Free-Floating Anxiety, Teens, and Security Theatre

by Bill Benzon


Talcott Parsons

I am going to continue the psycho-cultural argument I introduced in my previous 3DQ post, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The core of my argument somes from an old article in which Talcott Parsons, one of the Grand Old Men of 20th century sociology, argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Rather those impulses must be redirected. Parsons was interested in how nationalist sentiment directed those impulses against external enemies, such as the Soviet Union, the Chinese, the North Vietnamese, Iraqi and the Taliban. But Parsons also recognized the existence of internal enemies, such as African-Americans from slavery up through and including the present day.

In that post I pointed out that the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s foreced Americans to redirect the aggressive impulses that had been absorbed in the Cold War. I argued that those impulses were focused, once again, on African Americans. Since then I’ve been reading danah boyd’s recent study of cyberculture, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014). I was struck by her argument that teens spend so much time online because they’re physical lives are restricted in way that mine had not been.

That prompted me to write Escaping on a Raft in Cyberspace, in which I agued, in effect, that some of the aggressive impulses that had been directed toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War have now become directed at our own young, with the Internet serving as the “trigger” for that redirection. I reprise that argument in the first section of this post. I go through Parsons’ argument in the second section, this time a bit more carefully. I wrap up that section by arguing that the logic of our response to teens in cyberspace is the same as our response to the bombing of the world trade center. In both cases anxiety caused by a real danger is amplified by repressed aggression resulting in actions that are inappropriate to their ostensible cause. In the final section I ask how can we, as a society, better distinguish between real danger and projected fantasies.

Kids these Days: Confined to Quarters

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Richland Township, a suburb of Johnstown, Pennsylvania about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh. My neighborhood bordered on forests and small farms. As a teenager I had to be home for dinner, be home before dark, get my homework done, and practice my trumpet. I had various activities as well, scouts, school clubs (band and others) that took time, but they didn’t fill my schedule. I could, and did, roam freely about the neighborhood. I had to tell my mother generally where I was going, but that was it.

But that’s not the case with the teens that danah boyd studied in It’s Complicated. She argues that teens spend so much time online because is the only place they can hangout with their friends without adult intrusion (pp. 20-21):

The social media tools that teens use are direct descendants of the hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades. What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now. Teens flock to them knowing they can socialize with friends and become better acquainted with classmates and peers they don’t know as well. They embrace social media for roughly the same reasons earlier generations of teens attended sock hops, congregated in parking lots, colonized people’s front stoops, or tied up the phone lines for hours on end.

Here’s what boyd says about one of her subjects (p. 89):

My interview with Myra, a middle-class white fifteen-year-old from Iowa, turned funny and sad when “lack of time” became a verbal tick in response to every question I asked her about connecting with friends. From learning Czech to track, from orchestra to work in a nursery, she told me that her mother organized “98%” of her daily routine. Myra did not like all of these activities, but her mother thought they were important. She was resigned to them. Lack of freedom and control over her schedule was a sore topic for Myra. At one point, she noted with an exasperated tone that weekends were no freer than weekdays: “Usually my mom will have things scheduled for me to do. So I really don’t have much choice in what I’m doing Friday nights. . . . I haven’t had a free weekend in so long. I cannot even remember the last time I got to choose what I wanted to do over the weekend.” Myra noted that her mother meant well, but she was exhausted and felt socially disconnected because she did not have time to connect with friends outside of classes.

The question we’ve got to ask ourselves is whether or not these fears are warranted. Is the contemporary world really more dangerous than the one I grew up in during the 1960s? Or, alternatively, were my parents and their peers too lax in their parenting?

I’ve got a bias in the matter and it’s that the fears are not warranted. My bias tells me that boyd is correct when she observes (p. 95):

Restrictive adults act on their anxieties as well as their desire to protect youth, but in doing so, they perpetuate myths that produce the fears that prompt adults to place restrictions on teens in the first place. But this cycle doesn’t just undermine teens’ freedoms; it also pulls at the fabric of society more generally.

I agree with her on that last point. Ten pages later boyd is citing the literature on moral panics (p. 105):

When fears escalate out of control, they produce what sociologist Stanley Cohen calls “moral panics” as adults worry about the moral degradation that will be brought on by the shifting social force. A moral panic takes hold when the public comes to believe that a cultural artifact, practice, or population threatens the social order. Moral panics that surround youth typically center on issues of sexuality, delinquency, and reduced competency. New genres of media—and the content that’s shared through them—often trigger such anxieties. Eighteenth-century society saw novels as addictive and therefore damaging to young women’s potential for finding a husband. Introduced in the 1930s, comic books were seen not only as serving no educational purpose but as encouraging young people to get absorbed in fantasy worlds and to commit acts of violence. In the mid-1950s Elvis Presley’s vulgar, gyrating hips prompted great concern that broadcasting him on TV would corrupt teens. These are but a few of the unsubstantiated moral panics surrounding youth’s engagement with earlier forms of popular media.

