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The Crisis Proximity Syndrome

September 8, 2009

“Aren’t you terrified about nuclear war? Are people going nuts over there?” This was a common refrain among well-wishers intrigued I’d live in South Korea, a place that the media portrays as an atomic testing ground, one drunken dictatorial whim away from being reduced to glass and cockroaches.

The second question, though, didn’t seem to compute. “No, in fact, people aren’t freaking out here. They actually don’t seem to care or think about the chances of nuclear annihilation whatsoever. Or any other kind of annihilation for that matter,” I’d have to reply.

When a North Korean press release threatened to reduce Seoul to ashes, Koreans tended to blow it off. “Meh, they say that all the time and never go through with it,” almost daring their estranged brothers to start something. But that ‘something’ was never even a remote possibility, and certainly didn’t play into their day-to-day decision calculi.

This same pattern reappeared in my recent travels to Belfast and Los Angeles. Belfastians seemed unfazed by Molotov Cocktails thrown at police less than a mile from their homes, yet to an outside observer the Orange Day festivities of July seemed to precipitate another decline into total chaos.

No less than half a dozen people expressed concern for my safety as I flew into Los Angeles during the peak of wildfire season. Even as fires lit up the night sky here in LA, they were not mentioned once (except for the single time I brought it up). People still went out to eat on outdoor patios, walked their dogs, ate ice cream, and enjoyed themselves on the beach despite the rest of the country fearing for the safety of Bel Air plutocrats breathing pure black death.

So where am I going with this? You might think that I have brought up these stories in order to launch a diatribe about cable news fear mongering, but that would be too obvious.

Rather, I believe I have stumbled upon an effect that I will dub the Crisis Proximity Syndrome. In short, the closer to a crisis a people are, the less threatening that crisis seems to be.  As a corollary, the more distant we are from the event, the more our conception of the place where it happens is consumed by the news coming out of it.

The Iranian Green Revolution may be another example. I remember at one point that Moussavi encouraged his supporters to boycott markets for a day in order to show solidarity. But wait. People have to be encouraged to not proceed normally at a time when tens of thousands (or more) of people are protesting, college dorms are being raided, the president has stolen an election, and the streets are ablaze? Not going to the market isn’t a natural outcome of all this?

Yet from the American point of view, the protests were the singular concern for most Iranians precisely because we were so distanced from the events both physically and figuratively by the clampdown on foreign media.

The effect may have something to do with the concept of enormity. There are some situations in which the human mind simply cannot grasp the scale of horror with which it is confronted. Instead of worrying and scrambling to find solutions, we instead make flippant rationalizations (like Koreans believing the North makes empty threats or Belfastians believing that the riots are contained to certain city blocks) or outright ignore a problem creeping up to our doorsteps (like the denizens of Los Angeles).

It may even explain how the financial wizards running Wall Street could be faced with the impending meltdown of the American economy and continue to wish away the consequences of their collective actions.  Or to be totally cliche, global warming (fill in analogy here).

But even if Crisis Proximity is more localized than that, there may be a good reason for it.  What does worrying about nuclear holocaust really get us?  Sure, we could protest or do grassroots organizing if we think our country’s policies are endangering us, but in the meantime does that mean we need to act as if the threat had already come to pass?  The closer we are to a crisis the more we need to be normal in order to deal with modern life’s tendency to escalate madness to the n+1th degree.  

Or maybe this is over-thinking it.  It’s possible that people just have a limited attention span.  Unlike those of us who might catch coverage of a rowdy demonstration on TV for 15 minutes a day, those confronted with it continuously, experiencing no direct impact on their lives, are more likely to conclude that the problem will never affect them.  The only reasonable course of action is to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Regardless, nowadays when Atlantans hear “Los Angeles,” they might think “rampaging wildfires,” while Los Angelenos just think “place where I work.”  Just remember this next time you read about a Nobel Peace laureate being placed under house arrest, or a soccer riot in Manchester.  Most people there are going to find out about it the same way we do here: the newspaper.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2009 3:06 pm

    Interesting points; I like how you outlined the worldwide connections. This got me thinking about the reverse situation, when a seemingly exotic place is touted by foreigners aware of its cultural highlights but not of its everyday drudge. For example- Memphis, TN, USA. Dutchmen, Japanese, and Californians (to name just a few groups of folks) descend onto Graceland every year to salute Elvis. They eat bbq ribs and they enjoy Beale Street. Many visitors think of Memphis as a bluesy gem of a city. In a recent interview, Brandon Flowers of The Killers cited M-Town as his one of his favorite cities in which to work and play. However, live in Memphis and you’ll see a different picture. The city rivals Baltimore and Detroit in the national crime and misery index rankings. The often-embarassing mayor has exposed a severe racial divide: in the last election, he won approx. 95% of the black vote, and only 8% of the white vote. Memphis has got big ole’ problems. But it’s a case of Crisis Distance Syndrome – if you’re far enough away, you might overlook the bad, as long as a couple catchy highlights can snap up your attention…

  2. Ellie permalink
    September 13, 2009 1:45 pm

    I think “Crisis Proximity Syndrome” is also a residual effect of complacency. People living in the situations you mention are greeted with idea of these dangers nearly everyday, whether it be from the news, other media, worried family, etc. I think the essential problem here is that complacency arises when experience a) hasn’t yet substantiated the repeated warnings of the “hype machine”, whose persuasive power weakens with every unfulfilled prediction, or b) has shown that proximity to the crisis (as in the LA wildfire scenario) doesn’t necessarily have any lasting implications on day to day life.

    • September 13, 2009 10:43 pm

      Remind me to hire you to write the abstract next time I release a groundbreaking academic study


  1. When Criminals Deserve To Die, Part III – Proximity Effect « Generalissimo

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