like the parallel you draw between political ads and self help books. It does underline that fear factor.


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