What Are You Afraid Of?

WisCon is a science fiction convention, but since it’s also a feminist convention, the panels cover more than books and movies. This year the programming committee let me talk about self defense.

Because I’ve done presentations before on the non-fighting ways people can protect themselves — top of the list: paying attention — I focused this talk on fear. Fear is a powerful means of social control; if people are afraid, they will limit their activities on their own.

And people are often afraid of the wrong things. Here are three numbers about U.S. deaths in 2010. One is the number of murders, one the number of suicides, and one the number of deaths in motor vehicle accidents. Which do you think is which (answers after the jump):

38,364

33,687

14,772

38,364: suicides

33,687: motor vehicle accident fatalities

14,772: murders

While our murder rate is higher than that in most European countries, it is down considerably from the highs it reached in the 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, our violent crime is down quite a bit, both in absolute numbers and in numbers per 100,000 people, despite rapid population growth.

And our fatal auto accidents are down quite a bit, too. In fact, the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled keeps dropping.

But the suicide rate is up. The 2010 figures are the first time that suicide has outpaced motor vehicle accidents.

We have a pretty good idea of why auto accident fatalities are dropping despite greater numbers of cars and increased traffic. Laws requiring manufacturers to make safer cars are partially responsible, as is stricter enforcement of drunk driving laws. That is, our concern about this has had an impact.

No one is quite sure why the suicide rate is up, but one hopes that the Centers for Disease Control will look into this carefully.

I’m not sure anyone has a good answer for why violent crime has dropped a great deal in the U.S., but it’s important to recognize that it has. Too many of us govern our lives because we are afraid of being attacked by violent strangers, and yet that’s not a particularly high risk.

In fact, people tend to be at more risk of violence from people they know than from strangers. In the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers, 38 percent of all violent crimes are committed by strangers. About 24 percent of rapes are by strangers. More than 50 percent of robberies are by strangers, but even that number is down.

The point of all this is not that people shouldn’t take sensible precautions to protect themselves. In fact, since crime rates vary by neighborhoods, people need to pay attention to the statistics for where they live.

But the reality is that crime is down. We don’t need to limit our lives based on the idea that violence is rampant in our society. It may be higher than we’d like, but it’s not as big a problem as scare headlines would have us believe.

Maybe, though, we ought to be worrying about suicide. The availability of guns seems to be a factor making it easier for people to kill themselves. If violent crime is down and suicide is up, maybe families should re-think whether guns are a good thing to keep around.

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What Are You Afraid Of? — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Blair. Someone else mentioned that theory, but I didn’t have a link. I think there are multiple reasons for the crime rate drop, but that might be a significant factor.