I posted something a few days ago about corporate America using the specter of uncertainty to frighten the public about financial reform. On NPR this morning I heard the very same word, uncertainty, used to frighten consumers about the potential dangers of BPA (Bisphenol A) in various products.
Perhaps there are dangers in it’s use, that’s not the point. The point is the use of the idea of uncertainty to incite anxious fear. It’s so easy to do. It can be done in a reassuringly calm voice. It requires no particular evidence, just vague allegations. That’s enough, and it works.
I am uncertain how it is that the principle of uncertainty has become such a strong motivator of anxious fear. Maybe it always has been, but I’ve become more aware of it in the last few years. The implication is that someone, usually the government, has an obligation to remove uncertainty from public and private life. There should be no uncertainty about the economy, no uncertainty about what rules and regulations might apply, no uncertainty about public safety, no uncertainty about consumer products and services. Where did we get the idea, individually or as society, that we not only deserve certainty in all things but that it must be someone’s fault if uncertainty raises its ugly head?
More than a few acquaintances boldly proclaim that they are black and white thinkers. Things are either good or bad, right or wrong. The ambiguity of gray is repugnant to them, in part because it is frightening to take on the responsibility of living in a world of probability and potential, whether for weal or woe. Even those who claim to be comfortable with ambiguity find their levels of anxiety rising. I think it has to do with a combination of the rapidity of technological change, the ubiquity of scary news items that stream into our consciousness, and the popularity of media hosts who incite fear of things alleged to be uncertain as a mainstay of their schtick.
I suggest that the moment one hears the word uncertainty, or any of its cognates, used in a way that implies that we should be very cautious, even afraid, it is time to be suspicious that we are being had in some way. It just too manipulative to be trusted without solid verification.