What we’re witnessing, I believe, is the social management of what the psychologists call “free-floating anxiety,” anxiety that is real, but has no identifiable cause.

Free-Floating Anxiety

Once again I find myself thinking about that 1947 Talcott Parsons essay I read in my freshman year of college, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Employing a subtle analysis based on psychoanalytic thinking, Parsons concludes:

The upshot of the above analysis is in the first place that the typical Western individual — apart from any special constitutional predispositions — has been through an experience, in the process of growing to adulthood, which involved emotional strains of such severity as to produce an adult personality with a large reservoir of aggressive disposition. Secondly, the bulk of aggression generated from this source must in the nature of the case remain repressed. In spite of the disquieting amount of actual disruption of family solidarity, and quarreling and bickering even where families are not broken up, the social norms enjoining mutual affection among family members, especially respectful affection toward parents and love between spouses, are very powerful. Where such a large reservoir of repressed aggression exists but cannot be directly expressed, it tends to become “free-floating” and to be susceptible of mobilization against various kinds of scapegoats outside the immediate situation of its genesis.

How then, is this free-floating repressed aggression (aka free-floating anxiety) mobilized? While Parsons is going to land on nationalism as the major social device for channeling this aggression, he mentions internal group conflicts in passing: “Latent aggression has thus been channeled into internal group conflicts of various sorts throughout the Western world: anti-Semitism and anti-laborism, and anti-negro, anti-Catholic, and anti-foreigner feeling are found in this country.” I submit that boyd is looking at one such internal conflict: adults versus teens.

With this in mind, consider the following diagram:

Anxiety in Society

The grey cloud in the middle represents the nation’s collective anxiety. On the one hand it is driven by a wide variety of specific events (indicated on the right), some of which are limited in scope to individuals or particular groups. If mother becomes ill, the family is thereby under stress and, depending on the severity of the illness, perhaps even subject to permanent harm. When the local steel mill closed, hundreds or even thousands of jobs were lost, with negative consequences for the local economy. Other events affect the entire nation. When President Kennedy was assassinated, the whole nation mourned and federal officials had to ensure an orderly succession. More recently we’ve had the bombing of the world trade center.

At the same time that nation’s collective anxiety is affected by the psychodynamics that Parsons analyzed (indicated on the left). What happens, I suggest, is that the aggression driving this free-floating anxiety often becomes “attracted to” specific causes, thereby amplifying and distorting our responses to them.

That seems to be what has happened in the case of teens online. In the chapter on sexual predation, boyd argues that adult fears of online sexual predation are greatly exaggerated and that this leads to a neglect of real dangers (p. 102):

Online safety is also a particularly complicated issue, in part because a culture of fear is omnipresent in American society, and no parent wants to take risks when it comes to their children’s safety. Statistics showing the improbability of harm fail to reassure those who are concerned. Even when highly publicized stories turn out to be fabrications, parents still imagine that somewhere, somehow, their child might fall victim to a nightmarish fate. They are afraid because terrible things do happen to children. And although those violations most commonly take place in known environments—home, school, place of worship, and so on—the internet introduces an unknown space that is harder to comprehend. Nothing feeds fear more than uncertainty.

The nation’s response to the bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001 exhibits the same dynamic but at a different scale and through different mechanisms. The damage was real and the forces the caused it are a real danger. But the American response made things worse, dragging the nation into two costly and destructive wars that, far from eliminating terrorism, served only to fuel it. Less dramatically, the nation created a new bureaucracy, the Transportation Security Agency, that has spent billions of dollars and wasted countless hours of people’s time in Security Theater, time-consuming boarding procedures that inconvenience everyone who takes a commercial airline flight without, however, doing anything to make those flights more secure.

What Can We Do?

Abstractly considered, this is where we need to go:

Anxiety Intrinsic & Specific

We need cultural, social, psychological, and political mechanisms that differentiate between the intrinsic anxiety that Parsons diagnosed over half a century ago (to the left) and anxiety traceable to specific causes (on the right). If that distinction can be made, then our responses to specific dangers can be targeted in scope and proportional in magnitude. We won’t be engaging in expensive and ineffective wars and security theatre, on the one hand, nor in unnecessarily restricting and punishing our teens on the other.

But how do we get there? I believe that we have the social science expertise to make the necessary distinctions. That’s not the problem. But how do we translate that expertise into appropriate policy?

That cannot happen unless people understand the social science and its implications. And that, I fear, is where we are stuck. Parsons’s diagnosis is a difficult sell outside a relatively small intellectual arena and, as far as I can tell, that arena has, if anything, gotten smaller since he wrote the essay. It is well and good to conduct the kind of research boyd has done. Indeed, it is essential. But until we are willing to face up to the causes of our own misdirection, such research will be ineffective over the long term. It’s like a child pushing peas around on the plate to avoid eating them. It doesn’t work.

And so I’m left at the same place I was left a month ago. America’s craziness isn’t working. But we seem powerless to change.

Who is going to hit the reset button on America’s dysfunctional culture?

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Bill Benzon blogs at New Savanna. Here is a link to his ongoing series of posts about danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.